A year ago Liverpool were facing Real Madrid in the first round knock out stage of the Champions League. Last night they were boring the pants off Channel 5's half dozen regular viewers in a stuttering, nervy, utterly unappealing victory over Unirea Urziceni.
True, the Romanians have to take some responsibility for the lack of entertainment: they parked the bus, the tram, the train and any other public utility vehicle they could lay their hands on in front of goal. But whoever was to blame, fun it wasn't. And yet, come May 11th, were Liverpool to face Everton in the final in Hamburg, memories of a quite dire night would be consigned to history. Like climbing Ben Nevis in the fog, it's not the walk that counts, it's the view from the summit.
Sure, for Liverpool fans there may have been something embarrassing about last night. True, Gerrard, Carragher and Reina apart, some of the current players look so pedestrian they are in danger at any time of being fined for loitering. And yes, the mystery of how come the Academy has failed to produce a single player worth promoting while all sorts of second-rate imports strut their stuff on the Anfield turf, remains as intractable as ever. And yet, Liverpool are still in it.
What's more, the results from the Europa League are reflected in the Premier League. After an alarming start to the season, Rafa Benitez has, as the business end approaches, sorted things out to the extent that, grinding out result after result, making it hard for opponents to score, sitting on leads, Liverpool look once more the favourites for the fourth Champions League spot.
In truth, would you really back flaky Tottenham, increasingly unadventurous Manchester City or an Aston Villa team with interest in two cups, to pip them to the post? Especially if he can coax his world class asset Torres back to fitness, the bets are on that Benitez will do what he said he would: he will deliver Champions League football to Anfield once again, possibly with the added lustre of a bit of silverware along the way.
The trouble is, in delivering on his promise, Benitez increasingly resembles the England rugby coach Martin Johnson. Those who know their egg-chasing (and I wouldn't begin to count myself among that number) say that last weekend's victory over Italy was one of the most dispiriting 80 minutes of sport to which any of them had ever been subjected. It was the final vindication of substance over style. Victory was achieved at all costs, particularly the aesthetic.
Afterwards Johnson was utterly unapologetic: he would happily anesthetise the entire nation if it resulted in a win, he said, apparently oblivious to any obligation to entertain. Benitez is the same. Whenever he defends his position he does so through statistics. He talks of win percentages. He talks of how Liverpool's Premier League points tally has increased every year under his jurisdiction. He justifies himself through science rather than art.
He is, in fact, the polar opposite to Arsene Wenger, who maintains a rather romantic, if stubborn, insistence in the primacy of style over result. What frustrates fans of the two men's clubs is that their way is not delivering at the moment. For both it has in the past. But right now, Chelsea, Manchester United, Barcelona and Madrid seem to be marrying style and substance in a manner which is not available to them.
No one would worry at Anfield if dull pragmatism won every time. But it doesn't. No one would be concerned at the Emirates if over-elaborate passing moves tore the opposition to pieces every time. But since 2005, it has produced nothing. At the end of the season I am convinced Benitez will have done all right by the club. But years of watching the club in admiration from a distance has made me think that doing all right probably isn't the Liverpool way.
- Rafa Benitez
- Real Madrid