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So Roy Hodgson did a wonderful job, Fernando Torres is still a hero and I don’t think anybody can deny that Paul Konchesky was the signing of the season. Or was it Christian Poulsen? Or Joe Cole? Now before you all boycott anything further that I write, or bombard TheMakéléléRole with angry, belligerent e-mails, I am, quite obviously, joking.
In truth, despite a 6th place finish and no European qualification for 2011/12, the end of the season was bathed in an optimistic glow for Liverpool fans. Hicks and Gillett gone, a seemingly trustworthy board in their place and King Kenny back at the helm of the ship he had longed to sail ever since he had left in February 1991.
Back in October, however, such an outcome had looked anything but possible. A 2-1 defeat to Blackpool had sent the club crashing into the bottom three and with the deadline for the repayment of the loan to RBS and Wachovia looming, the prospect of administration was becoming very real indeed.
With matters off the field feeling like they were stripping the club from our hands, we could hardly take solace in what was happening onthe field either. Not only had results been terrible but the football had been dreadful to watch.
It may seem slightly pretentious, but football clubs have philosophies, and Liverpool’s was built on the pass and move era of Shankly and Paisley. That style is the first thing looked for in a Liverpool manager, and to see Hodgson impose what were effectively ‘kick and rush’ tactics, sending long balls into the channels for Fernando Torres and David N’Gog to chase, was truly galling.
Even more so when we constantly had to listen to his stubborn insistence that his 36 years of management experience had served him well and he wasn’t going to change for anyone. I’m not suggesting that the Liverpool squad he had at his disposal was capable of playing like Barcelona, but Pepe Reina, Daniel Agger, Glen Johnson, Steven Gerrard, Maxi Rodríguez, Fernando Torres, they were far more capable than the rigid 4-4-2 into which they were forced.
In the end, Hodgson paid the price for his stubborn refusal to change to his surroundings. The ownership issue had long been sorted – Fenway Sports Group (then New England Sports Ventures) defeating Hicks and Gillett’s attempts to block the sale – by the time Hodgson was told his services were no longer required. A crowd of just 35,400 turned up for the New Year’s Day win over Bolton; the final straw a 3-1 embarrassment at Ewood Park. Just a few days later Hodgson left Melwood for the final time.
There was only ever going to be one man to replace him. The Kop had begun chanting Kenny Dalglish’s name only a few games into the season – leading perhaps to Hodgson’s biggest misjudgement, when he criticised the fans for the lack of the “famous Anfield support” – and only the King would do to rescue the club from its predicament.
Dalglish arrived too late to have an impact on the FA Cup defeat to Manchester United – and with the defeat to Ryan Giggs’ second minute penalty went another chance for our first trophy since 2006 – but it wasn’t long before the galvanising effect began. A defeat against Blackpool was followed up by a draw against Everton, but the first win came over Wolves and three more quickly followed.
All of a sudden Liverpool were playing the way that Liverpool were supposed to, and in the final weeks of the season some of the performances were a true joy to behold. The force of Dalglish’s personality and the willingness of the board to act quickly had even seen the club come out of the sale of Fernando Torres – unthinkable to most fans – smelling of roses and with a precociously talented Uruguayan ready to fill the hole in their hearts that the Spaniard had vacated.
That the Reds went into the final day of the season with even the barest sniff of European qualification was, quite frankly, an incredible achievement. They had shown top four form since Dalglish had taken over, with largely the same squad as Hodgson had guided to a stunning low of 19th place after the Merseyside derby defeat to Everton.
Of course, the expectation for the 2011/12 season, with the ink still wet on Dalglish’s new three year contract, will be sky high. Liverpool fans have a tendency to swing between feast and famine from week to week – some might characterise them as bipolar – but the optimism of a return to challenging for Champions League qualification is not misplaced.
With a good summer behind them, with the right signings brought in, Liverpool could once again be a force to be reckoned with rather than ridiculed.
Another guest writer, John Burn-Murdoch, throws his hat into the ring with a fabulously detailed review of this year’s UEFA Champions League, which has produced thrills, heart-break and some delicious football.
Last night the 2010/11 edition of the UEFA Champions League came to a close. A thrilling 90 minutes of football saw Barcelona crowned thoroughly worthy winners, but theirs is not the only great Champions League story to have played out this past year…
On June 30th2010 the current iteration of the tournament got underway when Montenegrin champions FK Rudar Pljevlja beat San Marino’s Tre Fiori 3-0. Rudar won the second leg 4-1 in front of a crowd of roughly 400 partisan supporters and thus progressed to the second qualifying round in this, their first ever season in European competition, giving the 2010/11 Champions League its first great night.
