Daily Post 07 March 2007
Someone might have to tell George Gillett and Tom Hicks it isn’t like this every week.
Liverpool’s new American owners were on hand to witness another remarkable European night at Anfield as Rafael Benitez’s side earned a nerve-shredding progress to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
The changing of the guard in the club’s boardroom was replicated on the field with Liverpool ending the reign of cup holders Barcelona and taking a significant psychological step towards regaining the trophy won in Istanbul two years ago.
Not a bad way to commemorate David Moores’s 16-year reign as chairman and the start of a new era at Anfield.
Liverpool achieved progress in a characteristically tense manner during an absorbing 90 minutes that encapsulated the strengths of weaknesses of Benitez’s side.
Surely one of the first things Gillett and Hicks will do is promise funds to the Spaniard for a new striker after Liverpool, as against Manchester United on Saturday, frittered away numerous openings before being struck by a late sucker-punch.
But it would be churlish to be too critical this morning. For now, Liverpool deserve the plaudits for deservedly dumping out the continent’s finest team, while their victory in the Nou Camp a fortnight ago can rightly be praised as perhaps their best away result in Europe.
Almost inevitably, it was Eidur Gudjohnsen – who memorably missed in injury time of the Anfield semi-final for Chelsea in 2005 – that stepped off the Barca bench to give the visitors hope with a well-taken strike. Had they snatched a qualification-clinching second goal during the remaining 15 minutes, it would have been a travesty after Liverpool had, their finishing apart, produced arguably their best performance of the season.
Steven Gerrard had warned his team-mates they faced an even more difficult game than the one in Barcelona a fortnight ago, where goals from Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise gave Benitez’s men a famous 2-1 triumph.
But the fact is a little more composure and a touch of good fortune would have ensured those away goals didn’t ultimately prove decisive and secured Liverpool’s passage long before Gudjohnsen caused the Kop to gnaw their fingers to the bone.
After all, until then Barcelona had barely threatened Pepe Reina’s goal. With the again-colossal Jamie Carragher leading by example and Daniel Agger growing in stature with each high-profile appearance, Liverpool’s defence smothered and harassed the Barca attack to the point of distraction.
It was almost too much for Ronaldinho, whose growing frustration mirrored that of his team, the Brazilian shoving Daniel Agger in the face during the first half then later aiming a petulant kick at Carragher after another timely interception from the centre-back.
Deco apart, the Catalans were made to look hugely disappointing. Samuel Eto’o, the supposed saviour for Frank Rijkaard’s side, was anonymous before being hauled off while the lid was firmly kept on Lionel Messi’s box of tricks.
Rijkaard had been riled before the game by the belief Benitez ‘knows it all’. Well, over the two legs, it’s clear the Spaniard had the better of his Dutch counterpart.
Having talked up an alternative game plan for the return leg and made note of the Spanish fear of Peter Crouch, it was perhaps inevitable that Benitez would keep faith in the starting line-up that won in the Nou Camp, with the lanky striker again on the bench. Barcelona made three changes from that night, with Eto’o surprisingly starting on the left flank as Ronaldinho spearheaded the Barca attack in a necessarily adventurous 3-1-3-3 formation.
But Liverpool were by far the dominant force going forward during the first half, twice hitting the woodwork with John Arne Riise in particular keen to pick up where he left off in the Nou Camp.
The Norwegian fizzed one effort narrowly wide from the edge of the area in the opening moments, setting the tone for a first half in which Liverpool, demonstrating their manager’s determination to win on the night, muzzled Barca’s bite and rattled the visiting defence with lightning counter-raids centred on the pace of Craig Bellamy.
Riise came even closer in the 11th minute when connecting perfectly to a bouncing ball 20 yards out only to see his dipping drive beat Barca goalkeeper Victor Valdes but crash against the crossbar.
That seemed to snap the Spaniards out of their early daze and they began probing at the Liverpool defence. Alvaro Arbeloa picked up a slightly unlucky booking and Sissoko was less controversially carded for upending Deco, while Carragher produced a tremendous block to deny Ronaldinho after Xabi Alonso had gifted possession to Andres Iniesta.
Barca keeper Valdes came in for some heavy criticism in Spain for his performance in the first leg, but his quick reactions kept the visitors in the game on 26 minutes as they survived a lucky escape.
First Valdes just about proved equal to a fierce volley from Bellamy then somehow deflected clear Dirk Kuyt’s rebound and, after Riise’s headed follow-up was cleared off the line by Carles Puyol, the goalkeeper clutched a low drive from Arbeloa.
