Posts Tagged ‘champions league’
Regardless of the comments or excuses offered by Roberto Mancini, Manchester City’s performance in the Champions League has been dreadful.
As is widely reported, City have recorded the lowest points total of any English club in the history of the competition.
They were the first English club who have failed to win any of their six group games.
And, before any excuses are heard about the difficulty of the group that Man City were in, it should be noted that only once in 18 campaigns have a team from Scotland performed worse in a Champions League group.
When the Champions League draw was made in August, Borussia Dortmund were always going to be a side who would through any group wide open. They were, due to a weak European record in recent seasons, amongst the fourth seeds of clubs.
For Man City to be in a group with not only the highly regarded German champions, but also Real Madrid was certainly unfortunate. But for all of Mancini’s complaints of the task facing his own players, shouldn’t the same have been said about their rivals, too?
Neither Real Madrid nor Borussia Dortmund would have welcomed having to play against the winners of the Premier League – the most costly team of superstars ever put together by an English club.
Ajax wouldn’t have relished any of their fixtures, and before a ball was kicked would probably have settled for third place as a reasonable achievement. That Frank de Boer’s team also gave Man City a European footballing lesson only adds to the sense that Mancini and his players have greatly disappointed.
There are frequent references to the seeding system, but Man City, amongst the third seeds last year, were among the eight clubs in the second pot of seeds.
If anyone at the club wants to be higher, they need to earn it by winning games in Europe. A top seeding is one thing that money cannot buy, as Real Madrid themselves found out after slipping out of the top seeds in 2010 following years of under achievement. Juventus, too, are in the process of fighting their way back to the top from a lowly position in the rankings, and have faced a tough group of their own with Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk.
Man City will get another chance next year, no doubt. But surely there will be questions asked of whether Mancini is the man to lead them through another campaign, because little seems to have been learned from last season’s European collapse.
And whatever he might say to the contrary, this season’s showing has been an embarrassment.
It’s funny how managers are treated so differently in the media.
Some are able to do no wrong, regardless of any periods of under-achievement or mistakes they might make.
Others can do nothing right, and their achievements are belittled – or credited entirely to someone else.
An example of the former is Mark Hughes, who did well with Blackburn, though achieved little beyond what was expected of him during spells with Man City and Fulham.
Hughes quit Fulham a year after taking charge, as the club failed to match his expectations. He wanted to manage at a club competing for trophies, or occupying Champions League positions.
Speaking of Fulham, his agent said at the time: “They are a great top 10, mid-table club and I think Mark really wants to be right up there competing in the Champions League positions, up there competing for titles. He’d like to win some cups.”
Quite what attracted Hughes to QPR given his lofty ambition remains a mystery. A promise of investment might have turned his head, but there was certainly no immediate prospect of silverware at a club battling to stay in the top flight.
The managerial change had little impact on the fortunes of QPR, and they finished the season in exactly the same position as they were in when Hughes replaced Neil Warnock – a single point outside the relegation zone.
Still, given a favourable perception of Hughes throughout much of the media, there’s unlikely to be too much criticism handed out, despite a dreadful time in charge of the team who are now firmly rooted to the foot of the table.
Contrast that to the reaction of Rafael Benitez’s appointment at Chelsea, which has been treated with rather a lot of scepticism – not only by fans of Chelsea but in the press, too.
“Benitez has plenty to prove” was the heading to an article by the BBC’s chief football writer, echoing the sentiments of Chelsea supporters who regard the Spaniard as not being a particularly good manager.
It’s unfortunate that such a view of Benitez has stuck, but it demonstrates the power of the media to influence minds, often based on some personal biases or club rivalries.
Benitez arrived in English football at the same time as Mourinho, though brought much less charm with him than the Portuguese – an important quality these days it seems, as other have found out.
In taking charge of Liverpool, he also took on a far greater challenge than Mourinho was tasked with at Chelsea. There was money to spend, but the amount was limited each season and in undertaking the complete overhaul of a squad which had failed to deliver under Gerard Houllier, Benitez needed to bring a host of players with the budget.
It would have been far easier to identify an entire team of superstars and sign them up instantly, as Chelsea’s wealth allowed them to do.
The sheer amount of work required to take Liverpool from a a fourth place to title challengers was something that critics were either unappreciate of – or who simply chose to ignore it in order to continue piling the pressure on Benitez.
At the start of the 2004-5 season, Benitez’s first in English football, he was competing with two sides who already had Premiership winning squads at their disposal – both had been crowned champions over the previous two seasons – and the might of Abramovich’s free-spending Chelsea.
