With the club finishing a mere four points off the Premier League summit in 2009, succumbing to only two league defeats in the process, this campaign was supposed to be full of promise for Liverpool. In reality however, it is proving a nightmare season for Rafael Benitez and his team. In truth the Rafa Regime has always maintained ‘on the brink’ status. In his first seasons, Champions League and FA Cup finals were won on penalties in 2005 and 2006 respectively, with the following seasons culminating in a narrow defeat in the European Cup final, and then semi-final. With the Anfield title famine an ongoing source of suffering, 2009 was all about the obligation that is the Premier League title. The club were ultimately Data HK denied the coveted prize, although once again, in circumstances that could easily have been reversed. Love him or loathe him, Benitez is right about one thing, the difference between success and defeat is all about ‘the small details’. The devil it seems, is in the detail.
One thing that does seem certain is that this season will produce the least convincing champions in Premier league history. Whichever club lifts the crown in May will likely do so despite a sultry points tally and a string of defeats – a record that in other seasons would no doubt barely have warranted a top four finish and subsequent Champions League qualification. But the challenge of the second quadruple of teams – Man City, Spurs, Aston Villa and Everton – below the ‘big four’ is collectively stronger than it has previously been, and the performances and results of those above them have hardly been the stuff of champions. Liverpool serve as the most compelling case in this respect. In a campaign that is amounting to the definition of underachievement, virtually the same team as that which came so close to the title last year, is languishing in the melancholy of its own mediocrity this season. The defeat at Wigan on Monday night was Liverpool’s ninth in the league, and the tough fixtures are far from over. It was such form that Liverpool took to Lille in northern France for the Europa League last sixteen clash on Thursday night.
Having been present at 49 consecutive Liverpool European away fixtures heading into 2010, stretching back to a match against Galatasaray in 2002, I could be forgiven for considering my opinion on Liverpool’s European plight a qualified one. However, with work commitments being what they are, I was unable to attend the recent Europa League fixture against Unirea in Bucharest. (Ironically I was instead presenting a lecture at a sport politics conference in Leeds on fan participation and social movements at Liverpool Football Club). The second leg of the tie against the Romanian minnows followed a painfully uneventful 1-0 home victory at Anfield. In the return leg, Liverpool ended up strolling into the second knock-out round of the competition, despite conceding an early goal which briefly levelled the aggregate score. After surviving the brief scare against the Romanian champions, most Liverpool fans seemed content at the prospect of a tie against Lille. PSV, Barcelona, and Marseille have all been repeat visits in my almost-half-century of trips to the continent, and Lille was at least a break from the norm. In addition, despite our horrendous form, lowly Lille were surely not destined to offer much competition over two legs, particularly with the latter fixture set to be played at Anfield. The short journey across the Channel appeared ideal preparation for the quarter-final, and we were grateful to avoid the long trip to the over familiar Istanbul that would have been on the cards had Lille lost to Fenerbahce in the previous round.
Sixteen lads met at an exclusive Huyton alehouse the night before the match, ready and suitably intoxicated for the ridiculous departure time of 22:50. I can only imagine the driver of the minibus, the ageless Pops, was merely trying to get us accustomed to the farcical Europa League match kick-off times. The game was an 18:00 start (GMT) at Stadium Lille-Metropole, with the return leg set to commence at the still more absurd time of 20:05 next Thursday. Football is for the fans, apparently. Such pathetic organisation – not to mention the lowly status of the competition – contributed little to Liverpool’s sense of connection to a trophy that the club is apparently looking to secure for a record fourth time in Hamburg in May. Judging by the performance of the away team, and the atmosphere generated by the visiting support in the stands, no one in the Liverpool corner appeared committed to anything but a sharp European exit. The 1100 away fans that managed to secure a ticket, in a stadium with a capacity roughly twenty-times that number, appeared largely disinterested in the tie. The only action of note off the pitch was the lighting of a flare by an unnamed Kopite a quarter of an hour into the second half. It rose the collective spirit, but only temporarily.
As Belgian teenager Eden Hazard shot Lille into an unlikely but ultimately decisive one-goal lead in the concluding stages of the second half, I looked down at the succession of ‘Europa League’ advertisement boards and noticed that each was interspersed with others containing the word ‘respect’ – representing UEFA’s latest blood-sucking political campaign, I mean, value-laden mission ‘for the good of the game’. But given the calibre of opposition, unsociable kick-off times, and multiple redundant tracksuited officials, together with the dominance of the continent’s premier tournament, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ‘Respect Europa League’.
In reflection, the pressure that Benitez is under is partly a consequence of results and performances this year – including fifteen defeats thus far in all competitions – and of the six years of failure to win the league title. However, the regime that functions on the brink has also unquestionably produced some notable achievements, and it is also the difficulty of living up to and reproducing these considerable highs that Benitez is currently struggling with. Burdened by the weight of Anfield expectation, he has simultaneously become the victim of his own success, and the reputation he has forged. However, in addition to Liverpool’s results this year, his recent public statements – pledging a fourth place finish, refusing to state where he will be employed next season, and drawing on his past achievements – are also worrying signs. Yet as concerning as the first two are, the latter development is particularly alarming. Benitez has argued in no uncertain terms that he has restored Liverpool pride, which is undeniably the case. It was only nine years ago that victory in the UEFA Cup (admittedly as part of a quintet of trophies secured that season) under Gerard Houllier saw a frenzied response from Liverpool supporters. Now, mere involvement in the newly branded version comes closer to representing a source of shame. However, publicly reminding the footballing world of one’s own achievements is not an act undertaken by a self-assured man who confidently expects to achieve more of the same. The image of Jose Mourinho’s six-fingered salute as Chelsea secured the 2007 FA Cup serves as a notable contemporary example. His record of a half dozen trophies in three years was impressive, yet his fingers were not seen clasping another trophy in West London blue, and within the year he was managing in Italy. For Benitez, a similar threat has now entered the frame of possibility. There are cracks in this regime, and the only mechanism of repair begins with satisfying those three concerns: Secure a top four finish, win the Europa League and remain in charge next season to rectify the errors in judgement. To that end, dispatching Lille next Thursday night has simply become an obligation.