The continent’s form team are waiting in the last 16 of the European Cup. They’re in fantastic form. Some people say it could be their year. But after 90 (and usually a 180 minutes but let’s not count that chicken just yet on this occasion) they’re left shaking their heads wondering what happened.
"They’re really lacking in ideas."
"They just haven’t shown up tonight."
"I can’t recall them ever playing this poor."
You’re probably familiar with those phrases and other similar ones by now. If you were watching Barcelona in 2007, Inter Milan in 2008 and now Real Madrid in 2009 you’re sure to have heard them. It’s a strange coincidence that keeps on occurring. Europe’s giants, her best teams, the ones in the most frightening of form… They all keep on coming unstuck.
World class players, coaches, teams and clubs come undone. Liverpool and Rafael Benitez - Kryptonite to European club football’s superpower’s.
It shouldn’t come as a shock any more but to those on the outside it still does. The unexplainable has occurred, and for the 3rd year on the spin. It must be pure luck or an unfortunate coincidence. The same mistakes keep on being repeated. Don’t these guys ever learn?
In 2007 it was the reigning champions, the mighty Barcelona. No team was going to beat them. They had too much going forward; they had too much in midfield. Ronaldinho, Messi, Deco, Eto’o, and Xavi – how was anyone meant to live with that, much less a team that just got hammered by Arsenal’s kids? How was a squad in disarray, with players who attacked each other meant to put up a fight? How they sniggered. Some didn’t even hide it and just laughed aloud.
What happened? I think you all know.
The two at each others throats the week before both scored, Liverpool won away at the Nou Camp doing for a second time what no other English team has managed even once.
Barcelona didn’t show up. They couldn’t pass the ball as crisply as normal. Their big players were void of ideas and invention. They looked tired, flustered and ultimately hopeless.
In 2008 it was Inter Milan, a repeat of the infamous 1965 semi-final. Inter Milan were coasting at the top of their domestic league. They were then as they are now the perennial Italian champions. These wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of Barcelona. Barcelona were on the way down, Inter Milan had the hunger. They were on their way up. Domestic monkey off their back it was now the time to show that their success had not just come off the back of Calciopoli and show that they were the best in Europe.
An unwise comment here, a display of petulance there and they were off. Dispatched from Europe in a manner that was almost becoming routine. They didn’t show up, they didn’t pass the ball as crisply as normal; their big players were void of ideas and invention. They looked tired, flustered and ultimately hopeless.
And here we are now in 2009. Half-way to doing the same once again. You all know how the script goes by now. It’s one of Europe’s big guns. Hell, this time it’s the biggest. They’re flying too. They’ve just won nine on the spin and only conceded two goals in that time. The only game they lost was to a Barcelona side widely regarded as the best in the world at present, and that was in Juande Ramos’ first game in charge domestically, away from home with a squad depleted by injuries. This Real Madrid team are steamrolling the opposition. They’ve scored ten goals in their last two games. They’d put six away before half time at the weekend. This time it’ll be different. This time Liverpool is in turmoil… which granted, they were in the two previous ties, but this one is different. Their luck has to run out eventually, doesn’t it?
Well, as it turns out, no.
Madrid are put away without Liverpool’s two best players even being on the pitch at the time the goal went in. Quite a feat for a side regarded as overly-reliant on just two players. Familiar echoes occur in the heads of Sky Sports esteemed commentators, presenters and analysts.
“They didn’t show up. They couldn’t pass the ball as crisply as normal. Their big players were void of ideas and invention. They looked tired, flustered and ultimately hopeless.”
Only at a few limited intervals over the last 3 years will you have heard why these teams didn’t show up. Why they struggled. Why passing the ball suddenly looked foreign to them... Turns out that it’s the opposition team. Liverpool. They’re fucking good.
It’s been taken for granted a lot recently, just where we are in the grand scheme of things. There are two teams who can realistically say they are better than us at the moment. The pisser is that one of them is in our league. The major pisser is that it’s them
We’re not going to talk about them though. We’re going to talk about us. Because it isn’t getting said often enough at the moment how good we are. How far we’ve come climbing back up the mountain. And no, we’re not at the top yet. But just because we haven’t hit the summit quite yet, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look down through the clouds at the people who look like ants down below.
And tonight it hit home again. It wasn’t just beating Real Madrid without slipping out of 2nd gear. It was as much hearing Joe Cole talk about playing against Liverpool. Not about the kop or the atmosphere. About how when he’d look up there’d be red shirts everywhere. How there was no space. How difficult it was. You could tell he hated it. Respected just how good we were at it, but hated it none the less. He’s not the only one either. You don’t need an interview to know that it shook the shit out of Ronaldinho. It quickly changed Messi’s opinion to the point where now he goes out of his way to praise us. Kaká’s pointed it out as well. Robben did too. Sure, some lash out at the style of play, but it’s sheer frustration. It's anger because it stops them from doing what they want to do.
We’re not complete yet, everyone knows it and we all have pretty much the same idea on what the problem is. You can bet if we’ve noticed then Rafa has too. Whether he’ll go about correcting it in the way you or I would ideally see it bettered, who knows? He should get every chance possible to do so though.
We’re really not that far away and anyone who wants to call it a day now… Well I just can’t get my head around that. Some people need to remember just how good we are. Even with the draws, the perceived negative style of play, the lack of creativity and whatever else. Even without that the icing on top, this squad and this manager are still really good. We’re amongst the best three teams in Europe and, on a single day, perhaps the best. Some times we need reminding of that, especially when things have been going the way they have been recently. Thankfully there’ll always be another European away day to jog our memories and wet our appetites at what is to come in the last 3 months of the season.