The fact that Liverpool competed for the title at all during Benitez’s tenure is testament to the huge improvement which took place over during the five years he was at Anfield.
Yes, the final season was a disappointment but it was also one in which the whole club was emboiled in off the pitch problems. Football was overshadowed by politics and transfer windows passed by with Liverpool expected to make a profit through player sales rather than continue investing to secure their position as title challengers. Few managers, if any, would have coped more admirably under the circumstances than Benitez did.
Up until the final year, the overall picture was one of massive progress.
Under Benitez, Liverpool reached two Champions League finals, something not even Man United had managed to do in the Champions League era.
Domestically there was a memorable FA Cup triumph and even if other pieces of silverware wouldn’t impress the likes of Chelsea or Man United, such as the UEFA Super Cup or the Community Shield, they were nevertheless trophies that the overwhelming majority of Premier League sides would have been delighted with.
Outside of Merseyside though, little credit is given to Benitez for a lot of what was achieved between 2004 and 2009.
His Champions League win was with Gerard Houllier’s team, the critics say. But if that’s the case, then Jose Mourinho shouldn’t be given any credit for what he achieved at Chelsea, given that he was successful only thanks to the team that Claudio Ranieri built. Even some of the key signings who only arrived at Chelsea after Ranieri was sacked, such as Petr Cech and Arjen Robben, were players who struck pre-contract deals in January – long before Mourinho was in the frame.
Noone would believe that to be the case and Mourinho should rightly be credited as the man who secured the Premier League title with Chelsea, just as Benitez was responsible for leading Liverpool to Champions League glory in Istanbul. The argument against Benitez crumbles even further when bearing in mind that Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia – two of Liverpool’s most important players throughout the successful campaign in Europe – were signed by him.
Of his signings, there were mistakes made certainly. But with the restrictions in place – i.e. no bottomless pot of cash – gambles had to be taken and some quite obviously didn’t pay off. Again, he’s not alone in that regard. If the list of failed signings at Man United and Chelsea were carefully analyzed, there would be mistakes there too. The question would be, is the team still improving? And in most cases, the answer is usually yes, despite the mistakes.
To focus on the mistakes serves to do little justice to an overall record that included huge successes. In 2009, Liverpool’s side included some of the continent’s best players in almost every position with the likes of Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Javier Mascherano, Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres all players signed by Benitez.
The last argument levelled at Benitez is regarding the amount of money spent, something else used by his detractors to “prove” that he is simply not a top manager. As already mentioned, his Liverpool side was one that needed an almost complete rebuild of the squad, and with the squads of rival clubs were in a much healthier state, requiring much less investment.
But even after considering the vast difference in quality of the squads inherited, Jose Mourinho still outspent Benitez during the three years that they each managed in England together. Should not the ‘special one’ have been able to get more out of the considerable resources already at his disposal?
In Benitez’s case, he was under almost the same amount of pressure to deliver a title. Liverpool fans are often accused of believing that they have a divine right to compete for titles, but whilst many were realistic enough to see the size of the task Benitez faced, there was unrelenting pressure from the media for Liverpool to challenge for – and win – the Premier League title.
Other teams who haven’t historically been as successful as Liverpool, would be under no such pressure, even in the same circumstances. Tottenham, for example, invested heavily and on paper were able to put together a strong enough squad to compete with the top four teams. But their top four finish in 2010 was celebrated as a monumental achievement when the same end result at Liverpool would have been deemed a failure.
Now at Chelsea, there’ll be many who are hoping that Benitez fails in order to prove that they were right about him. But with a good set of players available, I fully expect him to have Chelsea competing for the title this season.
The doubters will be disappointed to know that Benitez is a man with quite a thick skin. And based on the vast majority of his nine years with Valencia and Liverpool, he’s also quite a good football manager.
Well, Roberto Di Matteo lasted longer as Chelsea manager than some.
The Italian’s 262 days in the job make him the fourth longest-serving of the eight men who have held the Chelsea manager’s job since the arrival of Roman Abramovich in 2003.
It doesn’t make the decision to sack him any easier to understand though, and once again raises questions of who exactly Chelsea’s Russian owner is capable of trusting over a period of time that is long enough to bring about stability to the club.
Di Matteo was appointed on the back of a successful time as caretaker that included success in the Champions League and FA Cup.
His appointment was in many ways similar to that of Avram Grant, who stepped in following the dismissal of Jose Mourinho and led Chelsea to their first ever Champions League final – one which was lost only due to John Terry’s missed penalty kick.
