Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Les Grandes Équipes

Ce sont les meilleures équipes
Sie sind die allerbesten Mannschaften
The main event

Wednesday 9th December 2009. The last time Liverpool Football Club played in Europe's Premier Competition

Not long before that date Liverpool were ranked as the number one team in Europe. Our record against Les Grandes Équipes was remarkable under Rafa Benitez. The league eluded his team. But Europe was another matter.

In August 2013, most pundits had Liverpool as an outside bet for a return to The Top Four - the target that has become more important to club owners than actually winning the league. Get top 4 and then the money will flow.

Since Liverpool fell out of Europe's Premier Competition we have finished 7th, 6th, 8th and 7th. The pundits said we had a chance. Even most of the fans conceded we were outsiders and that Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd, Arsenal and Tottenham were all ahead of us on paper. Even Everton couldn't be discounted given they'd finished higher than us 2 years running.

Die Meister
Die Besten
Les Grandes Équipes
The Champions

Easter Sunday 20th April 2014. Liverpool beat Norwich 3-2 to guarantee a 3rd place finish in the league. Man Utd - out of the running in 7th - sack their manager to prove that they are no different than every other club in the modern era when it comes to pleasing the money men. Tottenham lie in 6th, already on their second manager of the season, with rumours that a third will be in place come the summer. Everton and Arsenal, vanquished 4-0 and 5-1 at Anfield in recent months, failed to match our consistency. Or in Arsenal's case, imploded in spectacular fashion, having led the league for the best part of half a season. Interestingly, Arsenal haven't sacked their manager... Yet.

Une grande réunion
Eine große sportliche Veranstaltung
The main event

3rd guaranteed. Not 4th and the minefield of an August qualifier against a fancied side. 3rd. Champions League group stage proper. We're back and with 3 games to play.

I know how I sound. Finishing top 4 has become more important than winning the FA Cup, League Cup or even the Europa League (UEFA Cup for people like me!). It's wrong. It highlights everything that's been lost in modern football. Winning no trophies but qualifying for the Champions League (or European Cup for people like me!) is what matters. The Arsenal Trophy. Success without the silverware.

It's how football works. European qualification brings in the big money to allow you to keep up with the rest.

Ils sont les meilleurs
Sie sind die Besten

These are the champions

Brendan Rodgers Tricky Reds. The sixth best team in the league (according to the pundits) lie top of the table, 5 points clear and with guaranteed Champions League football next season.

Chelsea next. A win against them on Sunday will guarantee 2nd place and end Chelsea's hopes of the title for another year. Of all the tests, this is the biggest one. Chelsea under Mourinho, as we saw last night, will not only park the bus, they'll set fire to it and throw fluffy kittens into the flames if we dare to come close to scoring. Mourinho. The self-styled Special One, who wins trophies for fun but does it with about as much class as a pink stretched Humvee. Maybe he'll park one of those in front of the goal too.

Die Meister
Die Besten
Les Grandes Équipes
The Champions

We're back in Europe. The nostalgia has returned with a vengeance. 3 games left. Win them and I'm 12 years old again.

Monday, April 14, 2014

An epic day

I leave Sheffield at 9:57 in the morning. I like to arrive at Anfield early enough to soak up the build up. I knew I wouldn't make it in time for the flags and banners welcome to the coach, but it's early enough for me.

The sun is shining - a proper spring day - so I dust off the bright white summer jacket for its 2014 inaugural outing. As I drive into the peaks it feels like it will be a good day.

Atmosphere is gonna be epic.

Then as I descend towards Manchester the clouds roll in. Big and black. My ritual is well underway. The Anfield Wrap podcast has taken up the first half of the journey, so it's time for Five Live.

London Marathon commentary.

Now don't get me wrong, I have incredible respect for both the athletes and the general public who choose to put themselves through 26 miles of sheer pain and suffering. I know I wouldn't. It's just that as a sport, it really doesn't lend itself to radio commentary. And this is coming from a guy who has listened to golf, cricket and curling on the radio.

So no build up then.

The rain starts. I switch to soundtrack music. It lends itself nicely to the epic battle to come. I imagine the Match of the Day or Sky Sports montage to come. Win or lose it will play out to the music from The Dark Knight or Sunshine or something else that can adequately depict the scale of the gladiatorial battle to come.

I stick the same track on repeat. I do this a lot.

Car parked in the usual spot. The rain has stopped but it's a little brisk, so I put on my neck warmer along with my scarf. I'm conscious that I probably look pretty stupid now in my 80s Wham-esque summer jacket and winter woolies. It isn't even a jacket that George Michael would wear. It would be worn by the other one. You know the guy. The one no one remembers.

Screw it. When you move headlong into your 30s there is very little you can wear without looking a little daft.

My fashion faux-pas is forgotten as I hear the crowd. It's still more than 90 mins to kickoff.

Something very special is happening here.

For lunch I head to my usual cafe. I take the long route round to pay my respects at the Hillsborough memorial. 25 years. I was a kid watching on TV. My Dad had gone out to collect my Mum from her weekend shift. By the time he came back the sport had given way to tragedy.

25 years.

At the cafe it's pie, chips, peas and gravy. As always. I eat in. As always. The place is decked out in Liverpool paraphernalia that I love to stare at. It's a calm moment before the craziness to come.

I head into the ground. 'Get in early' everyone was saying. I always get in early. I don't like to be late. I love watching the stands fill up.

