One of the worst seasons in Liverpool’s history off the field has now ended in pretty awful circumstances on it.
Liverpool’s last two league games make no difference to their position, which is stuck in fourth place as the team not quite up there with the top three, pretty much how it’s been for too long now.
One way or another the ownership situation needs to be resolved and Liverpool need to stop being in the headlines because of stupid spats and spin.
Liverpool went into this game knowing one goal from them would give them the confidence and sap Chelsea’s. Chelsea scored first in a first half that they’d dominated. But when Liverpool took over the second half and got an equaliser it looked like Liverpool could do it, could get a second goal and get through.
But it was Liverpool’s stuffing that got knocked out of them. Extra time came along and a Chelsea goal was disallowed, fairly, for offside. But seconds later Chelsea were in front. Hyypia brought down Ballack in the box, and with Frank Lampard on the field there weren’t going to be arguments between the German and Didier Drogba over who was going to take it. Lampard, still mourning his mother’s death sent Reina the wrong way.
Hyypia himself should have got a penalty. Replays showed him clearly brought down in the box, with the referee raising the whistle to mouth as if to award the penalty, before fulfilling Rafa’s prophecy about him being something of a homer.
When Drogba got his second it was all over. 3-1 on the night, 4-2 on aggregate, Liverpool couldn’t come back.
Ryan Babel’s goal three-and-a-half minutes from time raised faint hopes – at 4-3 a single goal from Liverpool would see them through – but Fernando Torres, scorer of Liverpool’s first, top scorer at the club in his first season, was on the bench.
The five minutes of stoppage time in the first game had ended with an own goal from Riise that made this tie have a different complexion to what it would have had, but there was no such length of time to be added onto any of the four halves played tonight.
A lot of fans were worried about trouble in Moscow had Liverpool got through to play there against their bitter rivals Manchester United, but none of those fans actually wanted their team not to get through. To picture “big ears” in the hands of Didier Drogba or Christiano Ronaldo isn’t something that sits easy in the mind in any way shape or form. Chelsea v Barcelona would have been far easier to watch.
Replays showed a player offside for Drogba’s opener, Sami Hyypia should have been given a penalty to make up for the one he gave away, but Liverpool know these things happen, they know they’ve got to find something to make up for nights where the referee and his officials make mistakes.
Bad luck played a part too in other ways. Martin Skrtel put a brilliant tackle in on Didier Drogba early in the game and didn’t recover. He was replaced by Hyypia, who wouldn’t have been on the pitch to give the penalty away otherwise. And using a sub early in the game limited Rafa’s options for tactical changes.
But Rafa’s choices with the options he had seemed strange to say the least.
With two subs left to make, and a need to score, Ryan Babel would have expected to be next on, but instead it was Jermaine Pennant, on for Yossi Benayoun who was one of Liverpool’s brightest players, and the provider of the Fernando Torres goal that finally broke that duck for Rafa’s sides at this ground.
It went to extra time, 1-1 the only score that could have made that happen, and Liverpool just needed one goal to surely put Chelsea out. At 2-1 to Liverpool Chelsea would have needed to score twice to knock the Reds out. Surely it was a good time to go for the jugular. But Rafa waited until Chelsea scored before making the change that everyone expected him to make well before the end of normal time. Or at least half of the change everyone expected.
Babel has pace, skill, and with 99 minutes less playing time on the night energy. Give him the ball, he causes chaos, and if he doesn’t score himself Torres is there to do it for him. Not from the bench he’s not.
Rafa may have a good reason for it, but injuries aside it’s difficult to work out what it was. None of the players tonight needed to worry about playing again for three weeks; they could give it their all and push themselves to the limits, anything to get us through. Instead none of our players now need worry about playing again – in a Liverpool shirt at least – until August.
The players worked hard and in the main played well. Carra had one of those European moments we love him for where he just throws everything into stopping an opponent score. Skrtel was doing well until that injury, and Hyypia, penalty apart, couldn’t be faulted. Arbeloa did as much as anyone could expect of him and Riise took a step or two towards making up for that gaffe last week.