Grant’s failure to land the Premier League title failed to earn him a permanent contract however, and the highly rated Luiz Felipe Scolari took over. Though even Scolari’s reputation as one of the world’s top coaches couldn’t help him survive once Chelsea hit a bad run of form in January of 2009.
Next was one of the most decorated coaches still involved in the game, Carlo Ancelotti – a man of vast experience and double-winner of the Champions League with Milan. His task was to bring that very trophy to Stamford Bridge. A domestic league and cup double in his first season might have been enough to earn a second year at the helm, but absence of any further silverware meant only one thing the following spring.
Following the failure of an experience coach to live up to impossible expectations was a shift to the inexperienced Andre Villas-Boas. It was supposed to represent a change of approach, with less pressure to deliver instant results and an emphasis on phasing out the old guard and freshening up the team.
That didn’t work, either. Senior players were unhappy, and weren’t afraid to say so. Villas-Boas out, Di Matteo in, and what followed under the leadership of a man whose only previous managerial experience was during a short-lived reign at West Bromwich Albion, defied footballing logic, given what had gone before.
On the verge of Champions League exit in March, Chelsea’s fortunes turned dramatically and thanks to a combination of solid defensive performances and wasteful finishing by their opponents, the west Londoners overcame the challenge of both Barcelona and Bayern Munich to lift the Champions League trophy for the first time in their history.
In doing so, they were the first team to ever triumph in Europe in the same year as being the sixth best team domestically. History may have been achieved, though there was clearly work to be done for Chelsea to do in order to have any chance of repeating their achievements, or returning to a position of challenging for the Premier League title.
Much of the necessary reinforcements looked to have been in place with a massive programme of spending during the summer to bring in stars such as Eden Hazard and Oscar, both of whom played a part in propelling Chelsea to the top of the league in October.
But once again, Abramovich has wielded the axe after a relatively short period of poor form – and the man who played a major role in helping Chelsea become champions of Europe has become the first Premier League boss to lose his job this season.
There should be no talk of any crisis at Chelsea, but with Abramovich again showing the impatience he has become notorious for, there will certainly be questions of whether anyone is capable of matching the colossal expectations that will be placed upon them.
Pep Guardiola may have been the most successful manager in Barcelona’s history, but could even he replicate that at Chelsea, or thrive at a club where so many other managers have tried and failed?
The list of other top managers who may could be tempted is much shorter than when the Chelsea have appointed managers in the past – in part because they’ve tried so many of the biggest names already.
Fabio Capello is one who hasn’t yet had his opportunity, and both Harry Redknapp and Rafa Benitez will be mentioned due to their immediate availability.
Guardiola would be the fans’ choice, but would be forgiven for considering the job is one which has too much risk. And unless Abramovich, prior to sacking Di Matteo, has already been in contact with a potential successor, he may find that there aren’t too many other managers willing to take such a gamble, either.
If that is the case, he’d have only himself to blame.
In the final part of my look back at some of my personal highlights of following Liverpool in the Champions League, the final three matches are from the 2007/8 and 2008/9 seasons. For the rest of the series, click to read part 1, or part 2.
9. Marseille 0-4 Liverpool
Midway through the 2007/8 group stage, there looked to be only a remote prospect of anything resulting from Liverpool’s Champions League campaign that was worthy of celebrating.
Bottom of the group with one point from three games – six points adrift of group leaders, Marseille – Liverpool’s only hope of qualifying was to win all three of their remaining games. The Reds’ response, while not as dramatic as their Istanbul heroics, has to be considered as the most emphatic turnaround in fortunes of a side who looked certain to be heading out of the Champions League at the group stage.
The recovery began with a record-breaking 8-0 home win against Besiktas, and when Porto arrived at Anfield on matchday 5 needing only a point to guarantee their passage into the next round, they too were beaten 4-1.
But the big test was to come in Liverpool’s final fixture away to Marseille on a bitterly cold December evening.
With both sides level on points, Liverpool could only go through by winning at the Stade Velodrome – something no other English club had ever managed to achieve.
Steven Gerrard’s early goal, scored from the rebound after his penalty had been saved, helped Liverpool get off to a perfect start and Fernando Torres weaved his way between the Marseille defence to add an excellent second goal with only 18 minutes played.
Marseille created chances of their own, but when Liverpool got an early second half goal, the contest was over and Liverpool had survived yet another dramatic Champions League scare.
10. Liverpool 4-2 Arsenal
It might have been tempting to include Liverpool’s second round win over Italian champions-elect Inter Milan in the list for this series, but for sheer drama, the quarter-final against Arsenal was the stand-out Champions League game of the season.
