DID we take the Champions League for granted? I certainly did. Ironically I remember all too well the forgettable 1-0 home win over Hungarian side Debrecen in September 2009, how mundane and routine it all felt. Three points. Dirk Kuyt. Cheers.
Two weeks later we were thoroughly dismantled in Florence. What looked an ordinary, negotiable Champions League group became loaded with land mines. Consecutive late lapses against Lyon sounded the death knell.
Three months after the formality of Debrecen, Fiorentina performed an all-too-familiar smash-and-grab at Anfield and we were ruefully led to wonder: when will this glorious spectacle return? The optimists amongst us felt Rafa could navigate his way through those turbulent, tumultuous months in 2010, but 18 months felt like the logical answer even then. With league form unravelling and no end in sight to the gloom of Hicks and Gillett, a temporary exodus felt inevitable.
Nobody reckoned on five years.
Five years which has seen the landscape of European football almost irrevocably change.
In that summer of 2009 the world record transfer fee had not been broken in eight years. After regularly changing hands during the 1990s, the then-gargantuan sum of £48m that Real Madrid splurged on Zinedine Zidane in 2001 had blown the rest of world football out of the park. But the summer of 2009 saw the same club smash its own record twice in the same week.
Thirteen times in five years has a player now commanded upwards of Zidane’s fee of 13 years ago; European football is a different ballpark now. It made Liverpool’s return there harder, it makes their stay there vital.
The Champions League has attained an allure that is enough to sate the ambitions of many of the world’s top players and thus the longer you are absent from it, the harder it is to return. Money has poured into the game at increasing rates since; the nouveaux riches in Paris and Manchester have become established forces, Bayern Munich have supplanted Barcelona as the benchmark while Real Madrid embark on annual squad regenerations. Until last season’s remarkable tour de force it felt an unpenetrable glass ceiling.
This Thursday sees Liverpool’s long-awaited return to the ridiculously truncated Champions League group stage draw. To many European onlookers they will be a mystery draw; the wildcard pick in Pot three. Word may have spread of the Tricky Reds who went from 7th to 2nd in a season by scoring 101 goals. But will the citadels of powers quake so much in the wake of Monday’s comprehensive defeat at the Etihad?
Monday night brought a certain amount of soul-searching, and untold glee for the thousands wishing to write Liverpool off as one-season wonders. But the shortcomings that Rodgers’ players showed on Monday are fixable, namely a naivety in both 18-yard boxes. It was a backwards step from the way Liverpool stood up to City last season, though the same naivety contributed to defeat both times.
It is, as much as anything, the luck of the draw. Last season the fixture fell half-way through the season, with the team settled and on the back of resounding victories against Norwich, Spurs and Cardiff. This time, so early in the season, and with new signings bedding in, or waiting in the wings, smacked of a team in transition. City showed themselves to be convincing champions, and a stronger unit than last season, suitably fresh and not yet stale; in English football they are the benchmark for squad-building.
This disappointment certainly could not match the despondency that engulfed the fan base after a certain early-season Monday night thrashing at the hands of Manchester City in 2010. Four years ago there were no signs of positivity; asset-stripping off the pitch and meek subjugation on it.
That night Liverpool were thrashed by a club on the up and at the beginning of a cycle of success, much where the Reds would like to believe they are now. That night Javier Mascherano was bound for Barcelona, the truest sign of the oncoming malaise – a player that, in the four years that have passed, has been shown to be irreplaceable. This time Mario Balotelli sat in the stands, waiting to be unleashed.
What does the signing of Balotelli mean most to Liverpool? Forget his ability, forget his price tag, and forget everything else. This is the profile of signing that the club has never attracted before. He is a headline-grabber, a face, a name. That he, at the age of 24 and with his best years in sight, wants to be at Liverpool, legitimises the club’s return to the Champions League.
Monday night may have been disappointing, but Rodgers has been here before. He learned after a comprehensive defeat at the Emirates last season, and he will learn again now from a position of strength.
On the back of a summer of sensible squad-building, where the club has successfully signed all-but-one of their main transfer targets, resulting in an unprecedented avalanche of spending, there is now Balotelli; a great two-fingers to the whole world.
Rodgers’ goal is to make sure that this transition is as short and smooth as possible. Let’s not forget, he’s ahead of schedule as it is.
Photos: David Rawcliffe/Propaganda