That said, Valdes was almost the fall guy six minutes later when Sissoko came within inches of opening his Liverpool goalscoring account in spectacular fashion.
Failing to deal with a routine back pass, the goalkeeper mis-hit his clearance straight to the feet of the Malian in central midfield who, 35 yards out and showing tremendous presence of mind, instantly lashed a dipping shot that rattled the crossbar with a relieved Valdes well out of position.
The main worry for Benitez was Liverpool’s failure to convert their chances into at least one goal would come back to haunt them.
And that fear intensified seconds after the interval when both Kuyt and Bellamy failed to connect with Gerrard’s teasing right-wing cross.
Carragher had warned it would only need one moment of magic from the Samba star to turn the tie, and it almost arrived on 53 minutes when Ronaldinho accepted a Deco pass, swivelled away from the Liverpool centre-back and past Arbeloa before hitting the outside of the post with only Reina to beat.
The two teams then began trading blows as Barca’s need grew more pressing, Liverpool dropping deeper and relying on the counter-attack. Gerrard dragged a shot wide from Kuyt’s searching through ball, Lionel Messi shot at Reina after being fed by Ronaldinho and Kuyt struck a speculative effort off target.
Liverpool were confidently closing out the game until Barcelona introduced Gudjohnsen in the 71st minute. And within four minutes, the Iceland international finished with aplomb by going around Reina after being found onside in an unmarked position by a clever Deco pass.
That set home nerves jangling, particularly when Reina had to hold a shot from substitute Ludovic Giuly soon after. But the spaces in the Barcelona defence gave Liverpool room to hit on the break, and Valdes did well to parry an angled Gerrard drive.
But Barcelona struggled to create anything during a tense finale and Liverpool should have earned a draw on the night when Peter Crouch blazed a volley over from six yards after fine work from fellow sub Jermaine Pennant.
The Barcelona supporters may have been singing along to ‘Hey Jude’ after the game, but it is Liverpool’s faithful – including their new owners – who will be in better voice this morning.
Liverpool Walk Through a Storm
The Telegraph 07 March 2007
Someone will have to explain to Liverpool’s new American owners how their team could lose yet win, how they could disappoint domestically and yet progress in Europe, and how Barcelona could dominate possession, yet walk off crestfallen.
Anfield last night staged football at its quixotic, compelling best.
The watching pair of Tom Hicks and George Gillett, swept up in the emotion of another epic Anfield occasion, really need look only at the sweat-stained figure of Jamie Carragher to find the reason why England’s third-best team could defeat the champions of Europe. Guts and glory are Carragher’s mottos.
Liverpool’s captain, Steven Gerrard, enthused afterwards of the side’s “spirit, grit and determination” and such qualities particularly suffused Carragher, the rock on which so many Catalan attacks foundered. Carragher kept throwing himself in front of Barcelona shots, kept nicking the ball off the lacklustre Ronaldinho, kept leaping high to repel any aerial threats. Liverpool reached Friday’s quarter-final draw because Carragher would settle for nothing else.
From first minute to last, Liverpool’s defensive kingpin cajoled his colleagues, demanding endless concentration and defiance. Interviewed afterwards, Carragher could hardly talk, having expended all his energy in the cause of the club he so cherishes. “We all dream of a team of Carraghers,” sang the Kop. No wonder.
As a schoolboy, Carragher owned a Barcelona kit, and last night he stripped them of their air of invincibility. Eidur Gudjohnsen did break through, running on to Xavi’s 75th-minute pass and rounding Jose Reina to score, but it was too little, too late.
Someone will have to explain to Hicks and Gillett how the away-goals rule works, how strikes from Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise at the Nou Camp have given Liverpool’s season such resonance. Someone will also have to explain to Hicks and Gillett how Peter Crouch could miss from eight yards.
Yet the new guardians of this famous club will never need to explain why they invested so much. It was these sort of epic evenings that had encouraged Hicks and Gillett to part with £450 million, these sort of noise levels that conjured up memories of the fabled visits of Inter Milan, Saint-Etienne, Roma, Olympiakos and Chelsea. “The fans helped us get through,” observed Gerrard.