A 1-1 first leg draw at the Emirates had led to some suggestions from the Arsenal camp that Liverpool would be looking to progress on away goals, and may have looked to simply play for a 0-0 draw at Anfield.
But any ideas Liverpool had of keeping a clean sheet were scuppered once Arsenal went ahead in the first half. That was cancelled out by Sami Hyypia’s equaliser before the interval, and with 20 minutes remaining of the second period, Fernando Torres put Liverpool on aggregate for the first time with a wonder strike at the Kop end.
There was enough time left for more twists in a pulsating finish which started when Theo Walcott’s 80-yard run was finished by Adebayor to give Arsenal a second away goal – and with six minutes to go, they were heading into a semi-final meeting with Chelsea.
But less than a minute later, Ryan Babel earned a penalty that was dispatched by Gerrard, and it was once again advantage Liverpool – and the sixth time throughout the two games that there had been a change in the aggregate leaders of the tie.
As Arsenal searched desperately for another equaliser, Liverpool grabbed a fourth goal on the counter attack. In the second minute of added-on time at the end of the second leg, the tie was finally decided with some certainty.
It wasn’t to lead to a third Champions League final in four years though, mostly thanks to injury time drama at the same goalmouth in the semi-final, when a John Arne Riise own goal gave Chelsea a draw at Anfield. That result proved to be crucial in helping the Londoners to finally overcome Liverpool in the last four.
11. Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid
Despite the rich European pedigree of both teams, Liverpool and Real Madrid had never been drawn to play each other over a two-legged European tie. On departing Anfield following their first visit to the stadium in March 2009, Real Madrid may well have wished that statistic was still true.
Knocked out of the competition at the second round stage in each of the previous four seasons, Real Madrid had also started the season badly in Spain in their quest for a third straight La Liga title. But a change of manager shortly before Christmas had led to an improvement in results, and Juande Ramos’ team faced Liverpool on the back of a recent run of ten straight victories in La Liga.
Yossi Benayoun’s goal had been enough to settle a tight first leg at Santiago Bernabeu in Liverpool’s favour, and although Real Madrid hadn’t enjoyed much Champions League success since winning the trophy in 2002, there was more than enough quality in their team for them to turn the tie around on Merseyside.
Several of the Real Madrid team that started the match have since gone onto become key members of their title-winning team under Jose Mourinho, and of those who did go on to leave Madrid, Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben have each helped their new clubs to reach Champions League finals.
No amount of quality – or experience – could cope with Liverpool’s performance on the night though, and from the moment that Fernando Torres opened the scoring against his old city rivals after 16 minutes, the Reds never looked back.
Two goals from Gerrard and a further strike by Andrea Dossena handed Real Madrid their biggest defeat in the Champions League era, and just one goal short of their heaviest European loss of all time. But the star of the show despite the loss was Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas, who made a host of spectacular saves to deny Liverpool an even more convincing win.
In the resulting quarter-final, Liverpool were unable to overturn a first leg 3-1 loss at home to Chelsea, despite their considerable efforts in a 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge.
Meanwhile, Real Madrid’s emphatic defeat signalled the start of a new era of ‘Galacticos’, and a €300m summer spending program was sanctioned – with an intention of seeing Real Madrid return to the summit of Spanish and European football.
Continuing the three-part mini-series of my top eleven matches watching Liverpool in the Champions League. Click here for part 1.
4. Liverpool 2-1 Juventus
Having progressed to the quarter-final stage of the 2004/5 Champions League, Liverpool were given the toughest possible route to the final.
A potential semi-final would involve taking on the runaway league leaders of either the Premier League or the German Bundesliga.
However, Liverpool first had to get past Serie A leaders Juventus, who had conceded just two goals on their way to the quarter-final, and knocked out Real Madrid in the last 16.
Fabio Capello was well aware of what Liverpool were capable of on a European night at Anfield, having twice seen his Roma team exit European competitions at the ground.
But even he would have been stunned by Liverpool’s start to the match, in which a 2-0 lead was established in the opening 25 minutes, firstly thanks to a close range strike by Sami Hyypia and then to Luis Garcia’s dipping 25-yard volley.
It was an important advantage to hold at such an early stage of the tie, though Juventus were powerful opponents with enough time to get back into the tie, and made for a nervy finale once Fabio Cannavaro had bundled in a consolation goal midway through the second half.
