Talking a good game.

Liverpool have become experts at running hot and cold in recent years.
A look back at just about any season since the end of Kenny Dalglish’s
time as manager shows many highs and lows. Victory at Manchester
United, with some style, would warm the heart when watching the review
of a season. Then there’d be coverage of a defeat to Bradford City,
already relegated. Pick any top-four team from a season, pick any
bottom-four team from a season. Look at how they did against Liverpool
that season. More often than not it victory against the team that
should have been harder to beat. And defeat against a team that in
reality should have been hammered.


Things have changed at Anfield since King Kenny was manager. Not just
on the pitch either. Football as a game has changed of course, and
Liverpool have failed to keep apace with all of those changes –
certainly the financial ones. The first English team to make use of
shirt-sponsorship was Liverpool. The lucrative awards from shirt
sponsorship are still there for Liverpool, but they’ve lagged far
behind their rivals in making the money from shirts that they could
have made.

Every season since Kenny left has been looked back on as "what might
have been". The favourite phrase has been "If only". The season that
Liverpool won the treble was going to herald the re-emergence of
Liverpool as the best team in the country. Only it didn’t. Houllier
broke up the squad that had performed so well the season before and by
the time the new players had settled in, a season that had seen
Houllier taken ill with a heart condition was over. It was unfortunate
that Houllier became ill when he did, and some say that is when he lost
his touch as a manager. The breaking up of the squad so early in that
season – prior to his illness – was probably more of the cause of the
decline. Add to that fact the point that Phil Thompson, although at
times a good motivator, was unable to use any tactical awareness during
a match to turn things round. Liverpool managed a lot of draws during
Thompson’s temporary charge, but single points don’t make prizes.

We’re now into March, and Liverpool’s targets for the season are
reduced yet again. An embarrassing FA Cup exit was followed by an
unfortunate defeat against the most-expensive team in history. There’s
a big task ahead in order to reduce the deficit behind Everton in order
to try and finish fourth. The unthinkable situation of Liverpool
finishing behind Everton for the first time in a long time would be
made even worse if the Blues were playing in the Champions League
instead of Liverpool next season. To catch Everton is more in Everton’s
hands than Liverpool’s. Everton need to drop points. Eight points.
Liverpool could beat them and reduce the gap to five, and with a game
in hand reduce it to two, but it’s still in Everton’s hands to not lose
those other two points.

There is one target left though. The Champions League itself. Can Liverpool win it?

Liverpool are probably, along with PSV, the team most of the other six
teams will want to hear themselves drawn against next Friday. Liverpool
are underdogs.

The thing is though, Liverpool seem to be under the impression they can
win one of the two most glittering prizes their fans want them to start
winning again. A fifth European Cup win seems to be on the card, if you
listen to the players.

Irish full-back Steve Finnan nearly left the club at the start of the
season. A failure to agree terms with any buying club before the
transfer window closed meant he stayed, and his performances in the
first half of the season ensured his name wasn’t mentioned during the
winter transfer window. Now Finnan believes he could end the season
with a winners’ medal. He says: "Of course we can do what Porto did,
why not? Nobody expected them to win it but they did. We are now
starting to score goals – six goals in two legs against Leverkusen
surely shows something about us. That has been a tough test so there is
no reason why we can’t go all the way. We have the experience and the
players at this level so hopefully we can do it and surprise people."

What were his thoughts on the game against Leverkusen in Germany? "It
was easier than we thought. The first goal was always going to be
important and we got it, so from then things were a lot easier than
they could have been. They seemed to think that was the end of it and
they could not get back into the tie. It turned into a comfortable win."

Finnan believes that this victory makes Liverpool able to prove to
themselves that they are capable of success. "The fact that Manchester
United and Arsenal have not managed to get to this stage shows just how
difficult it is. Whoever you play at this level is tough, but we did
such a good job in the first leg it gave us a real incentive and a
belief that we could finish the job. United and Arsenal had difficult
ties and couldn’t manage it. But we have done it and that has made us
feel pretty good. Now we have two home games next, against Blackburn
and then Everton and they are very important. After having a taste of
the Champions League this season the incentive is there for us to make
sure we are back in next term and we can still finish fourth."

The comparisons with Porto, continue, with double goal-scorer in
Germany Luis Garcia saying: "We are in the last eight and anything can
happen. If Porto can win the Champions League then so can we. In
football, many unpredictable things happen every season so why
shouldn’t we believe we can go all the way?"

This confidence is spreading throughout the squad. Besides Steven
Gerrard, local-born Jamie Carragher is one of the most passionate
players on the pitch. He says: "To beat Leverkusen is a great result.
They are a top class opposition and you only have to look at their home
record where they scored three goals against Real Madrid and Roma. We
are in the quarter finals now and anything can happen. There are some
good teams left in the Champions League but any team can win it. It is
not always the best teams that win a cup competition and we feel we
have a chance."

"Normally in Europe you try and soak up a bit of pressure and hit them
on the break, but every time we went forward we looked like scoring.

"I don’t know if that was to do with their tactics, maybe they were
pushing up a lot and giving us room, but I think that in the first half
it was the perfect European performance.

"We work a lot on tactics as a team, how the team is going to play, and the weaknesses of our opponents."

It’s clear that Carragher has improved immensely under Benitez.
Originally a central-midfielder before making the first-team, Carragher
had played mainly at full-back under Houllier, but under Benitez has
made himself a first-choice centre-half. Things have changed under
Benitez, says Carragher: "We probably do more tactical work now than I
have done with any manager at any level in my career. That’s how he
likes to do things. When he has the time to prepare the team properly I
think you can see that it’s reflected in the performances. After
international games, when we only have one day to prepare, we haven’t
done so well. But that’s something we as players are going to have to
overcome in the future."

It was a call to former red, and great personal friend of Carragher’s,
Michael Owen that gives Carragher most confidence after the victory.
"To get a result like that, especially given their group form, is
something special. They beat Real Madrid and when I spoke to Mike
(Owen) he said they were one of the best teams he had played against,
so to get those results over two legs like we did says a lot."

It does say a lot. All the Liverpool players are saying a lot.
Confidence is high, but that confidence needs to be handled correctly.
Liverpool are right to have the belief in themselves to go the rest of
the season without losing. If they perform in every game the way they
did for 75 minutes in Germany and 85 minutes at Anfield in the games
against Leverkusen. Fitness will be a factor – Liverpool were very
tired by the end of their Carling Cup Final – and the confidence needs
to be used effectively.

They must go onto the pitch before every game thinking they can win it,
thinking  they will win it – but not thinking they HAVE won it.

Rafael Benitez is capable of reminding his players of this.