The Kop, at their colourful, cacophonous best, celebrated the past and cast a confident eye on the future, displaying one banner that looked towards the Athens final: “In Ancient Greece, we’ll win it six times.” The Kop also laid on a maths lesson with one sign reading: “Einstein and Pythagoras know that 18 titles and five European Cups equals the greatest.” The numbers game had also been occupying the mind of Frank Rijkaard, who began with a controversial 3-4-3 formation anchored by Rafael Marquez and with the influential Deco in the hole behind Ronaldinho. Committed to attack, Barcelona also left themselves exposed defensively.
Riise could have netted a hat-trick in the opening stages of a match that started quickly and never slowed. Two strikes went racing wide, but the middle thunderbolt almost snapped the frame of the goal at the Anfield Road end. The Catalan message to Beatleville behind the net declared “All You Need Is Barca” but with Riise hitting the bar, the tune was more “Norwegian Wood”.
The Catalans began to settle and only Carragher’s positional excellence thwarted the lively Deco. Inspired by their No 23’s indomitability, Liverpool poured forward, willed on by the fans, as the spellbound pair of Hicks and Gillett looked, listened and marvelled. American sport simply does not produce passion plays like this.
The noise was unrelenting. So was the excitement. Riise was terrific, all dynamism down the left. Xabi Alonso, all smooth touch and teak-tough work ethic, relished the chance to perform against the club of his father. Lionel Messi’s happy feet made life a misery for Alvaro Arbeloa. Just before the half-hour, Liverpool flooded forward menacingly again. First Craig Bellamy came calling, only for Victor Valdes to save. Then Dirk Kuyt sought to poach a follow-up but Valdes again reacted athletically, pushing the ball away.
Still the danger persisted, Riise heading goalwards. Oleguer rescued Barcelona with a clearance from under the bar.
Barcelona’s goal was coming under sustained threat, and when Valdes hurriedly hoofed the ball clear, Momo Sissoko sent it back with added interest — first time from 45 yards. Once again, the crossbar saved Barcelona. Sadly a booking for Sissoko rules him out of the first leg of the quarters.
Fighting to keep hold of the European Cup, raging against the fading of their season’s light, Rijkaard’s side went through the gears again, driving towards the Kop, this time Ronaldinho shooting over to a thousand derisive cries of “Who are you?”
Ronaldinho sparked into life again after the break, darting around Arbeloa and unleashing a shot that crashed into Reina’s left-hand upright. Rijkaard rang the changes, sending on Gudjohnsen for Lilian Thuram, attacker for defender, as Barcelona went for broke. The move worked. Gudjohnsen seizing on Jermaine Pennant’s slip and Arbeloa’s momentary inability to play offside.
Gudjohnsen’s calm finish set up a frantic finale, yet Liverpool really should have soothed the racing pulses; Crouch, though, blasted Pennant’s expert cross into the Kop. The final whistle sent relief coursing through Liverpool’s fans and despair through Rijkaard and company. The inquest will be lengthy and painful in Catalonia. The party continues in Liverpool – and Stateside.
KOP ARE THE BIG NOISES
Daily Mirror 07 March 2007
Never before, even in the crazy history of this most famous of old stadiums, can a defeat have been greeted with such deafening acclaim.
The sight of grown men in a rabid Anfield crowd standing on seats, singing their hearts out with tears streaming down their cheeks will be burned in the memories of all those who witnessed a remarkable evening of European football.
At the end, it was Liverpool who were left standing. Just. Somehow, brilliantly, bravely, magically, they withstood the might of the Champions League holders at their thrilling attacking best, to scrape through.
Even though they lost on the night, they won the battle of hearts and minds, and deserved their ovation from drained, tortured supporters.
A goal from substitute Eidur Gudjohnsen 15 minutes from time put Barcelona level in the tie, but still trailing on away goals. Those 15 minutes were the longest of many supporters – and players – lives.
With Ronaldinho finally unshackled, and Lionel Messi back to his jinking, darting best, with Deco pulling strings, and Xavi dancing and shimmering, it seemed painfully inevitable that the Spanish side would score a second goal to put them through.
But Liverpool are nothing if not resilient, and in the form of towering centre-half Jamie Carragher, indomitable. They gritted their teeth, and in the words of their skipper Steven Gerrard “put their bodies on the line”.
They lost on the night but really, they should have won at a canter, such were the chances they created as they outfought and outthought their illustrious opponents.
For the watching new owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks, this was evidence enough that Liverpool is far more than a mere franchise, means far more to the people than mere sport.
If they came here to look at the latest acquisition to their bulging portfolio, they left in the knowledge that Mr Shankly knew what he was talking about.