Liverpool deservedly held on for victory, and against all odds managed to keep a clean sheet in the second leg to set up an all English semi-final with Chelsea
5. Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
Beaten twice by Chelsea in the league, and also in the League Cup Final at Cardiff, Liverpool were given little chance in a two-legged semi-final against Jose Mourinho’s expensively assembled Chelsea side who had already secured the Premier League title.
Neither manager took any risks in a first leg which ended goalless, so it was all set up for a tense evening at Anfield.
The stadium was packed out an hour before kick off for arguably Liverpool’s biggest home match in a generation, and the atmosphere reflected the occasion.
Decibel levels were raised higher still when Milan Baros was brought down in the area by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech, but Luis Garcia played on and grabbed what ultimately proved to be the controversial winning goal.
From that moment, it was an exercise of attack versus defence, and for all of Chelsea’s superstars, they simply couldn’t find a way through – until injury time, that was.
Five minutes into a tortuous six minutes of added time Eidur Gudjohnsen was gifted a golden chance to equalise in front of a crowded Kop goal, which would have put the visitors into the final on the away goals rule. Fortunately for the majority inside the ground, Gudjohnsen scuffed his wide, and the 97th minute finally gave a cue for the start of the home celebrations.
6. Milan 3-3 Liverpool
So much has been written about the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ that it’s almost impossible to come up with something new.
Every aspect of the incredible journey, of Taksim Square’s ‘red sea’, or the fans festival outside the stadium has been documented a thousand times already.
I was in Istanbul only for the day, leaving in the early hours of Wednesday 25th May, 2005, and ultimately returning on a flight at around 8.30am the following day. Fans awaiting flights after being bussed directly from the stadium to the airport spent the night camped outside the compact Sabiha Gocken airport – situated on the Asian half of Istanbul.
The match itself is pretty well-known, too. Milan dominated the first half, and with their side 3-0 up at the break, Milan’s supporters celebrated what seemed like the inevitable success which would be coming their way.
Liverpool had other ideas though, and Rafa Benitez’s combination of players who had underachieved over the last couple of seasons along with some influential signings managed to claw their way back into the game and three second half goals for Liverpool turned the match on its head.
The one stand-out moment from a personal viewpoint was the second part of Jerzy Dudek’s double save from Shevchenko in the second period of extra time. Watching from high in the top tier, almost perfectly in line with the goal-line, the moment when Shevchenko’s outstretched leg shaped to volley the ball past Dudek from only a couple of yards out was a moment when time itself seemed to freeze, only restarting once the ball had rebounded off Dudek’s arms and was heading towards the sky.
If there was any one moment in the match when the cup looked destined not to be going back to Italy, that was it.
Dudek was again the hero in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, his final save again being from Shevchenko – and Liverpool had indeed won it five times.
7. Barcelona 1-2 Liverpool
When considering Pep Guardiola’s achievements with Barcelona over the last four years, it’s easy to forget that the team Frank Rijkaard had put together.
La Liga and Champions League winners in 2006, Barcelona looked every bit like a side capable of being the first to successfully defend the trophy in the Champions League era.
With a side consisting of an attacking line-up of Ronaldinho, Eto’o, Messi and Deco, Barcelona were the benchmark for every other club in Europe, and massive favourites against Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool team who were still struggling to compete with Chelsea and Man United for the domestic title.
Deco put Barcelona ahead on the night, and the Catalans looked good value for their lead until Craig Bellamy levelled the score at the end of the first half.
Liverpool grew in confidence and were rewarded when John Arne Riise added a second goal to end Barcelona’s long unbeaten home run in the Champions League, and also extend Liverpool’s impressive record in the Camp Nou to four games without defeat.
Qualification was not a straightforward affair, however, and Barcelona’s win in the second leg at Anfield meant that Liverpool only made it into the last eight on away goals.
8. Liverpool 1-0 Chelsea
A surprisingly comfortable quarter-final win over PSV Eindhoven set up a second semi-final against Chelsea in the space of three years.
As in 2005, Liverpool had the advantage of the second leg being at Anfield. But unlike 2005, they failed to earn a draw at Stamford Bridge, and would have to win – potentially by two goals if Chelsea were able to net an away goal.
Daniel Agger provided the breakthrough for Liverpool, who were unable to make any further impression on the scoreline, despite dominating the match.
Dirk Kuyt hit the crossbar with a strike from long-range, and Chelsea, who posed almost no threat throughout the match, would have been happy not to be eliminated long before the game went to penalties.
Liverpool had won a Champions League and an FA Cup on penalties during the two previous seasons, and Chelsea were added to the list of Liverpool’s penalty shoot-out victims without even getting an opportunity to take their final two kicks.