By the time the players come out to warm up it's almost full. Never seen that before. And when they finish, the roar for them is unlike anything I've heard in a football stadium. The epic nature of the event is already living up to it's billing.

The commemorations to Hillsborough are poignant and heartfelt. The Man City fans excellent. The noise at the end of the minutes silence loud enough to let everyone know that this is no ordinary match.

The start is frenetic. Sterling dances and scores. Skrtel rises and it's 2-0. Every time Man City have the ball the whistles pierce my eardrums like a screeching harpy. It's going to be a rout.

But this isn't Everton, Arsenal or Spurs. This Man City team have been title favourites all season not just because they have the most expensively assembled squad in league history. They have a will to win. The desire of league champions. They proved that two years ago.

2-0 is quickly 2-2 and in truth they should be ahead. We're on the ropes. Suarez and Sturridge have been poor and Rodgers changes things. Allen brings some stability. Suarez is still on the pitch but I have no idea how. He's had one of those sudden regressions to the petulant lad of 2012/13. This could go either way. This is the best team I've seen play against us all season. In many seasons. Of that there is no doubt.

Then the little Brazilian strokes in the winning goal. Coutinho-o-o! The kid that can't hit a barn door from a yard out. On the kop we bounce. I'm held up by a man twice my age. He's seen it all before and remained calm the whole match. But now he's almost in tears. Propping me up. In my white summer jacket. The sun now streaming down.

Knew I made the right choice!

The clock ticks down. We're hanging on. Henderson sees red. We'll miss him. He's been vital to our unexpected title challenge.

The whistle goes and players hug in front of us. The roar is louder still.

I've only been regularly going to games at Anfield for a few short years. I wasn't there for the Chelsea semi in 2005 or any of those other great European nights. I have no frame of reference for an atmosphere like this. Against Everton, Arsenal and Spurs the noise has been increasing with the belief.

Now it's unstoppable.

I drive home and already the debates have begun. We'll miss Henderson. Liverpool got lucky. Suarez should have been sent off. Sturridge out? I don't care. Luck comes and goes in football.

Football rarely lives up to it's overhyped billing. But Sunday really was special. We may still not win the title. I tell myself that Chelsea and Man City still have more on paper. In this unpredictable season I know only one thing for certain. When I drive to the Chelsea game in two weeks time I fully expect an even bigger atmosphere than the last.

I'm getting spoiled.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mathematically clear...

I've mentioned before that I feared playing West Ham and Crystal Palace away far more than Man City and Chelsea at home. That's not meant to do the current 2nd and 3rd placed teams in the league a disservice, and I'm keenly aware that both of them could yet drive a nail right through our title challenge.

It isn't even that there is any specific history with West Ham and Crystal Palace (although Palace did famously shock Liverpool in the semi's of the FA Cup in 1990). Indeed the names of the teams don't matter.

Sam Allardyce. Tony Pulis. They matter.

Two managers who stand for the polar opposite of what Brendan Rodgers is building at Liverpool. They play old school English football turned up to 11. And the depressing thing is that they play it well. That's why as much as I detest their brand of football, I fear it. I fear it because it works. It works especially well against teams with mental fragility or those that aren't used to getting 'down and dirty' (see Arsenal on every away trip to Stoke since, well forever).

Liverpool for the last few years have been poster boys for mental fragility. From the players to the crowd, there are games you just sense aren't going to go our way. The heads go. Then the result follows.

But this is a different Liverpool. The players have shown none of the 'head problems' that have haunted us over the years as we so often failed in our quest for consistency. The West Ham game was handled with the kind of efficiency expected of champions. It was nail-biting for those watching at home, but we dealt with everything that came our way. Most importantly, we didn't crumble when the referee made the ludicrous decision to allow their goal to stand. On the stroke of half-time, that's the kind of event that would have seen the older Liverpool sides cave in, come the second half.

West Ham beaten. Sam Allardyce slain. 3 more points. Time to move on. It's Brendan Rodgers way.

Mental fragility in the fans is, of course, another matter. The atmosphere at home games since the derby has been immense, but that doesn't mean the doubts aren't lingering. We could all do with a session on the couch of Dr Steve Peters to talk about our 'inner chimp'. As fans we are constantly looking over our shoulders. Constantly second guessing ourselves and our team.

What if we don't score early?
What if Man City win their games in hand?
What if they score first?
What if, what if, what if...

That's what years of self-doubt does to a fan-base raised on success but struggling to remember the time when the success actually happened.

One what if we no longer need to worry about is Man Utd. For years it was the barometer of any Liverpool fan - how close are we to Man Utd? It is now mathematically impossible for Man Utd to catch Liverpool. And there are still 5 weeks of the season left. The last time that happened so early was when I was 12. We won the title that year. Looking for signs and portents is another key trait of the Liverpool fanbase.

Man Utd aren't in our thinking anymore. We have bigger fish to fry. There's a title to play for and a different sort of dragon to slay. Man City visit on Sunday confident and still favourites for the title. A draw would be a good enough result for them, and they know it.

What they don't know. What they can't possibly comprehend, is what they will have to contend with at Anfield. Against Everton, Arsenal and Spurs I genuinely haven't witnessed an atmosphere like that in a league game before. People talk of the great European nights, but this is different. This is Liverpool fans hungry for success and believing that it can happen.

It is Man City who will need to guard against mental fragility on Sunday. It is they who will have to rise to the challenge of quieting an Anfield crowd that is no mood to concede defeat now.

In the words of many a fan on many an internet forum all week. It's gonna be epic!