They were treated to a display of such passion, a night of such emotion, that they will briefly have wondered what exactly they were getting into.
In fact, the only thing Liverpool’s performance lacked were the goals that would have confirmed their superiority over the two legs. Even Barca boss Frank Rijkaard admitted that his side were lucky to win on the night, that Liverpool were worthy winners over the two legs.
Liverpool were confident and aggressive in the first half, while Barcelona were uninspired, insipid even. John Arne Riise crashed a shot against the bar, and sent another inches wide. But on 26 minutes came one of those moments on which matches hinge.
Craig Bellamy broke free down the left and fired a swirling shot that keeper Victor Valdes could only parry to Dirk Kuyt, lurking six yards out. He should have scored, but gave the keeper a chance to save.
No matter, the ball fell to Riise, in front of the now unguarded net. Somehow Barca skipper Carles Puyol scrambled across the line to clear the netbound header to give the visitors a lifeline they simply did not deserve.
Their lack of luck in front of goal was epitomised when Valdes made a hash of a clearance that fell straight to Momo Sissoko whose fierce drive towards the empty net drifted and drifted on the wind, and crashed again against the bar. At that moment, there was a collective Liverpool look that suggested they feared what might happen next.
Gudjohnsen, nipping in behind the Liverpool back line for perhaps the only occasion Barca managed all night, took a beautiful ball from Xavi in his stride, rounded Pepe Reina and stroked into the net. Game on, panic on, nightmare on.
But even though everyone feared the worst, it never arrived, indeed, it was Liverpool who finished the stronger with Gerrard and substitute Peter Crouch almost finishing off the game.
LIVERPOOL 0-1 BARCELONA
Dailt Mail 07 March 2007
Try explaining this to Anfield’s new American owners. Try telling them that a defeat can still amount to a fine defensive display.
Or that Ronaldinho is the best player in the world — and that nights as nerve-shredding as this are why you pay the admission fee. Not £450million, admittedly. But a day’s wages for an evening of gut-wrenching, shot-stopping entertainment.
If Tom Hicks and George Gillett still struggle to understand how a game can be settled by so few points, they will now understand some things: the passion this football club generates, the intensity of the occasion… and an atmosphere that remains unrivalled in European football, if not the world.
Are they sure they want to up sticks and move to Stanley Park? Gillett said it was “like nothing I’ve ever heard or felt” after breaking from his phone call to pay homage, hands clasped, to a passing Steven Gerrard.
Jamie Carragher described it as one of Liverpool’s most memorable victories and, while Eidur Gudjohnsen’s goal made for an anxious final 15 minutes, it was another excellent display from a team who continue to excel on the continent but choke in the championship.
The injuries that were inflicted at the Nou Camp two weeks ago were followed by the deadly anaesthetic last night. Barcelona stirred briefly, Ronaldinho sending a shot against a post before Gudjohnsen exploited the collective naivety of Jermaine Pennant and Alvaro Arbeloa.
But the largely subdued European champions were nevertheless put to sleep.
As the home players celebrated the final whistle and their place in the quarter-finals, Craig Bellamy made his most decisive move of the night.
He persuaded Ronaldinho to swap shirts — probably an extra large judging by those recent photographs of the once-brilliant Brazilian.
Like his colleagues in the three-man attack Rafa Benitez predicted Frank Rijkaard would play, Ronaldinho did not appear to be right. He looked fat, while the feisty Samuel Eto’o and the flying Lionel Messi also seemed to be badly short of fitness.
The first-half statistics said it all.
Barcelona might have enjoyed 60 per cent possession but they unleashed one shot to Liverpool’s 10 — and even that was not on target.
Liverpool, meanwhile, hit the Barcelona bar twice through John Arne Riise and Momo Sissoko. What a pity that Sissoko picked up a booking which rules him out of the next game.
Rijkaard says he intends to take some kind of sabbatical at the end of this season and his players appear intent on joining him. The Catalan club is not a happy place, with banners on display last night calling for the ousting of club president Joan Laporta.
The result of this tie was anything but harsh.
Liverpool deserved their win, not least because of the individual contributions of men like Carragher, Sissoko, Gerrard and Riise, and tireless, if rather less talented, contributions from the attack of Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt.
That, ultimately, is where the dollars need to be spent. Good chances were squandered by Bellamy early in the second half and substitute Peter Crouch shortly before the end.
Buy some world class strikers and a squad boasting world class defenders and midfielders will suddenly become a world class team. The Premiership table says as much. They concede as few goals as Manchester United and Chelsea but score nothing like as many.