Other great sagas began before we reached the tournament proper, and among these was that of provincial Portuguese side, Braga. Making their Champions League debut after a wonderful second place finish in the league, Braga made their way past first Celtic, and then Spanish heavyweights Sevilla, as they won a place in the group stage. After a hard-fought 1-0 win at their rock-hewn stadium, Braga travelled to the ancient Spanish capital and pulled of a staggering 4-3 win, thanks largely to a poacher’s hat-trick from Brazilian forward Lima.
The group stages threw up a number of wonderfully entertaining clashes of their own, beginning in group A where Champions League novices Tottenham were drawn alongside reigning champions Inter Milan. A superb performance from Gareth Bale – albeit for the losing side – at the San Siro precipitated media hyperbole of all new proportions, but will live long in the memories of any and all who were watching. A 100% home record for Spurs, including a hard fought victory over the champions at White Hart Lane, saw them finish top of their group and set in motion a memorable – if brief – European journey for all associated with the club.
Elsewhere, Braga’s adventure continued, and among the biggest talking points of the round was their humbling defeat of English powerhouses Arsenal. With Shakhtar Donetsk breathing down their necks, Arsene Wenger’s side needed a win to ensure that they remained on course for top spot in the group, but despite fielding a relatively strong side they were caught by surprise, and having thoroughly demolished Braga in the reverse fixture slumped to a 2-0 loss. While the Portuguese club bowed out at this stage of the tournament, they had given an excellent account of themselves during their short time at Europe’s top table and went on to round off a wonderful season by reaching the final of the Europa League, seeing off the likes of Liverpool along the way.
Moving into the knockout stages, the round of sixteen provided plenty of talking points, with two of the biggest involving North London clubs. Having slipped to second place in Group H, Arsenal knew they would be drawn against a club who had won their group. Nevertheless, Wenger and co would certainly have hoped not to be drawn against Barcelona. Billed by the media as an exhibition of footballing artistry, the first leg provided one of the most thrilling five minute segments of football on offer in this season’s Champions League. Goals from Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin turned the match on its head and had the oft-subdued Emirates transformed into a cauldron of noise when the Russian fired past Victor Valdes. The second leg will be equally memorable for Arsenal fans, but for contrasting reasons. Having just about held their own for almost an hour, the controversial dismissal of van Persie turned what was already a difficult task into an impossibility, and the Catalans went on to seal a relatively comfortable victory. This match was also notable for Lionel Messi’s first goal, surely the goal of this season’s tournament – yes, I personally rate it above that goal in the first Clasico. Demonstrating levels of technique staggering even for the little genius himself, Messi collected Andres Iniesta’s perfectly timed through ball and deftly clipped the ball over the advancing form of Manuel Almunia, leaving himself the simple task of firing into an empty net.
Neighbours Tottenham had already humbled one Milan side and were given the opportunity to complete something of a clean sweep when they were drawn against the rossoneri. A fiery first leg saw Spurs move ahead through Peter Crouch’s late goal, but was arguably notable more for the verbal – and ultimately physical – exchanges between Milan’s snarling midfielder Gennaro Gattuso and Harry Redknapp’s assistant manager Joe Jordan. A disciplined performance back in London saw Tottenham complete an historic victory and thus reach the last eight, out-lasting arch rivals Arsenal in doing so, much to the delight of their supporters.
Another epic in the last sixteen took place in Munich, where Leonardo’s Inter Milan overturned a 1-0 deficit from the home leg, securing their place in the quarter-finals through a last minute winner at the Allianz Arena. Having trailed 2-1 for much of the game and watched as Bayern spurned chance after chance to extend their lead, Inter equalised through Wesley Sneijder and then snatched the victory in the dying minutes when Samuel Eto’o played in Goran Pandev, the Macedonian firing emphatically past Thomas Kraft before racing away in delirious celebration.
The quarter-finals were dominated by the shattering of dreams. Tottenham’s escapades were cut short by a far superior Real Madrid side, much fancied Shakhtar were outclassed by Barcelona, Chelsea’s domestic tribulations caught up with their European form, and deluded Inter Milan fans saw their side unceremoniously dumped out of the tournament by Germany’s sole remaining representatives Schalke.
Tottenham fans were delighted to have drawn Madrid and having seen off one-time European giants Milan, were confident of causing another upset. Jose Mourinho had other ideas; however, and to make matters worse an ex-Arsenal man was the chief protagonist in the first leg.
Shakhtar’s fearless attacking football, and Brazilian-heavy line-up were attracting a lot of fans – myself included – and some were even going as far as to tip them to cause the upset to end all upsets and dump out Pep Guardiola’s team of footballing deities. Any such ideas were quickly laid to rest at the Camp Nou in the first leg; though, as the Catalans tore through the Ukrainian champions, opening the scoring inside two minutes and running out 5-1 winners on the night. There wasn’t even the consolation of a home result for Shakhtar, a Messi goal enough to give Barcelona a 1-0 win at the Donbass Arena.
