UEFA CUP FINAL 2016 – Liverpool 1 Sevilla 3
I saw the game once. I’ll never see it again. I might, in future, be capable of watching a replay of the sublime Sturridge goal, just as I can sometimes bring myself to watch Jimmy Case’s famous strike in the 1977 Cup Final, but the rest of the game is now in the dustbin where it belongs, never to be seen again, at least by me.
We entered the final with confidence. It felt like our year. The big question before the game was whether Liverpool would win in their usual cup-final style (narrowly, possibly after falling behind, probably through penalties) or whether, for once, the Reds would ease to a victory – something that last happened, in a major final, under Graeme Souness against Sunderland at Wembley in 1992. But we would win, that much was certain. We’d scalped too many good teams on the way to Basel, including VillareaI, a superior outfit – according to the Spanish league table – than the boys from Seville. We also had a fantastic following in Switzerland where three sides of the ground were decked in Liverpool red so turning the St Jakob into an away game for Sevilla. And we knew how poor they were when playing ‘away’.
And therefore defeat seems to possess an extra bitterness, even though – as we must all be aware – it was entirely deserved in the end.
It was a wretched first five minutes and I must admit some of my own confidence began to ebb a bit. It’s not that Sevilla showed any quality (they were hoofing); but rather that we seemed unable to impose any pattern on the game. The defence either struggled to recycle the ball quickly or were pressed by Sevilla’s mobile front line into wild clearances. Phil Neville’s comment, before the game, about the Spanish team being physical and athletic was turning out to be accurate. After about 10 minutes Coutinho finally got on the ball but he was quickly hustled off. That, too, turned out to be a major story of the night. I was surprised that Jurgen kept faith with him in the second half. It was a feeble performance from Liverpool’s best player – and evidence, certainly, that little Phil has much to do before he can take his place among the world’s elite players.
After about 20 minutes the Reds did begin to stir, largely because Clyne kept finding room on the right flank. What a fine player he is. Solid in the tackle, quick to recover, physically strong but with dainty feet too. Almost all the good things that happened in the first half came through his marauding runs on the right-hand side. It was a bit like watching Pennant in Athens. Although, like Pennant in Athens, Clyne had no such success in the second half as Sevilla battened down that particular hatch after the break. Good management from their guy.
The goal was fantastic – so far above anything else that happened on the pitch that it seemed it was destined to belong to the winning team. Faith surged through the players and for 15 minutes or so we were a Klopp side again. There was movement ahead of Emre Can at last with Lallana finding pockets of space and Firmino making astute diagonal runs across Sevilla’s back-pedalling defence. Lovren’s header was rightly struck off because of a lazy waft of Sturridge’s leg – the instinctive movement of a goal poacher if we’re being kind, a fatal lack of awareness if we’re not. Had that goal stood there’d have been no way back for the Spanish team.
Later it was said that Liverpool “dominated” the first half. That wasn’t true. We edged it and we deserved the advantage. But even in the first 45 there were little signs that Sevilla had a style of play that was difficult to deal with. I thought they were winning most of the 50-50 challenges, which Klopp’s Liverpool aren’t used to, and numerous times they employed the nutmeg to great effect. I haven’t seen enough of La Liga to know whether this skill has now become a staple of Spanish football, but it was amazing to see how regularly it happened in the course of this game. Indeed two of the Sevilla goals included damaging nutmegs in the build up – against Moreno for the first and against Lovren for the second.
Of course we had three penalty claims in the first half, none of which were clear-cut but all of which represented decent shouts (“I’ve seen them given Gary”). The first would have been the harshest. Firmino certainly outwitted his man and would have left him for dead but for the ball striking Carrico’s arm. What saved the Spaniard was probably his proximity to the ball when it was lifted up by the Liverpool player. The second penalty claim was stronger because an out-of-control defender allowed the ball to come off his hand while sliding into Moreno. The ball hit the hand through ineptitude rather than design and therefore I suppose it was ‘accidental’. But I’ve always found that a weak reason not to award a penalty. It puts a premium on incompetence or clumsiness and makes the game more of a lottery. The laws of football need more clarity here because of the sheer number of times poor defenders handle the ball because of basic lack of technique. The third shout was of course the best. Sturridge’s quicksilver movement and subtle through ball to Firmino – and he was through – completely outfoxed the otherwise excellent Kyrchowiak who dragged his knuckles along the ground to prevent the ball reaching its target. Come of Ref!