Rijkaard’s decision to deploy just three defenders invited them to score last night and, in fairness to Liverpool, they certainly gave it a go.
The game began at pace in front of a pulsating, raucous Anfield that held its breath when Riise unleashed a vicious strike that whistled past the left-hand post of Victor Valdes.
The scorer of Liverpool’s all-important second goal in Barcelona was keen to land another blow as quickly as possible and went even closer a few minutes later, sending a powerful half-volley against the crossbar.
Only to Liverpool did the chances continue to fall, Valdes producing two remarkable saves to first deny Bellamy and then Kuyt before Presas Oleguer blocked a diving header from Riise.
A mistake from the error-prone Valdes caused yet more panic on the Barcelona bench. A clearance went straight to Sissoko, who responded with a 40-yard shot that rattled the crossbar.
Barcelona could offer nothing in response, a wild volley from Ronaldinho inviting cries of ‘Who are ya?’ from a delighted Kop.
Only in sporadic bursts did they even go close to resembling the side who lifted club football’s greatest prize last May. Ronaldinho struck a post in the 53rd minute with a flash of brilliance but only Barcelona’s yellow shirts shone brightly.
When the goal arrived, it was unexpected.
Even if the passing from Messi and Xavi was incisive, it was only because Pennant slipped and Arbeloa played him onside that Gudjohnsen was left with just Pepe Reina to beat.
What had seemed like a pleasant evening stroll suddenly became more stressful, but only for as long as it took Carragher and his colleagues to regain their composure.
No need to panic. Nothing to fear. Just Friday’s quarter-final draw in Athens to look forward to.
LIVERPOOL 0-1 BARCELONA
The Independent 07 March 2007
Another great Anfield night, another one of European football’s aristocrats ushered towards the exit door.
The defending champions were chased out the Champions League last night but in truth they only really breathed fire when Eidur Gudjohnsen’s goal gave them a flicker of hope and by then, you had to believe, it was all but over.
Liverpool join Chelsea in the quarter-finals but what was Rafael Benitez’s greatest achievement last night? That his team made the attacking behemoth of Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o Lionel Messi and Deco look distinctly average, a team of sublime creativity who could barely muster a shot between them. This team who have played Europe’s most seductive, thrilling football in recent years were tamed and restricted; a band of old masters who could remember the plot but none of the killer lines.
Mark it down alongside Anfield’s most famous European nights of recent memory, to go alongside the victories over Roma in 2002, Olympiakos in 2004 and Chelsea in 2005. This time there was only a fraction of the drama and none of the twists but when the whistle blew it stood as a comparable achievement. Benitez’s side had not just beaten the champions and thrown the competition wide open, but by the look of Barcelona at the end they may have brought the Rijkaard era to a close.
For so much of this match they made an extraordinary team look hopelessly ordinary and, as Rijkaard admitted, were unlucky not to have scored at least two in the first half. Jamie Carragher towered above that gilded front line of Messi, Eto’o and Ronaldinho and in midfield Deco was isolated and ineffectual for vast swathes of the game. Rijkaard’s formation was extravagantly experimental and this was not the night for innovation.
When Gudjohnsen went round Pepe Reina to slip in the game’s only goal on 75 minutes, Anfield remembered that Chelsea Champions League semi-final in 2005 and the anxiety levels rose. That night, the Icelandic striker had arrived at the back post with a few minutes left and lashed a volley into the Kop that could have won the game for Chelsea. But this was not a match that was ever really likely to slip from Liverpool’s grasp.
Understated as ever, Benitez said that the intention had been to score. “We worked hard to the end with confidence and always tried to score and ensure we would qualify,” he said. “We deserved to win, that’s the main thing.”
On a night when all that mattered was that Barcelona had been ousted, only Benitez could chide himself for the second home defeat in the space of four days. They almost did win in the closing stages when two of the substitutes combined, Jermaine Pennant’s cross from the right met by Peter Crouch who could not quite steer his shot from close range under the bar.
Gudjohnsen’s goal had raised the stakes but even then Liverpool did not look anything less than robust. “They were full of concentration, full of teamwork,” Rijkaard said, “it is their way and they do it quite well.”
That was not quite a compliment and neither was his description of how “difficult” Liverpool made it for Barcelona. “They were direct, they had depth and they make it difficult to get into dangerous positions around their box,” he said. Maybe managers feel obliged to make it complicated when they come to face Benitez at Anfield but there was no doubting Rijkaard over elaborated.