Mascherano was immense as ever, and whether it was his outstanding display that made Alonso seem below par or not isn’t easy to see, not without looking back at the game again without the emotional mental blocks to seeing what really happened. And who wants to look back at the game again?
Dirk Kuyt worked hard, it would be cruel to fault him, and Yossi had a very good game, as he generally does for about half of the games he’s selected for. Torres kept going and going all night (until he was hooked off) and deserved that goal. Gerrard seemed to drift out of the game for long periods, but Gerrard drifting out of a game is still a very good player. Jermaine Pennant didn’t have the impact he’d had on Saturday; Babel’s time on the field was far too short to be enough. He was given 21 minutes out of 120 minutes, and scored after eighteen minutes of being on.
But to throw the book at Rafa now for some strange substitutions isn’t on. A summer of recriminations over why he did what he did isn’t fair. This man got us to the semi-finals and this man will get us to many more if he’s given the almost unconditional support from the fans and the board that he deserves.
Forget the ownership mess – for now, you’ll soon be hearing little else again – and think about what Rafa has done this season with the players he had.
They are good players. The best goalkeeper in league, arguably. Three central midfielders that most other top flight clubs would fight hard to get. A forward who turns the rest of Europe green.
Failure to find top-class out-and-out wide players means Rafa’s 4-2-3-1 formation could be described as a forced decision as much as a masterstroke. But it’s worked, on the whole, and unless Rafa wants to vary the tactics over the course of next season maybe there’s no need to go looking for elusive wingers any more.
And varying the tactics is something Rafa needs to think carefully about. The rotation policy is often criticised far more than it should be, but Rafa seemed to admit to himself after the FA Cup exit that it wasn’t needed quite as much as he’d always thought.
Rumours of key players falling out with Rafa have surfaced over and over again through the course of the season, but as with most of the rumours that have plagued this season may well have been exaggerated. If Rafa’s staying, as seems certain, those players need to think about their futures. If they can’t work under Rafa, they need to find new clubs, however much of a wrench it might be. We do not want to go into a new season with any more backstabbing underhanded double-dealing at our club. We’re better off with the money their sales would attract, and a chance to build a strong squad that’s in unison with each other and with the coaches.
And after struggling to get his own way for four years Rafa has to decide if he’s got the control he wants as we go into the new season. He deserves far more control than he’s had, in terms of how his budget is handled.
Up until now, Rafa has never really had a budget as such. He’s not had a net spending figure thrown at him, leaving him to decide who to hire or fire.
Give Rafa an annual budget to spend on all the staff he needs to do his job. One big figure that covers all of his staff – playing or coaching. If he wants a winger and a full-back, and he can’t get the winger’s price down low enough to help him afford the full-back he has in mind then it should be up to him to decide what to do. Find a different winger, or a different full-back. Or sell a squad player to help him get both.
If he wants to sack a coach, but pay him gardening leave so he doesn’t go elsewhere, that should be his choice. It’s his budget and his decision on whether stopping the coach going to a rival is more important than spending that bit of the wage bill on a replacement.
And talking of budgets, Rafa needs to be clear that he’s happy with what he’s given. He needs to ensure whoever is in charge is giving him as much of what he needs as they can. And then he needs to be sure he’s not going to be grumbling in November about a lack of funds.
We start the season with a manager who has clear targets, targets clear to the fans too, and a manager who feels he has no excuse not to reach them.
At first glance we’ve not made progress at all this season. We will finish one place lower in the league, and we finished one stage further back in Europe. But in fact we’ve got two points more than we finished last season with, and with two games to go. We’re currently eleven points from the top compared to a gap of 21 points last season. And in the Champions League going out 4-3 on aggregate in extra time at the semi-final stage is as close as it gets to going into the final after a penalty shoot-out.