Leading 3-1 after three spot kicks each, Dirk Kuyt’s accurate strike into the corner of Petr Cech’s goal sparked more wild celebrations on the Kop – and a visit to Athens for a Rafa Benitez’s second Champions League final in only his third season at Liverpool.
Chelsea take on Bayern Munich tomorrow in the 2012 Champions League final.
Bayern Munich are the first finalist in the Champions League era to enjoy home advantage in the final, and will be aiming for their fifth European Cup win.
For Chelsea, it is a second final appearance and they’ll be looking to become the first London team to be crowned European champions.
Whatever complaints some may have about how money and corporate sponsorship have created a competition that often appears more concerned with finance than football, it remains the biggest single match in the European football calendar, and the final is an event that I love.
It seems a long time since Liverpool were amongst those competing for the greatest trophy in club football, but during the years in which I attended matches regularly, I was lucky to be present at some of the club’s finest Champions League nights.
In the first of a three-part mini-series, here’s a run down of my personal all time LFC Champions League XI, listed in chronological order.
1. Liverpool 2-0 Roma
In Liverpool’s first season in the Champions League, progression to the second group stage may have represented reasonable progress, particularly when grouped with Barcelona, Galatasaray and Roma.
After collecting three points from their first four games, Liverpool needed to pick up something from the Camp Nou on matchday 5 to avoid being knocked out before the final match – against Fabio Capello’s Italian Champions, Roma.
A 0-0 draw in Barcelona kept the Reds in the competition, but they were still bottom of the group going into the match against Roma.
Requiring a win by at least two goals in order to guarantee progress into the last eight, Jari Litmanen provided the perfect start, scoring from the spot in the opening ten minutes.
Emile Heskey’s headed goal at the Kop end made sure of victory mid-way through the second half on a night which was also memorable for the return of Gerard Houllier to the dugout after 4 months out following life-saving surgery earlier in the season.
2. Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 Liverpool
Not many defeats live long in the memory but despite the result, the second leg of Liverpool’s Champions League quarter-final provided plenty of drama.
Holding a narrow 1-0 lead from the first leg, Liverpool went into the half time interval at the BayArena having scored a vital away goal. At 1-1 on the night, Leverkusen needed to score at least twice in the second half to progress.
But within minutes of Gerard Houllier withdrawing Dietmar Hamann from the action, the home side netted twice and stormed into a 3-1 lead.
Liverpool came back once more though, and it was Litmanen who provided another vital away goal with just ten minutes remaining, after beating three men before finishing superbly from the edge of the box.
With a semi final against Man United on offer for the winners, there was still just enough time for Liverpool’s defence to be caught out one more time and after Lucio fired Bayer Leverkusen into a 4-2 lead, Liverpool’s first taste of Champions League football came to an end.
3. Liverpool 3-1 Olympiakos
In Rafa Benitez’s first season in charge, Liverpool’s Champions League group consisted of two sides who had reached the semi final stage during the previous year’s competition.
Yet it was Olympiakos, the Greek champions, who topped the table with one game remaining. Liverpool were three points adrift in third place, and with Monaco facing the already eliminated Deportivo La Coruna in their final game needing only a point to qualify, it was likely that Liverpool and Olympiakos would face a straight fight between themselves for the second qualifying place. And so it proved.
A Liverpool win would only be enough to equal the number of points of Olympiakos, at which point the sides would be separated on the basis of results between each other.
And after losing 1-0 in Athens, Liverpool’s chances of qualifying became even more remote once Rivaldo had put Olympiakos ahead at Anfield. In the context of the head-to-head situation, it was an away goal and Liverpool then needed to win by two clear goals.
Substitute Florent Sinama-Pongolle scored an early second half goal, and it was followed up by a strike from another substitute, Neil Mellor with a little more than ten minutes on the clock. The seemingly impossible suddenly became realistic, but as time started to run out, it seemed a long and tense wait before Steven Gerrard’s stunning finish completed the dramatic turnaround with more than 86 minutes played.
Played out in an electric atmosphere at Anfield, the evening set the tone for everything which was to follow for Liverpool in the Champions League that season.
And the three-goal second half comeback might have been a source of encouragement to Liverpool’s players during half time in a certain Turkish dressing room five months later…
What a difference a week can make.
Seven days ago, Barcelona were in London preparing for the first leg of their Champions League semi final with Chelsea, at the start of a week which could have ended with them closing the gap on Real Madrid in La Liga to just a point and also reaching their third Champions League final in four years.
Results could barely have been worse for a team considered by many to be the amongst the greatest club sides in footballing history.