He chose an unreadable line-up, three in a back line that looked increasingly vulnerable to Steven Gerrard on the right side of Liverpool’s midfield. Deco got much less of the ball than he is accustomed to and in the first half Eto’o and Ronaldinho barely influenced the match – the Brazilian had his side’s first shot on 36 minutes. In that time, Liverpool came close to deciding the tie for good.
John Arne Riise thumped a shot against the bar on 11 minutes and Momo Sissoko lobbed another against the woodwork after Victor Valdes had scuffed a clearance to the midfielder on 33 minutes. Then Craig Bellamy on the right hit a shot that Valdes pushed out, he picked himself up to stop Dirk Kuyt burying the rebound and, when Riise launched himself at the loose ball, Carles Puyol cleared it off the line.
After the hour, Eto’o was taken off for Ludovic Giuly and even that notoriously moody striker could not justify a strop as he walked over the touchline. In Barcelona’s real hour of need he had been anonymous, unrecognisable from the player who was an integral part of last season’s side. His team had briefly flickered and any conviction they had, seemed to be draining out of them.
On 53 minutes, Barcelona went close for the first time, Deco picked the ball up just outside the area, as he had scarcely managed all night, and threaded the ball into Ronaldinho. He spun away from Carragher, breezed past Steve Finnan and curled a shot around Reina that clipped the post. It looked like there could have been a bobble off the turf as he struck it but such trivialities are hardly worthy excuses for a team like Barça.
When Gudjohnsen came on with less than 20 minutes remaining for Lilian Thuram, Barcelona had five strikers on the pitch, at some point it seemed they would either make the breakthrough or collapse altogether. And with 15 minutes left they finally made it work. Xavi’s pass through Liverpool was ideally weighted, and Gudjohnsen sprung the offside trap, dribbled round Reina and slipped the ball in.
That was as much as they managed. This was Benitez’s night and while the Premiership may be a lost cause, glory in the Champions’ League could be saving his season.
LIVERPOOL 0-1 BARCELONA
The Guardian 07 March 2007
It was a well-nigh perfect defeat. Liverpool’s single lapse let Eidur Gudjohnsen through to score and make nerves shriek all round Anfield for the closing quarter of an hour, but the Champions League winners of 2005 deservedly eliminated the holders.
For the most part, it was Rafael Benítez’s’s plan that was imprinted on each leg of this last-16 tie.
This manager must be as good at controlling brain patterns as he is at setting tactics. The side’s forthright attitude was exactly as he had dictated, no mean feat when there was such a danger of ambivalence on a night that opened with them already holding a 2-1 lead from Camp Nou. Rather than falling between two stools Liverpool hurled the furniture at the visitors, especially before the interval.
There is, of course, one reservation. A goal was tantalisingly close, but it had been, too, when Manchester United prevailed by the same margin on Saturday. A lack of firepower puts undue pressure on the side and unless the finishing is somehow sharpened the stress could be their undoing in the tournament.
All the same, there was not a lugubrious face anywhere in the battalion of fans. They will have glowed at the thought of the parallels with two years ago, when this competition was also the sole prize open to Liverpool. Tribute has to be paid to a side who saw out the last phase so well that they should have hit the net in stoppage time, when Peter Crouch put a volley over the bar after being found by his fellow substitute Jermaine Pennant.
While Benítez will be proud of his preparations, Frank Rijkaard invited further rebukes in this period of disintegration for Barcelona. The visitors’ formation was an incitement to mount a barrage. Their back three got insufficient aid from the midfield and could not cover the yawning width of the field. John Arne Riise revelled in the space on the left and went past a static Oleguer to hit the bar with a drive in the 11th minute.
The same piece of woodwork was shuddering again after 32 minutes when the goalkeeper Victor Valdés shanked a clearance to Mohamed Sissoko. The Malian, seeking the first goal of his Liverpool career, smashed it back first-time and failed by the narrowest of margins. The psychological barriers for visitors to Anfield are always steeplingly high, but Rijkaard had placed more obstacles in front of Barcelona.
While Jamie Carragher did make a few of his classic tackles on Deco, Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o there was no desperation and Pepe Reina had not been called upon for a save by half-time. Liverpool’s solitary regret at that juncture was the caution for Sissoko, following a foul on Deco, that means he is banned for the first leg of the quarter-final.
