Fans and players must repeat performance

Jamie Carragher is suspended on Saturday for the league game against Middlesbrough – so don’t be surprised at his omission from the team-sheet. Headlines in Thursday’s papers might have had you think he’d be missing for other reasons, especially the one in the Guardian. “Carragher rebukes Benítez for rotation”, it claimed. Yet reading on proved he’d done nothing of the sort.

The article said “Gentle rebuke” which was an exaggeration, but then the headline made it seem that bit stronger still.

Carragher was asked the question we all want to know the answer to, why the differences in Liverpool’s performances from one game to the next? Why in the space of a couple of days did they lose against Barnsley, a mid-table team in the country’s second flight, yet beat Inter Milan who’d not lost since September in any competition and were running away with the league in Italy’s top flight? It goes back further than that – Liverpool lost 2-1 in Turkey against Besiktas, yet hammered them 8-0 at home in the next game. In fact until that 8-0 win Liverpool’s European form wasn’t as good as their league form, at least in the Champions League proper.

Many reporters already know the answer to that question. They decided so a long time ago. Rotation of course. So they ask players anyway, hoping one of them will agree. Carra almost did. “There is just something about us that we are always confident in Europe,” he said. “We fielded our main players as well, which makes a difference, and the sending-off did help us.”

That bit where he says, “fielded our main players” is the gentle rebuke by the way, in case you missed it.

The article then went on to mention who was missing on Saturday for the FA Cup game, which is of course extremely low priority at Anfield now, given its prize fund isn’t anywhere near as attractive to owners future and present.

The players will be aware of that financial importance to being involved in the Champions League, but they also want to be involved in the competition for the prestige it has. Carra said that the league games between now and the second leg are extremely important if they are to have a place in the competition next season: “We’ve got four league games before the return and we have to reproduce this level of performance because we want to be in this competition next time as well.”

Carra was pleased with his own side’s performance and determination, but at the same time had a lot of time for how well Inter had played: “Even when they went to 10 men Inter impressed me, so I expect a very different game over there. The sending-off had an impact on the game but they defended brilliantly, even though we ended up getting those two goals. Before the game we would have been delighted with that result, and I must admit I did believe we were going to get a breakthrough. We created loads of chances, kept plugging away, and we got them in the end.”

Liverpool went into the game under huge pressure, after a run of poor results often accompanied by performances from players who did not look interested. The result means that although Liverpool daren’t be even slightly complacent in Milan, they aren’t the ones under pressure for the second leg in three weeks: “It does put pressure on them now,” said Carra. “It was very important not to concede a goal at home – that was the big thing in the minds of the lads at the back. I think 1-0 would have been a great result, and the second was just the icing on the cake.”

Scorer of the second goal Steven Gerrard, who put a perfectly accurate shot past the keeper into the back of the net from outside the area, was singled out for some praise by Carra: “Stevie is one of the best players in the world. There are a lot of world-class players in the big teams in the Champions League but Stevie’s the one who makes the decisive impact in the end. He stole the show again.”

Later in the day and the local paper the Liverpool Echo was running a story based on the same interview from the same press conference. No mention in the headline or the text about Carra having a dig at Rafa. Carra had praised the fans who had created an atmosphere to try and put the Italians off their game, and the defender felt that they’d probably managed it. “I wouldn’t say you take them for granted but the fans always put on their best performances on a European night. That goes right through the history of the club and I’m sure it will be the same for however long the club is going. We’ve always had special European nights and this was another one.”

Although Carra didn’t say it in so many words, it’s not just the players who seem to put more into their performances on a night like that. For some reason there’s a completely different approach to games from the supporters at league games, even though winning the league is certainly not considered as something less important than winning the Champions League. If Liverpool win the Champions League this season, fans who were there on Tuesday night will be telling their grandkids in years to come about how they saw Liverpool beat the mighty Inter Milan 2-0, on the way to the sixth European Cup. The fact that “I was there when Liverpool beat Wigan 2-0 on the way to number 19,” has less of a ring to it doesn’t mean that it’s less important. And had the atmosphere been the same that January night as last night then maybe it would have been 2-0 instead of 1-1.