There can be no complaints about the Champions League run. The frustration comes from looking at the league table. Eleven points off the top, and some of the stupid points we dropped. In fact take Saturday’s draw into consideration with us using a low-strength side and we could argue we would be nine points off the top had it mattered.
We have drawn 13 games out of the 36 played so far. Manchester United have actually lost one game more than we have. Chelsea and Arsenal have only lost one game less than us.
We dropped three points at Reading because with George Gillett planning to wait in Marseille ready to give Rafa the push the manager sacrificed the points. Gillett went to Marseille, but we won, and the owners’ plan went on permanent hold. That was the first league defeat of the season, and to give Reading some credit they may still have won even if Rafa hadn’t been distracted, but it has to be seen as points dropped. The next league game was at home to Manchester United and a lacklustre side lost a lacklustre game, two league defeats in a row.
A good win over Portsmouth was soon forgotten as Liverpool scraped a 2-1 win over Derby. Derby have been so bad this season that they might break Premier League records for it, and we nearly dropped two points, a 90th minute goal sparing our blushes. But how we blushed after that. We drew, in successive games, against Manchester City, Wigan, Middlesbrough and Villa. Then we lost against West Ham. That run of four draws and a defeat alone cost us 11 points – the gap from us to the top. (In the middle of all of this was the revelation in the Echo from Tom Hicks about Jurgen Klinsmann.)
The next game saw us go 57 minutes at 0-0 against a team in the relegation zone at that time, before three goals flattered us and disappointed Sunderland.
The next game was a draw, but for once it was at least acceptable, 0-0 against Chelsea. It was just after this we went out of the FA Cup and Rafa pretty much ended his rotation for the season. Seven wins in a row in the League and Champions League followed, broken only by that 3-0 defeat to Steve Bennett.
The results from mid-December to mid-February were awful, and ended our chances of challenging for the league. It’s only now that we can see how close we could have been.
Rather than point the blame in one direction, everyone needs to look back and think what part they played in the slump.
Whether it’s new owners learning from other people’s mistakes or new owners learning from their own mistakes we can’t have another situation like the one that burst out in November. If you want to sack the manager, make sure it’s for the right reasons. If you can’t be honest with supporters about your reasons for sacking him then you probably shouldn’t be sacking him. If you can be honest, and you feel it’s justified – just get it done.
Don’t allow factions to develop at the club at any level. It isn’t just the playing squad that needs to work well together as a team. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion and it’s healthier for the club if some opinions do differ, but disagreeing shouldn’t mean major fall-outs. If you aren’t acting for the good of the club then you probably should leave, and that applies from top to bottom. We shouldn’t have a situation where the two halves of the one vote don’t get along at all, to the point of not speaking, ever again. 50:50 ownership has to be an experiment consigned to the club museum’s “failure” display, next to joint managers and a long list of players that aren’t worth mentioning in an article about the current squad.
Rafa isn’t immune from criticism, but it should be constructive. People certainly shouldn’t be suggesting in mid-March that the December to February run was a deliberate ploy on Rafa’s part to somehow get what he wanted from the ownership mess. He’s not as innocent as we’d like to think, but he’s not that bad.
Season 2008-09 should be subtitled “No excuses”. There better not be any, or a need for any.
Whoever is in control of the club better be there because they want silverware as well as pieces of silver. Whoever is managing the club should be doing so because they believe they have given us realistic expectations, expectations they endeavour to smash. All the players should be behind their manager 100% – if not they shouldn’t be there.
As close as we got to a having a memorable season for the right reasons, as much as we managed to make a slight improvement in the league, as close as we came to another Champions League final, we have to remember that those ahead of us won’t be standing still this summer. Get the ownership mess fixed now and make sure we’re not left to fall behind.
As bad as it feels tonight we’ve got a hell of a lot to look forward to, or at least a hell of a lot to try and look forward to.
Thanks to Rafa and his men for giving us some good times in amongst the depressingly bad. And here’s to more good times to come.