They had been in such command that progress to the last eight appeared a formality then. The inability to score could be treated as a minor quirk. With 26 minutes gone, Craig Bellamy’s hook shot was fended away by Valdés and the goalkeeper parried a follow-up from Dirk Kuyt before the subsequent header from Riise was cleared off the line by Puyol.
Beforehand Benítez had spoken so willingly about the troubles a tall forward like Crouch could cause Spanish sides that he seemed to be bluffing. So it proved and, with the Englishman initially on the bench, the mobility of Bellamy and Kuyt was perfect against a defensive trio who dreaded having holes torn in a threadbare system.
The fabled front three of Barcelona was an irrelevance when the remainder of the line-up could not set the necessary tempo. Liverpool did not capitalise fully on the disjointed air of the opposition and Bellamy’s reactions were dull when a Gerrard pass got through to him in the 48th minute.
It is the type of incident that causes qualms and a reprieved Barcelona became more settled. After 53 minutes, Ronaldinho wheeled across the Liverpool defence, got round Alvaro Arbeloa and fired against a post. Reina belatedly needed to deal with a shot when Messi was set up by Ronaldinho and Eto’o. The latter, whose lack of match fitness was exposed, soon departed.
Liverpool were so resolute that the breakthrough by Gudjohnsen, who rounded Reina after a Xavi pass, was bemusing. The lapse lay with Arbeloa, who had hung back to keep the Icelander onside. Gudjohnsen had missed narrowly when a goal here would have sent Chelsea to the 2005 Champions League final. He did strike yesterday, but still trooped off in sorrow. More teams may suffer despair at Anfield before the Champions League is over.
PLEASURE IN THE PAIN FOR BENITEZ
The Times 07 March 2007
The ears suffered and so did the nerves, but there was exquisite pleasure in the pain at Anfield last night as Liverpool rightly took their place in the Champions League quarter- finals.
Whatever the new stadium in Stanley Park boasts by way of plush facilities, it may never recapture the glorious intensity of occasions such as this.
Thrilling for even the oldest Anfield fans, it must have been unforgettable for the club’s two new American owners. This was an atmosphere that you do not find regularly at the Montreal Canadiens or the Texas Rangers, or many places in the sporting world for that matter. For the visitors from over the Pond, there was also the novelty of celebrating defeat.
Liverpool were beaten on the night, but they were not second best in any other criteria. Eidur Gudjohnsen’s 75th-minute goal for Barcelona ensured a thrillingly fraught climax, but if Rafael Benítez’s men had dropped off in the second half, it was only because they had run themselves into the ground in the first 45 minutes. And the late anxiety only heightened the joy at the final whistle as Liverpool not only celebrated their progression but also the fact that it came at the expense of the European champions.
Liverpool deserved their place in the last eight for the boldness with which they approached both legs and even those who can play better, such as Mohamed Sissoko, could not have given more.
And so yet another famous scalp was claimed by Benítez, who saves his best for these nights. Two English clubs in the last eight should become at least three this evening and Liverpool might even regard themselves as the strongest of the Barclays Premiership’s representatives given Benítez’s magic touch in continental competition. The Spaniard has tapped into Liverpool’s European tradition and fitful progress in the Premiership will be forgiven as long as he keeps serving up these mighty triumphs in the Champions League.
While the Kop was on spine-tingling form, a huge placard in the away team’s section declaiming Juan Laporta, the Barcelona president, told of splits and turmoil at the Nou Camp. There has been an edginess about the holders for months and, just as in the first leg, Benítez had wisely decided to drive at those cracks. In his eyes, this was a game for winning, not for clinging on, and his players might easily have secured victory.
They set about Barcelona with fierce intensity and a half-time tally of ten shots to one in their favour might have been measured in more precious currency with a goal. Up front, Dirk Kuyt and Craig Bellamy were chasing even lost causes and the only complaint – a familiar one which will have to be addressed in the summer – was the lack of a finishing touch. Peter Crouch underscored the need for a reliable goalscorer when he missed the chance to equalise after coming on as a late substitute.
At the back, the expectation was that Ronaldinho would quickly grow frustrated if tightly shackled. Sure enough, the Brazilian hit a post in the second half but was mostly a peripheral figure.
Jamie Carragher had been heroic in his defiance of Manchester United on Saturday and he was back throwing himself into tackles with reckless disregard for his safety. As Deco drew back a foot on the edge of the area, it was Carragher who seemingly made a head-first challenge. At one point he pinched the ball off the toes of Samuel Eto’o with nonchalant ease.
