NAME-DROPPING time: I interviewed Jamie Carragher last week for a new project I’m working on. More about that next year, in case you’re interested.
He was considering Istanbul and 2005. A decade later, he still can’t really comprehend how it all happened.
Even with the passing of time, Carragher fights to explain the emotion at the moment Jerzy Dudek saves Andriy Shevchenko’s decisive penalty; the sudden release of an energy that had presumably been stored somewhere considering the cramp he suffered from in extra time. It was as if an exorcism had taken place — seemingly a spirit had to depart his body. He became arms and legs, swinging and running in no particular direction like a wildling before spotting his dad Philly at the front of the crowd where he stopped and embraced.
I suggested to him that without the presence of himself and Steven Gerrard in that team, it probably doesn’t happen for Liverpool, despite the influence of Rafa Benitez in the earlier rounds and despite the half-time decision to change it around tactically, though enforced by injury.
He agreed but not for the reasons you might think. He mentioned too the roles of Sami Hyypia and Didi Hamann, players that with him and Gerrard, had lifted the UEFA Cup at Liverpool four seasons before. Without that experience: of learning how to beat opponents like Rapid Bucharest over two legs, then Slovan Liberec, Olympiacos, Roma, FC Porto, Barcelona and finally, in the craziest final ever, Alaves; then maybe Istanbul turns out differently.
Carragher told me the UEFA Cup was a competition where Liverpool became streetwise in the early rounds. In the seasons that passed between 2001 and 2005 there were a few highs and a number of lows in Europe, yet Carragher, Gerrard, Hyypia and Hamann carried those encounters with them to Istanbul.
In 2002 all four of them were in the side that was 3-0 down at half time in Basel. Although Liverpool went out of the Champions League that night, the final score was 3-3. More experience banked.
It got me thinking about how the UEFA Cup, or rather the Europa League, is regarded now — a tournament treated with contempt by English clubs, mainly due to the lack of financial benefits from winning it but also because of the supposed number of games that need to be played as well as the travel and, of course, the dreaded scheduling. Clubs fear a situation where an away game in Romania on a Thursday night might be followed by a trip to somewhere like Norwich on a Sunday.
Nobody has ever explained to me what makes performing instead on a Wednesday in the Champions League and then a Saturday in the Premier League less taxing. Yet clubs are willing to make more sacrifices to make it work for them even though the number of intervening hours between games are more or less the same.
The reality is, a team that wins the Champions League has to play only two fixtures less than the team that wins the Europa League if that team enters the respective tournament at the group stage. It is exactly the same number if a play-off round is required, as it would have been for Liverpool had they finished fourth last season and as it was in ‘05.
The benefits of being ambitious in the Europa League are intangible. Money earned from the Champions League is cold and there, a clear reward for a relative achievement. In the Europa League, a team might reach the semi-final, get knocked out and then everyone wonders why they bothered because it doesn’t lead to a real financial advantage.
I’d like to interview Rafa Benitez one day and ask him whether winning the UEFA Cup with Valencia just a few months before he joined Liverpool made him a better manager. I bet it did. The following season, he knew how to balance the approach between ties in the Champions League, using the force of Anfield at home before wisely attempting to stink places out away; being prepared to draw 0-0, which Liverpool did on a couple of memorable occasions at Juventus and then Chelsea.
Brendan Rodgers might not like it but he will always be compared to previous Liverpool managers. It should have been mentioned in the job spec when he was appointed. With that in mind, his players will also be compared to those from the past, those who had something to say when they were active if standards were not being met — making them the effective players they were; those, indeed, who are speaking out now, much to Rodgers’s chagrin supposedly.
The best way for Rodgers to end criticism is by winning matches and ultimately, to win trophies. It will buy him time and moreover, the respect he must crave inwardly.
Tomorrow night, Liverpool face Sion, a side that finished seventh in the 10-team Swiss Super League last May, one that qualified for Europe by winning the domestic cup.
Liverpool’s record in Europe under Rodgers is mediocre: 19 games played, nine wins (although three of them came in the qualifying rounds of the Europa League in his first season in charge), four draws and six defeats.
It is fair to say that Liverpool were more savvy in Europe under Roy Hodgson than they have been under Rodgers, a manager whose quest for self-improvement can be satisfied if he takes the Europa League seriously.
Liverpool’s target is to participate regularly in the Champions League again. Yet no manager I can think of has entered and straightaway become knowledgeable enough to go far in it without prior experiences elsewhere in European competition.
Jose Mourinho, for example, found a way to win the UEFA Cup with Porto in 2003 and a year later, his team beat Monaco in the final of the Champions League.
Sometimes, success follows a clear pattern. There is one that Rodgers could follow.
Pic: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo