The Police presence that usually accompanies English teams in Italy was scaled down. Only Sting and his questionable cardigan found their way to the Artemio Franchi stadium in Florence to watch Liverpool’s latest Champions League assignment, presumably leaving the other two members of the band at home. Don’t Stand So Close To Me? The Reds could have done with ignoring that advice and paying a bit more attention to Stevan Jovetic.
The nineteen-year-old Montenegrin forward chose the occasion of his full Champions League debut to display his obvious talents, on a night when nothing seemed to go right for Liverpool. Despite the six straight victories, there was always a belief that this clash with a confident Fiorentina was going to be the Reds’ sternest test in the last month, and entering into it without the tenacious and tireless Javier Mascherano – a man who lives for these types of matches – put Liverpool at a serious disadvantage. Pairing Brazilians Lucas and Fabio Aurelio together in the centre of midfield was a bold choice, especially as it was only the latter’s second start of the season – the only other coming in the Carling Cup win at Leeds – and perhaps Rafael Benitez would have been wiser to persevere with Steven Gerrard in the engine room, or even drafting in one of the young duo of Jay Spearing and Damien Plessis.
Seasoned Champions League watchers will know that you can afford to lose a game in the group stages. The Reds have lost at least one in four of the last six seasons. They picked up just one point from their first three matches in 2007/08 and ended up in the semi-finals. In 2004/05 they lost twice in the group and won the competition. The performance and defeat in Florence isn’t the end of the world then, but still angered Benitez to the point of claiming that this was the worst he’s seen his side play in Europe. “That was the most annoyed we’ve seen the manager,” said Aurelio. Much to ponder on the pitch then, and so it seems off it as well.
Prince Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdullah al-Saud wasn’t a name that tripped off the tongues of Liverpool supporters, or anyone for that matter, but his Highness’ appearance alongside George Gillett in the directors box for the 6-1 win over Hull set those same tongues wagging. Rumours that the Saudi prince is ready to bid up to £350m for Gillett’s 50% stake in the club have since gathered credence, with the Prince’s spokesman confirming his interest. Fans have been here before, and while the vocal minority amongst them will be happy that this could be the first tangible evidence of their wish for someone, anyone, to come in and save them from their American overlords, most supporters just want the club to run smoothly, with less off-field dramas than in the previous two and a half years. If the Prince is serious about owning a stake in the club then he should be welcomed – but with caution. The last thing that anyone wants is another season like 2007/08 where the action in the boardroom takes up more column inches than what’s happening on the pitch.
Thankfully the on-pitch action comes back to the forefront at the weekend, as Liverpool face Chelsea for just the 25th time in the last five years. Football’s odd couple will walk out at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon ready to draw battle lines again, in the latest installment of the English game’s newest bitter rivalry. Just as the country was growing tired of the petulant, pizza-throwing antics of Manchester United versus Arsenal, Benitez and Jose Mourinho arrived and gave everyone a new contest. The matches haven’t always provided the most scintillating football, with the high-stakes nature of many of them often causing the teams to cancel each other out, but the fact that both represent polar opposites in football – or at least think they do – coupled with the sheer frequency with which they meet, has set up a complex fan rivalry based on jealousy and mutual dislike. Liverpool followers see Chelsea as a ‘new money’ club, one without a heritage in the game and only capable of buying their way to success, while secretly wishing that their club could get its hands on Roman Abramovich’s millions. Chelsea supporters view the Reds as being stuck in the past and living off former glories, but at the same time wishing that their name carried the same prestige in world football, and desperate to get at least one European cup in the trophy room, let alone five.
The Red and Blue corners are prepared then, and provided that Liverpool respond to the Stinging attack that their manager gave them in Florence then they should come out fighting. After all they can’t stand losing to Chelsea.
Liverpool Club Focus
The People of Thailand & Singapore vs. Xabi Alonso – July 29
Should nobody expect a Spanish acquisition? – August 5
High hopes – August 12
False start – August 18
Plenty of bets, but no slip – August 21
Three games, two defeats and one big problem – August 25
It gets no easier – August 27
Smells like team spirit – September 1
Babel crows for return to homeland – September 4
Into the Twilight Zone – September 8
Settling the score – September 11
Benayoun defies hs critics – September 15
Probably not the best performance in the world – September 18
Darren Potter and the Cup of Youthful Dreams – September 21
David Ngog, following the leader – September 25
Florence, and the goal machine – September 29
Sting, Prince, and playing the Blues – October 2