Port of Rotterdam Tournament – August 5th 2007.
Feyenoord 1 Liverpool 1
Liverpool’s pre-season games used to be played in Scandinavia and Ireland, and for fans back home in England the only coverage would be two or three paragraphs in the press the next day – and that was if we were lucky. The back pages would still be dominated by cricket, football writers seemingly on long summer breaks.
This pre-season’s fixtures have been arranged for commercial reasons. The Hong Kong trip was part of the club’s strategy to raise their profile in far-off lands. The Rotterdam tournament was part of the deal to sign Dirk Kuyt last summer, at a time when the club couldn’t actually afford the player’s transfer fee. Rafa wasn’t keen on either trip, but accepted it had to be done. In the earliest part of pre-season Rafa was more in control of the games that were chosen.
Of course both of these recent trips attracted the TV cameras and also more journalists than would have been seen in days gone by. With that comes the scrutiny that normally accompanies a league match. Both trips saw Liverpool in with a chance of winning a trophy – but nobody was particularly bothered. The club museum has various trophies in it from past pre-season tournaments, but you don’t see fans queuing to have their photos taken with those. They are nice to have, but not essential.
The football world is dying to know what kind of team Rafa will be using for his first league match, against Aston Villa, on Saturday, but Rafa was never likely to give too many clues away. He’s now got the luxury of having a choice of players for virtually every position, and the spending is still not over. The safest prediction to make is that none of the different pre-season line-ups will be the starting line-up on Saturday.
Yesterday’s starting line-up was a strong one, and certainly one that could start a meaningful game this season. But this wasn’t a meaningful game, despite the anger from the players as the game went on and the referee lost more and more control. It was used by Rafa to get his players match-fit and to know each other’s ways of playing. It ended in a draw, and Liverpool therefore finished second in the tournament. Basically Porto’s 3-0 win over Shanghai Shenhua won them the tournament because it was better than Liverpool’s 2-0 win over the Chinese side. And so Porto got to take home a trophy made from porcelain, not even silverware as such!
If this had been a meaningful game, and had the result mattered, Rafa Benítez would have had every right to feel aggrieved. Nine bookings in a friendly takes quite some doing – six of them were Liverpool players, some of them were deserved, but referee Pieter Vink had a poor game. He disallowed a “goal” from Kuyt which had crossed the line, although he can be forgiven for that. However he can’t be forgiven for awarding a penalty for handball when the ball hit Arbeloa in the face. Reina saved that penalty and so will take some confidence from that going into the new season. Another mistake made by the referee actually worked in Liverpool’s favour – Gerrard was booked for raising his hand and striking – weakly – an opposing player. He couldn’t have complained if he’d been sent off for the act.
The referee’s inability to control the game had turned this into quite a nasty encounter. In fact it was like playing Chelsea, with play-acting opponents riling Liverpool’s players all-too-easily. Hopefully Rafa can make a compilation of those moments and show his players that they need to control their anger – they’ll have a lot more play-acting to face this season. Not all the anger was at the play-acting – some tackles were flying in that made the game more like a Merseyside derby. So again there will be elements to learn from in this game.
What wasn’t important particularly was the result. The players seem to have got through the game unscathed, although of course that might not be the case now the adrenalin has worn off. Rafa said Harry Kewell was taken off as a precaution, but had no other injuries he was aware of. The manager will finalise his plans for Saturday over the course of this week, with a message going out to his players that they really can’t afford to slip up in the early stages of the season. Last season they started with a draw to a Sheffield United side that were later relegated. Rafa didn’t use his strongest possible side that day, and it remains to be seen how strong his side will be against Villa.
Steven Gerrard will know he over-reacted in the closing stages of last night’s match, but he’ll be pleased to have scored again. He’ll also be pleased to hear that Rafa is planning to use him centrally more often this season. “We know that Steven can play in each position, but he likes and enjoys himself playing in the middle and I think he will play a lot more games there this season,” said Rafa.
As for the incident at the end of the game Rafa said the referee hadn’t really helped: “Some of the decisions made by the referee were strange and maybe that was the reason that people were a little bit nervous towards the end. I couldn’t see what happened with Steven, but if you analyse the whole game maybe we must ask the referee about everything.”
Considering this was a friendly the home crowd did their team proud, certainly creating an atmosphere that would have been fitting for a top-class competitive fixture. Perhaps the referee was unable to deal with this atmosphere – but he needs to go through a lot more training before he should be allowed to officiate at any European fixtures. Rafa was careful not to say too much about what Gerrard had done, claiming in time-honoured Arsene Wenger fashion that he’d not actually seen the incident: “It was hard to see what was going on and I would want to review the match before commenting. But I do not think Steven will be in trouble, in this kind of tournament. I don’t intend to talk to him about the incident. There was a lot going on out on the pitch.”
Rafa was pleased enough with the game – well he said it was “okay” – but he’ll be glad to get back to Melwood: “It was a good game with opportunities for both sides. We had some chances and, okay, we could have scored more goals, but in terms of football it was okay.”
Feyenoord: Ekramy, Lucius, Vlaar, Bahia, De Cler, Sahin, De Guzman, van Bronckhorst, Slory, Makaay, Drenthe
Subs: Mols, Lensky, Bruins, Wijnaldum, Buijs, Hofs, Buijs, Biseswar, Timmer
Goals: Drenthe, 44
Liverpool: Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Riise, Pennant, Gerrard, Alonso, Kewell, Kuyt, Voronin
Subs: Martin, Finnan, Hyypia, Torres, Benayoun, Crouch, Babel, Mascherano, Sissoko.
Goals: Gerrard, 71
Referee: Pieter Vink
Kick-off: 7pm BST