Liverpool’s last home game of the season looks set to be a mixture of emotions this afternoon.
Players are making their final appearances at Anfield before moving on elsewhere, fans are angry about the ticketing fiasco for the Champions League final and the squad need sending off in style ahead of that game. The game itself is set to be nothing more than a side-show.
Robbie Fowler is one of those players leaving, after it was finally confirmed officially that he was not going to get his contract renewed. Fans are hopeful Rafa will give him a run-out in what might be his penultimate appearance in a Red shirt. With seven subs allowed in Champions League fixtures it’s almost certain he’ll be on the bench in Athens, and if circumstances dictate he’ll be called upon for the penalty shoot-out should we be forced to endure that torture again. He was brought on as a late sub in extra-time against Chelsea in the semi-final, but thanks to the clinical penalties of his team-mates, and two saves from Reina, he wasn’t needed. But Rafa had him ready for the high pressure role: “He was out there to take the fifth penalty if it got that far. I could rely on Robbie,” said the boss afterwards. Robbie has been considering a number of offers, including one from Celtic, and will be wished well wherever he goes.
Jerzy Dudek was hoping to bow out with his final start at Anfield today, but there are reports he’s been hit with a groin injury and may not get to play after all. Rafa needs Jerzy to be fit and well for his place on the bench in Athens, but with first-choice Reina still recovering from a shoulder injury there’s a dilemma for Rafa over who to use today.
Dudek himself is full of praise for Rafa and Reina as his days at Anfield come to an end. The 34-year-old Pole, hero of Istanbul two years ago, accepts that Reina is an excellent keeper in all respects: “Everything Pepe Reina does he does well,” says Jerzy. “He does things in a way that gives confidence to the rest of the team. He will come for crosses all the time in certain areas, which takes the pressure off the defence, and his distribution of the ball is better than some midfielders. He can launch the quickest counter-attacks in the Premiership. Since he has come here we have always done well – and the two things are not a coincidence.”
Dudek also feels Liverpool could be in a position to win that elusive 19th league title soon. Although disappointed he won’t be a part of it directly, he says he’ll be joining in with the rest of us if we are celebrating that success: “It makes me a little sad that I won't be here on the pitch to enjoy a title success but I will be watching from wherever I am. I will be as happy as any supporter from the Kop.”
First up though is that trip to Athens to try and bring home another European Cup. It would be Liverpool’s sixth, the same number that opponents Milan have won, and would of course look rather nice spending a year in the trophy room alongside the dented version we got to keep last time round. The players and coaching staff need a good send-off, but those sending them off aren’t all going to be in Athens to see them.
Liverpool supporters groups are astounded by the way the club has handled the allocation of tickets and a protest has been planned. Fans are meeting in the Sandon pub at 1pm, ahead of the game, to discuss the best way to make their feelings known. Rick Parry is facing the full brunt of the fury, because his handling of the situation in the local media and on the club’s website has been seen as arrogant. The impression he’s given is that of someone who doesn’t particularly think it’s anything to do with the fans how the club choose to distribute their tickets. He’s hoping it will blow over, but that seems unlikely now.
The hope from most fans though is that Parry can see what harm he’s done without Rafa and the players being affected. That Parry can hear how unpopular he’s now become and take steps to answer the one remaining question the fans want answered – who got how many? It should be a party today, a pre-Athens party, and we need to remember that Rafa and his squad know we’ve not fallen out with them!
It’s goodbye to those who’ll not be coming back next season. It’s goodbye to those we hope are bringing home number six. And it could be goodbye to Rick Parry unless he can swallow some pride and admit where those tickets went. It’s not a difficult question to answer, unless the answer is going to make things difficult.