Coming, as it did, relatively soon after Chelsea’s victory over United in the league, the first leg of the all-English tie took place with fans of the Blues optimistic that Ancelotti’s side were on their way back to something bearing a resemblance to their early season form. Unfortunately, such notions proved short-lived. Chelsea were undone by the excellence of Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney, and despite their best efforts thereafter, succumbed to a home defeat. Their task was always going to be difficult at Old Trafford, but after Didier Drogba levelled proceedings at one apiece their fans once again dared to dream. Ji-Sung Park was the destroyer on this occasion, the Korean securing United’s passage to the last four and piling on the misery in an already disappointing campaign for the Blues.
Ever since their group matches against Tottenham, Inter’s defending had come in for criticism, but no-one was expecting quite the demolition that took place at the San Siro. In front of their own fans Leonardo’s side shipped a staggering five goals and left the pitch at full time to jeers having contrived to lose 5-2 despite twice taking the lead. The one positive for Interistas was Dejan Stakovic’s sublime 45 yard volley which soared into the net after Manuel Neuer had raced off his line to intercept a through ball. The second leg offered little by way of consolation, though at least Julio Cesar only had to pick the ball out of the net on two occasions.
The semi-finals were dominated by the Clasicos which made up part of the now infamous series of fixtures between the two arch rivals who met four times over eighteen days. The first leg will be recalled as an example of what football should not be about, and was marked by play-acting posturing and – ok, I’m stretching it for the sake of alliteration and tricolon – pugilism. The negative narratives born out of the disrespect and ill-discipline shown by both sets of players throughout the match and by Mourinho in his post-match comments have scarred the fixture and for years to come it will be all too easy for critics of Barcelona to hark back to “that night in Madrid”. Messi scored a goal that was glorious in its intricacy and yet also breathtaking in its simplicity – guiding the ball past the obstacles in his path and slipping it beyond a final obstruction on its way into the back of the net. On another occasion this would have been the iconic image associated with the 2010/11 Champions League, but the other eighty-nine-and-a-half minutes put paid to that. While the second leg was played out in a less heated atmosphere and showcased two highly talented sides playing attacking football, there was never any hope that it could eclipse what had gone before, and the 1-1 result at the Camp Nou will soon be consigned to the history books – that is if it is not already forgotten.
The other semi-final passed without much fuss, with the headlines largely devoted to the excellence of Schalke’s stopper Manuel Neuer, and more specifically his heroics in the first leg. It has widely been written that United’s performance in Gelsenkirchen was their best of this season, and the fact that they were limited to only two goals pays tribute in itself to Neuer’s magnificence. The second leg was less enjoyable from his perspective as United ran out 4-1 winners on the night. One of the more lasting narratives from these ties concerned neither United or Schalke, this being the assertion that Schalke’s dominance over Inter and subsequent inferiority to United showed how far Serie A has fallen away from its competitor leagues of late, and more specifically how far Inter have fallen since winning the competition twelve months ago.
And then we have the final. While I am not anti-Manchester United, there was something satisfying, something right, about the way the match played out. Having watched a wonderful Barcelona side fall to Mourinho’s negative – albeit superbly well drilled and tactically exquisite – Inter side last season, for such a beautiful footballing outfit not to receive the honour it so thoroughly deserved yet again would have been a travesty of aesthetic justice. I found the opening ten minutes, when United gave as good as they got and looked in fact to be on top, just as enthralling as the eighty that followed, but to see such a brilliant group of players playing to the best of their ability and receiving the rewards that they so richly deserved appealed to me above all else. Pedro giving Van der Sar ‘the eyes’ for his goal, Rooney’s composed and unerring finish, Messi’s Ronaldinho-esque footwork in the lead up to Villa’s strike, Xavi’s metronomic conducting of proceedings from the middle of the park. Tonight was one of those rare occasions in football where everything happens as it is meant to happen.
Who can tell me what happened on the 16th of May, 2010, almost exactly a year ago? TheMakéléléRole can, because it was there. If some of you need your memories jogged, Lampard chanted ‘Didier Drogba, lalalala’, Ancelotti sang ‘Volare, wooaaahh! Cantare, wooaaahh’ John Terry croaked out a rendition of ‘We’re makin’ ‘istory’, and thousands of Chelsea fans roared along with them, throwing celery and decibels in equal measure at the open-topped bus which was carrying the Premier League and FA Cup trophies. TheMakéléléRole had spent the day before at Wembley watching Chelsea win the FA Cup and the weekend before watching them demolish Wigan at Stamford Bridge to win the Premier League. The man in charge was hailed as a genius, having guided Chelsea to a famous and unprecedented Double.