I felt convinced that the referee would be told he’d got things wrong at half time and, in the nature of things, we’d probably reap the benefit in the second half. It wasn’t like that! Right from the kick off Sevilla threw men forward and suddenly our defence was faced by two or three more bodies between them and the midfield. Moreno’s header was criminal of course, but it was the fact that Sevilla already had three men making staggered runs into the box in readiness for the cross that was impressive.
After that everything unravelled. Was it capitulation? It felt like it. The Red Army fell silent and Klopp’s side became a ragged mess. The exception was Toure who produced a memorable defensive performance – his best ever in the red shirt of Liverpool and probably his last. He’ll always be remembered affectionately at Anfield and now, after Basel, he’ll also remembered with great respect. It was towering defending and had we won it might have been compared with Carragher’s performance in Istanbul.
Which reminds me, I hated Carragher's tweet about Moreno after the game. Yes, he’s a Liverpool fan and was probably hurting with the rest of us, but we lost in Basel for far bigger reasons than just Alberto Moreno (great decoy run, by the way, from Moreno for our goal). And some of us have long memories. I remember another diabolical performance by a Liverpool left back in a UEFA Cup final. We survived to win that day, in Dortmund, but Jamie turned in a really dreadful show that made a mockery of his winner's medal.
Should Jurgen have changed things after the goal? With hindsight, most definitely. But even without hindsight it was clear something was wrong with our play in the first half. I actually called (half-jokingly it should be said) for Lucas to replace Coutinho at half time because Can was being asked to do too much. And while Phil is an inspirational player there are games – this was so obviously one – where he’s simply not at the races. As it was we laboured on with our starting eleven, our attack losing contact with midfield, our midfield losing contact with defence, and the whole team constantly running backwards. If we were still pressing the ball it was now as individuals. Lallana made one crazy run across the pitch to press the ball that threw the rest of the team into anarchy. Milner started drifting out wide, where admittedly he is a better player, so accentuating Can’s isolation. By the third goal, we were a rabble and it was horrible to see.
OK, it's not all gloom. It was important for the club to appear in the European big time again and our famous run to the final meant that there was an unusual focus on the tournament this year - and not just in England and Spain. One result is that we reminded the European football world of the magic of Anfield and the mythology that surrounds our club. That's got to be good.
Secondly we have Jurgen Klopp. Without him we'd have trickled out of Europe several weeks ago. With him, we are candidates for election again. Next season he will have a full 7 days to prepare his team for virtually every fixture. That was not a popular thing to say on Thursday morning, and rightly so. But now things have settled down it's worth considering what this means. Klopp is a perfectionist as well as a motivator. This year he was thrown into a maelstrom at Liverpool. Not only was there a huge shortfall in confidence amongst the squad and a depression that amounted to trauma among the supporters, there was also a fixture pile-up that went beyond anything experienced by the new management team. What followed for Jurgen Klopp was a crash course in Premier League management. It must have all been very bewildering. He tackled the job fantastically well, but a lot of it must have been through blind faith and inspiration. There was hardly time for anything else.
Well now he knows. I'm sure he's been tempered by the experience of having to fight on several fronts. But next season it will be calmer and his team will be more ferocious and more focussed, more consistently. Jurgen made a comment after the game which could be dismissed as "putting on a brave face", He said that Liverpool Football Club might one day look back on Basel as the beginning of something - a catalyst of sorts. I don't think it was bravado. I think he was making a considered judgment. How many of those players who appeared against Sevilla last week will appear again in Red in August no one yet knows. I suspect most of them. But with the new additions coming in, and with more to follow, and with a Klopp pre-season under our belts, 2016-17 could be a big ride. So we should now forget Basel. It's not relevant anymore. It won't affect our upward trajectory. It won't affect our manager's spirit. Next season we'll be stronger. Much stronger.