Of course there’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario over who gets the other going the most. A player dancing past three defenders before crossing the ball to a team-mate whose header is tipped over the bar is going to get the crowd going. But that player might decide on a sideways pass instead of dancing past the three players if his blood isn’t filled with the adrenaline that comes from hearing thousands of home supporters singing, shouting and cheering. And that’s cheering rather than the jeering some fans seem only to use their voices for.

In fact in European games it often seems that the crowd and the team are in harmony from the off, each feeding off the other throughout. For some reason it seems to take Liverpool an age to get going in league games, by which time the fans have got their programmes out to read instead of watching the game. (Or in these days of avoiding buying anything from the club shops or kiosks as part of the protests against the owners, it’s their fanzines they’ll be reading.) As they’re reading the fanzines, the players are struggling to motivate themselves past the defensive tactics of their opponents. Sometimes it’s so quiet that players in Red shirts doze off during set-pieces, and a win becomes a draw. It’s almost as if the players are thinking, ‘Well if they’re not singing I’m not playing’ and the fans are thinking the opposite. Yet players and fans alike should be thinking, ‘If I do my bit they’ll do theirs – so I’ll start…’

Of course not all players are like that, and not all fans are like that, but if you fit into either of those categories and are reading this perhaps you can make a resolution that starting this Saturday you’ll be the one to do your bit first.

If you do, maybe Carra will be talking a bit like this on Sunday about the Middlesbrough game: “We always try and make a good start in European games at home, get in people’s faces and set a high tempo and the crowd play a big part in that. I think we rattled Inter Milan in the first 15-20 minutes and the crowd played as big a part in that as anyone.”

The Middlesbrough game is at home. Even when they play at their own place against the bigger clubs they stick eleven men behind the ball. All in the hope of getting at least a point or even all three as they bore their opponents into making mistakes. Ninety minutes of that is not very entertaining, but watching football isn’t like going to the pictures or sitting in the theatre. The crowd are actually part of the entertainment. You don’t go to sit back and be entertained. You go to be part of the whole experience. If you want to rest your voice on Saturday swap your ticket for one to see ‘Be Kind Rewind‘ at the cinema, and if you don’t like it, write a letter of complaint. Let someone willing to go home hoarse have your seat at Anfield instead.

Liverpool fans are special, but like the team, aren’t putting their best performances on for every game: “I’m running out of things to say about the fans but they proved once again that they’re the best in Europe,” said Carra after Tuesday. When was the last time a player said anything close to that after a run-of-the-mill league game?

Tuesday’s win wasn’t just about the crowd of course. The eleven men on the field, including Reina on the rare occasions he was needed, plus the two subs, all played to pretty much the best of their abilities. Nobody hid, nobody pulled out of a tackle, and nobody gave up. Carra said: “We realised how tough it would be before the game but we started quite well and then the sending off had a big impact. I thought Inter defended brilliantly at times but in the end we got a couple of goals. If someone had offered us that before the game we would have been delighted but I’m still expecting a really difficult game when we go over there. Credit to the lads though, they kept on plugging away and that’s why we ended up getting the two goals.”

On Saturday Rafa will be forced to rotate. Carra’s absence through suspension looks to have come a little too soon for Daniel Agger, who is now preparing himself psychologically for playing through pain when he does return to action from his broken metatarsal. Martin Sktrel’s also doubtful with injury, and with Jack Hobbs now out on loan Rafa looks likely to try Alvaro Arbeloa at centre-back again alongside Sami Hyypia. The only other real option is Mikel San Jose, the teenager who has been on the bench recently but is yet to play in the first team.

With no more games for a week after the ‘Boro fixture Rafa has the chance to minimise the changes at least. ‘Boro may not be Inter Milan standard, but they’ll have a similar approach to this game. Liverpool’s goals both came when Rafa had made changes to the side and its formation with his two substitutions, but the starting line-up and formation got them into the situation where Inter were pegged back and forced into fouls reducing them to ten men. Liverpool have struggled against defensive opposition, but Tuesday night shows that they can overcome that approach.