A first leg defeat at Stamford Bridge was followed by a home loss to Real Madrid which effectively ended the Spanish title race in Madrid’s favour. And to wrap up a truly miserable week, last night saw Pep Guardiola’s men crash out of Europe in front of their own fans for the second time in three seasons.
Barcelona must be sick of playing English clubs in European competition.
For all of the success enjoyed in Champions League finals, where Barcelona’s last three European Cup wins have involved English opposition, Premiership sides continue to frustrate the Catalan giants in two-legged ties – and particularly in games at the Camp Nou.
Liverpool are still be the only English side to have beaten Barcelona in their own stadium, but Fernando Torres’ late equaliser extended Chelsea’s unbeaten run against Barca to seven games – four of which have been in Spain.
Manchester United, too, left Catalonia unscathed on their way to an aggregate Champions League semi final win during Frank Rijkaard’s last season in charge in 2008. United won the final, as Barcelona’s conquerors usually do: Of the ten sides who have condemned Barcelona to a European semi final defeat, only Leeds United and Valencia have failed to win the resulting final.
Chelsea will be hoping not to be the third, and they’ll need plenty more good fortune if they are to win a first Champions League title. Roberto Di Matteo and his players will receive plaudits for two defensive displays which frustrated their opponents, but Barcelona have only themselves to blame for their exit.
Even in the face of Chelsea’s strong and well organised defence, Barcelona created enough chances over the two legs to have rendered Chelsea’s three goals irrelevant. Wasteful in attack and a defence that was too easily caught out on the counter attack, Barcelona may see similar reasons why they are no longer competing for the two top prizes on offer.
Despite a nightmare week on the pitch, Barcelona’s season isn’t over. A cup final to Athletic Bilbao gives Pep Guardiola the chance to become the first Barcelona coach to win the Copa del Rey twice since Ferdinand Daucík achieved the feat during the 1950s. In doing so, Guardiola would also equal John Cruyff’s record of eight domestic trophies.
It may not be the season finale that manager, players or fans were dreaming of only a week ago but with three trophies already in the bag this season, a disappointing season for Barcelona is still more successful than a dream season at almost every other club.
If Guardiola opts to stay for another year, then their response to previous disappointments under his tenure should tell us that they won’t be down for long.
Whether or not luck was against Liverpool in their defeat to Sunderland, as Kenny Dalglish has suggested due to the comical goal which decided the game, the Reds are in a poor position in the league due to problems which have existed from day one of the season – and which have simply not been sorted out.
It was Sunderland themselves who provided the opposition at Anfield on the opening day, when a dominant first half performance from Liverpool saw only a single goal to show for their efforts.
A stunning second half volley by Sebastian Larsson earned the visitors a point and although Liverpool’s performance gave cause for optimism, it was a disappointing result.
Unfortunately for Liverpool, there has been a similar feel to many of their 12 subsequent league games at Anfield, with lots of good football played and plenty of chances created – but rarely resulting in victory.
Only a week ago, during Liverpool’s fixture with Arsenal, there was an all too familiar pattern to the match as two rivals for the much coveted fourth place went head-to-head.
Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny admitted that his side had been “getting killed” during a first half which saw Liverpool create a host of chances but take only one.
After Robin Van Persie’s equalizer, the game became much more even. Martin Kelly missed a sitter from the edge of the six yard box for Liverpool. At the other end, Pepe Reina had to be at his best to ensure the score remained level but he was beaten by Van Persie’s second goal of the game in injury time.
If that loss virtually ended Liverpool’s bid to qualify for the Champions League, then losing to Sunderland – their third league defeat in a row – could see them end the weekend in a league position which is closer to 15th than to Newcastle in 6th place.
The comments made by Reds’ boss Kenny Dalglish after the game also suggest a continued refusal to acknowledge the club’s biggest problem: scoring goals.
Such a problem is highlighted by the fact that despite creating more chances than any side with the exception of Manchester City, Liverpool have scored only 30 goals, and 28 Premier League players boast a higher goalscoring tally than Liverpool’s joint top scorers.
It’s not bad luck which is to blame for such a poor chance conversion rate, nor is bad luck to blame for the six penalties missed by four different players this season.
A cup may already be in the bag and a place in next season’s Europa League to go with it, but so much more was promised for this season than to be so far adrift of teams such as Spurs, Arsenal and Chelsea by early March.
Between the highs and the lows of Liverpool’s season, there have been plenty of “what ifs?”, most of which have been a direct result of a failure to score enough goals. Dalglish now has 11 league games left in which to resolve such a striking problem that threatens to overshadow much of the undoubted progress that has been made on the pitch.
