Offside, 25 May
After the UEFA Cup euphoria: 'Calm down, calm down - let's just stop to consider what Liverpool have actually achieved this season.'
Football pundits tend to indulge in hyperbole.
When Liverpool beat Alaves 5-4 to win the UEFA Cup on 16 May 2001, BBC summariser and former Liverpool captain Alan Hansen hailed it as ‘the best game you are ever likely to see’ (you wonder if he’d have been quite so enthusiastic if ITV had broadcast the match, or if Liverpool had lost).
The mass celebrations in Liverpool were also out of all proportion to the team’s achievements. An estimated half a million people lined the route as the team paraded their three cups through the city. One banner declared: ‘We ruled the 1970s, dominated the 80s, had a break in the 90s – and now we’re back.’
Calm down, calm down – let’s just stop to consider what Liverpool has actually achieved this season.
— The Worthington Cup: Liverpool scraped through on penalties against First Division Birmingham City to lift a trophy that nobody else takes seriously.
— The FA Cup: Arsenal controlled the final but Liverpool ‘stole’ the trophy thanks to a late Michael Owen smash-and-grab raid. Moreover, as I argued in last week’s column, the FA Cup is no longer the prize that it used to be (1).
— The UEFA Cup: the expanded Champions’ League format has effectively reduced the UEFA Cup to the Worthington Cup of Europe. Liverpool’s inability to defend a lead against Alaves in the final exposed the limitations of the team.
My friend Ben dismissed Liverpool’s success as ‘a treble of Mickey Mouse cups’. As an Evertonian his objectivity is open to question, but I think he’s right. Just as reports of Manchester United’s demise have been greatly exaggerated, so too Liverpool’s resurgence must be put into perspective. If the Premiership and the Champions’ League are the true measures of success today, Liverpool are a long way from being ‘back’.
The evidence shows that the current team has achieved nothing meaningful yet:
— Liverpool have never won the Premier League;
— The last time Liverpool won the old First Division was in 1989/90;
— Until this year, Liverpool had never qualified for the Champions’ League;
— Liverpool’s last trophy was in 1994 (and that was the Worthington Cup).
Liverpool did qualify for the Champions’ League but only through the back door by finishing third in the Premiership. When Manchester United won this year’s title Liverpool were 26 points behind and only narrowed the gap because United eased up in their final games.
Michael Owen’s assessment of Liverpool’s progress is refreshingly sober: ‘The League never lies and I think Manchester United has shown that it is one of the best teams in Europe.’ Gerard Houllier, too, admits that Liverpool are still way behind United: ‘We are not yet at their level, but I hope that in two or three years’ time we can be.’
Liverpool has a strong squad, a nucleus of excellent young players, and an astute coach (okay, we’ll overlook the fact that he signed Rigobert Song, Eric Meijer and Titi Camara). Liverpool’s class of 2001 has the potential to achieve greater things. The next step to is to acquire the psychological toughness to churn out results every week, home and away, against Premiership strugglers and European giants alike. And they need to win a proper trophy.
The UEFA Cup final was only exciting because Liverpool could not kill off the game – unlike the Liverpool of old. As former player Alan Kennedy explains: ‘We made a point of taking the heat and passion out of the game to keep the crowd quiet, and we did it by retaining possession and keeping a slow tempo.’
Being boring, when the need arises, is the mark of a great team.
(1) See Offside, 18 May 2001
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