That man was, of course, Carlo Ancelotti. Yet, one year on, many Chelsea fans are now harrumphing and murmuring their way towards an ‘unacceptable’ second place in the League Formerly Known as the Best League in the World™. How can they be so inclined to forget something that happened less than a year ago? Have they forgotten the first 4 seasons in the Premier League when Chelsea were in the dreaded bottom half? What about the seasons in the 80s when Chelsea weren’t even dining at English football’s top table? What TheMakéléléRole is trying to get at is that if there is one thing out of the innumerable ‘gear-grinders’ that currently plague top-flight football, there is one that grinds not only TMR’s gears but also its brakes, pistons and axels. That is fickle, spoilt fans.
The main point of the article (which will not have been obvious from TMR’s indecipherable ranting so far) is that patience is a commodity that must be thought of on the same level as money in terms of importance. The easy examples of patience paying off are those of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, who took 6 seasons to win his first league title and can now count 12 (presuming United don’t go all Devon Loch on our ass), as well as FA Cups, League Cups, and Champions League trophies. Arsene Wenger, despite recent form, has been successful as Arsenal manager (and if you don’t agree with TMR, kindly leave the premises before you are escorted off by our bodyguard, Geremi). Even if we take out the money, have a look at David Moyes and what he has done at Everton when backed by his chairman and fans.
However, more importantly, let’s go back to Carlo Ancelotti. TMR really enjoys the saying ‘Be careful what you wish for’, and it is rarely as apt as it is now for Chelsea fans. If Ancelotti is sacked, Chelsea will be back at Square One, just like 2 years ago when he took over. TheMakéléléRole wonders whether, realistically, Chelsea could hire a manager this summer who would win the Double straight away, in their first season at the club? Villas-Boas , the Porto manager, seems an attractive choice.
Hey guys, remember that time when we hired that young Portuguese manager who came in, wowed us all, and won Chelsea their first League title for 50 years, the FA Cup and the League Cup twice? Well 4 months after winning the FA Cup trophy, with captain John Terry and Frank Lampard draped all over him like the cheap hookers, he walked away from the club (albeit with one of ‘Oh sorry, did I just barge into you by mistake?’ shoves from Roman) after three games where Chelsea failed to win. Laughable.
Finally, TheMakéléléRole wants to mention another issue – Fernando Torres. Oh, Fernando. How to solve a problem like Fernando? Frankly, our first thought is to give him one of our speacial and famous bear-hugs. But we’re glad you asked, because TMR has ideas. Call us crazed, but we’d like to give him a little more time until we call him a flop, a failure, a waste of money. And here is why: bear in mind, if you will, the general theory that players who play long seasons for their clubs, pick up knocks, and then proceed to play in major international tournaments, tend to be exhausted at the start of the season. Then bear in mind, if you can stand the thought of cutting the man some slack, the fact that in 2008, Fernando Torres (after scoring 24 league goals in his debut season at Liverpool) went to Euro 2008 and came back victorious. In 2008/2009 he tore his hamstring, Sellotaped it back together, then the Sellotape ripped a little bit and then he picked up an ankle injury for good measure. Torres then proceeded to go to South Africa for the Confederations Cup. Back at Liverpool, injuries plagued him further, not helped by The Waiter depending on him so badly that he was often rushed back from injury, a sure-fire way of exacerbating the problem. Of course, that summer he was back in South Africa becoming a World Champion, before getting straight back into the thick of it this season with more injuries and the occasional goal. We could also go on to mention that Fernando has been playing under the most immense pressure since the age of 17, when he was thrown in at the deep end at Athletico Madrid.
Now TMR is patiently disposed. It always has been and that’s why people like it. But even if we weren’t, we reckon it would be within reason to suggest that this man has been under more physical and mental pressure in his career so far than we would experience if we lived to 200 years old. What we suggest is that we give Fernando the summer off for the first time in 4 years, let him blow the top off a couple of San Miguels and get the hair back to its former glory (incidentally, is this the first time that hair has been the subject of footballing pathetic fallacy? So beautiful when scoring for fun, so dark, dank and lifeless these days) and then let’s see if he doesn’t repay us by scoring 40 goals next season, firing Chelsea to League, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League glory. And hell, TheMakéléléRole is feeling generous, so we’re going to let Carlo Ancelotti stay a little longer as well, because he’s such a nice man. And if not, well, let’s just sack them both. And get Ray Wilkins and Zola back. They’ll win it all for us.
TMR doesn’t know what Chelsea’s fickle and impatient fans like to do to calm themselves, but we suspect it involves the coming together of darts and pictures of Ancelotti/Torres/Kalou/Mikel/Bosingwa and everyone else who is a massive waste of space, isn’t fit to wear the shirt/tight-fitting hand-made Italian suit etc. TheMakéléléRole’s message to these fans: go and do some dart-throwing, get all that anger out of your system, and then let’s give this ‘patience’ thing a try. Oh, and be careful what you wish for…