Frank Rijkaard, the Barcelona coach, had begun with Eto’o out wide in the Champions League final against Arsenal last May and it made no more sense then. He had also lined up with a notably unsteady back three.
Indeed, Liverpool had wonderful opportunities to kill the tie by half-time, twice striking the woodwork. A dipping volley from John Arne Riise rattled the bar early on and then, just after the half-hour mark, Sissoko thought that he had scored his first goal for the club when he seized upon a terrible miskicked clearance by Víctor Valdés, the Barcelona goalkeeper. The midfield player shot first-time from 40 yards towards an empty goal, only to see his shot bounce off the top of the bar.
In between, Bellamy, Kuyt and Riise had efforts repelled in quick succession. Rijkaard could argue that he needed to gamble, but this was high anxiety.
Liverpool had earned the slice of luck that befell them early in the second half when Ronaldinho, finally, escaped his markers and hit a post. That chance signalled an increased momentum by Barcelona, who took off Eto’o after an ineffective performance. And inevitably it coincided with a dropping in Liverpool’s levels of aggression as the first-half exertions took their toll.
Possession was being surrendered just a little too easily and the defence was ten yards too deep, but, still, it seemed that they had kept Barcelona at bay until Gudjohnsen struck. Jeered for his Chelsea past as he came on for Lilian Thuram, he was played onside by Álvaro Arbeloa and rounded José Manuel Reina before scoring. But the champions had been lacking in both legs and a bout of blood-letting will follow with the futures of Rijkaard, Eto’o and Ronaldinho in the mix.
“It was my first time to Anfield and everything I’d heard was true,” Hicks said. “It was a special night for all the fans, a wonderful occasion. I’d heard so much about the fans, but that was spectacular. I’ve seen a lot of sporting events all around the world, but nothing that comes close to that.”
“That was awesome. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen or felt.”
Barca Fall To A One-Man Team Of Carraghers
F365, Philip Cornwall
Duty called on Tuesday afternoon as I spent a few hours discussing the forthcoming launch of a video game. Though as it happens the event was in Liverpool and the company involved kindly laid on tickets to a football match taking place in the city in the evening. Which was nice.
Liverpool can get outsung at home in the Premiership, but the fans’ singing repertoire is impressive when they find their voice, and they usually do on European nights. One of the briefer, simpler refrains was the most apt at Anfield on a night when defeat amounted to victory.
“We all dream of a team of Carraghers” replaces the lyrics of Yellow Submarine’s chorus in a chant that would have been unthinkable in the tail end of last century and was called into question by others when it first became popular among Liverpool fans.
One of my favourite football stats comes from 1998-99, when David Ginola was named Footballer of the Year despite only decisively overtaking Carragher in the Spurs league goalscoring charts in May.
Carragher struck first with own goal in December’s game at White Hart Lane. Ginola went ahead after scoring on April 20 and 24, but Carragher was
having none of it and made it 2-2 in the return match at Anfield on May 1st.
Ginola was not to be denied and, with the advantage of playing 30 games to
Carragher’s two, won the contest 3-2. The Football Writers’ Association knew what to do and gave Ginola the gong.
As an England fan I had one of the early “what the hell is he doing?” moments under Kevin Keegan when the new boss capped Carragher at centre-half in his second game, away to Hungary.
Eight years on, Carragher is a defensive rock of astonishing proportions. No one is faultless and when caught out of position – cf Thierry Henry in the FA Cup – he can be made to look nothing special; he doesn’t have the pace. His passing, or rather the lack of it, have limited his international appearances. He needs to learn to wait for the whistle before he takes a penalty. But close to goal he is as good a defender as there is in the Premiership, with anticipation second to none.
Ronaldinho rarely escaped the shackles and Samuel Eto’o, isolated at times on the left, had little chance to justify the fears expressed here ahead of the game.
On a night when the lack of strikepower could have cost Liverpool dear, they secured a deserved victory in great measure because the anticipation of the No 23 kept Jose Reina all but a spectator.
Perhaps the keeper’s lack of action explains why he dallied so long on the rare occasions he got the ball… or else everyone wastes time when it suits them. There would also have been a booking for the Kop if the referee had been able to administer one.
But for all their possession across two legs Barcelona only turned that into supremacy for the 15-odd minutes after they took the lead in the home leg. Liverpool were fortunate to go in at 1-1 at the Nou Camp but were deserved winners across the next three halves.