After the game, the Liverpool boss said: “If we could maybe get fourth spot, it would be fantastic for the football club.”
Given the club’s recent slump in form, perhaps Dalglish should be concentrating not on fourth place, but on ensuring that Liverpool don’t slip even further down the Premier League table.
Another sublime performance from Lionel Messi, and once again the question is being asked: is he the greatest footballer of all time.
It’s the same question which is raised after each and every game in which he does something extraordinary. In other words, quite often.
However the answer remains the same – that there is simply no way to fairly compare him with the greatest players in previous eras of the game.
If the matter hadn’t been settled already, then five goals in a Champions League second leg against a team who, realistically, began the game with almost zero chance of progressing isn’t going to make all that much difference to the debate.
Besides, there has never been total agreement on whether it is Pele or Diego Maradona that Messi has to surpass in fans’ opinion. The fact that there are differing views on which of those is previously considered to be the best footballer in the sport’s history simply highlights the difficulty in comparing different generations with the aim of singling out one player.
What Messi has managed to do is add his own name to the endless “greatest ever” debates. Now, fans have three footballers to argue about.
One argument that can be put to rest with some certainty is that Messi has no equal in the modern game. He’s delivered time and time again on the biggest stage, and continues to produce moments of footballing magic that others simply aren’t capable of.
Of his five goals in Barcelona’s 7-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League last night, one was a tap in. The other four were routine moments of genius from a player who – still aged just 24 – is destined to become the all-time leading goalscorer at one of the world’s biggest clubs.
Once he’s achieved such a feat, it’s almost inevitable that the question of “greatest ever” will surface yet again.
And the answer will remain exactly the same.
It’s not often that a manager’s reputation is unaffected even after a sacking, but Andre Villas-Boas is likely to find himself with plenty of high-profile suitors during the summer despite his weekend departure from Chelsea.
Faced with the task of rebuilding the West London club while at the same time working for a notoriously impatient owner and managing some notoriously influential players, it’s perhaps no surprise that Villas-Boas failed even to complete a full season in charge.
The former Porto boss was to help freshen up an ageing Chelsea team, but then heavily criticised when dropping some of the older players. Frank Lampard recently voiced his discontent publicly, adding to the pressure on Villas-Boas following some poor results.
Lampard is unlikely to have been the only of Chelsea’s senior players to be unhappy with not starting every game, but his decision to publicize changing room discontent clearly undermined his manager, as was possibly the intent given the timing and tone of his unnecessary remarks.
To his credit, Villas-Boas has remained focussed on his own task and carried out his job with large amount of dignity. There have been no personal attacks on his players, no mind games with opposition managers, and he has always been quick to face the media in post-match interviews, despite the pressure which he’s been under for some weeks.
The achievements of Villas-Boas during his only full season in charge of Porto – winning a league, domestic cup and Europa League treble – will still be of much more significance to chairmen at Europe’s top clubs than a failed spell at Chelsea.
For Roman Abramovich, it is difficult to predict his next move. Experienced managers – such as double Champions League winning coach, Carlo Ancelotti – have been appointed to the Stamford Bridge dugout, yet sacked on the back of a handful of poor results.
And last summer’s new policy of hiring a young, talented manager with the task of rebuilding the team for the future has ended with Abramovich’s lack of patience once again highlighted.
The shortlist of contenders to be the Chelsea managers job will undoubtedly include some of the best managers on the continent, but it’s questionable whether any top manager would want to work at a club where so little support was offered by the owner or chairman.
Harry Redknapp, one of the names who Chelsea have been linked with, is already set to face the dilemma of whether to manage England or continue managing a rapidly improving Spurs. Both options offer their own attraction, whereas taking on the Chelsea job would be a huge gamble when considering the position of the club and the potential that not everything would go to plan.
And as experienced managers may be put off due to the experiences of Ancelotti and Scolari, so too could younger managers look at the reign of Andre Villas-Boas as an argument to stay put at their current clubs.
Roman Abramovich has invested countless millions in helping Chelsea compete with the best in Europe during nine years in England. But he is also to take a share of the blame for a lack of long-term vision, especially in his desperate quest to win the Champions League.
Short of a change in fortunes – and in a change of attitude amongst some high-profile players – Chelsea’s upcoming second leg tie against Napoli may be the last they see of the Champions League for some time.
Not that Villas-Boas needs to worry about that; He’ll almost certainly be back managing in Europe’s top competition next season.