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Saturday, May 7, 2005
Liverpool's run to Champions League final amazing
LONDON -- It is part of the attraction of what Pele called the beautiful game that there are some things even the best coaches cannot explain.
For example, how Liverpool, a team which has lost 10 away Premiership games can reach the Champions League final.
Liverpool has been defeated at, among others, Crystal Palace, Southampton and Birmingham while its only FA Cup tie of the season ended in defeat at Burnley.
Yet the same side, which was four minutes from going out of the Champions League -- until Steven Gerrard's goal saw off Olympiakos in the group stage -- will meet AC Milan in Istanbul on May 25 with Europe's most prestigious club trophy at stake.
Liverpool has been beaten by some of the worst teams in the Premiership, yet Chelsea, the best team in England, failed to score a single goal (and registered only two worthwhile shots) against the Reds in 180 minutes of Champions League football.
The same Chelsea which is 33 points ahead of Liverpool in the Premiership and had defeated it three times already this season.
Juventus, joint-top in Italy's Serie A, managed only one goal in two quarterfinal ties and that was gifted to it by Liverpool's rookie goalkeeper Scott Carson.
Rafael Benitez, the coach who somehow transforms Liverpool from Premiership paupers to European elites, has already assumed folk hero status on Merseyside.
But take away the Champions League and Liverpool has had the type of ordinary season that would have seen Benitez under pressure in the wake of some controversial wheelings and dealings in the transfer market, almost certainly failing to qualify for the Champions League by its league position.
Just about everywhere you look there are contradictions surrounding Liverpool which is as baffling as it can be brilliant.
Liverpool's strength is its sum total rather than the individual parts with some notable exceptions.
Steve Finnan and Jamie Carragher have been excellent in defense, Gerrard leads by example and Xabi Alonso has proved himself to be one of the best passers in the Premiership.
However, with the exception of Gerrard on a good day, not a single Liverpool player would get into the Milan side.
So why is Liverpool Jekyll in the Premiership and Hyde in the Champions League?
The suspicion is that some players, notably two or three of those from overseas, find it difficult to be as motivated for a trip to Selhurst Park to play Palace as the more exotic ports of call in Europe, not least after a Champions League tie.
In the 13 matches after a European game this season the Reds have won two, drawn four and lost seven, a statistic that leaves even Benitez scratching his head.
"I don't know why we are struggling after playing a Champions League game midweek, but we need to change things for the future," he said.
In Europe, Liverpool has displayed a conviction, resolve, commitment and determination not always apparent during league matches in its pursuit to reach the summit.
Tactically, Benitez has been at his best in the Champions League, prompting a suggestion that the Spaniard -- who led Valencia to the Spanish title and UEFA Cup success -- knows more about European football than he does the Premiership -- at the moment.
Most observers believe Liverpool will try to strangle the final with strait-jacket tactics hoping to score from a set-piece.
PSV showed in beating Milan 3-1 last Wednesday, but going out on the away-goals rule, that the Italian side can be vulnerable if a team is brave enough to go at it.
Benitez is not a gung-ho coach so expect a cat-and-mouse match in Turkey.
IT WAS HARDLY a vintage Chelsea performance at Liverpool last Tuesday but the visitors' after-match whine was predictable, the losers passing the buck better than they had passed the ball for most of the game.
Why did Liverpool win 1-0?
Because it was the better side?
Because Chelsea underperformed with Eidur Gudjohnsen missing a sitter with two minutes remaining?
No, the person who lost the game for the visitors was Roman Slysko who adjudged the shot by Luis Garcia to be over the line before William Gallas cleared the ball.
Chelsea, which had beaten Barcelona after referee Pierluigi Collina ignored his assistant apparently flagging for a foul by Ricardo Carvalho on goalkeeper Victor Valdes as John Terry scored the decisive late goal -- disregards such moments in defeat.
Jose Mourinho, ignoring missed opportunities by his own players, implied Slysko was affected by the atmosphere.
"It did not interfere with my players but maybe it interfered with other people," he said. "Only one person decided the future of players who never played in a Champions League final."
The inevitable call for the introduction of goal-line technology ignores one important fact -- the technology does not exist and therefore cannot be introduced.
There was no television camera at Anfield to prove conclusively whether all of the ball was over the goal-line.
Slysko was perfectly positioned by the corner flag to signal a goal had been scored, though few seem to give the Slovakian official the credit that his decision may be correct.
Sky Sports produced a computer graphic which "proved" Luis Garcia's goal should not have been allowed.
The technology that might illustrate whether the ball is over the line or not is still a long way from being perfected.
FIFA will be supervising the first official tests of such a system at the Under-17 World Championship in Peru in September.
Adidas, which together with the German company, Cairos AG and the German Fraunhofer Institute, has developed a system with a prototype of a ball with an embedded electronic chip.
The necessary stadium infrastructure is required for the system to work and if the experiment in Peru proves successful it will be used at another finals.
The introduction of the system in the World Cup, European Championship or Champions League is a long way off.
Those who say "we must have technology introduced" fail to back up their argument with reasonable logic.
"Fit the cameras in the goal-posts," they say -- but what happens when a player's body blocks the view?
It could be dangerous to have a small camera on the bye-line a few yards away from the goal -- a player could sustain a serious injury by falling on such equipment.
Then there is the cost factor.
Who will pay for it to be used at grounds and in which competitions?
Would UEFA underwrite the cost of around £100,000 for each of the 32 teams in the Champions League when some clubs would have only three home ties?
In domestic football, would the Premiership clubs be willing to pay for technology that most would not have to use?
There are, in reality, very few such controversies as we saw at Anfield.
Manchester United would have paid £100,000 to effectively have a goal awarded to Tottenham and lose two points.
The fact is that situations like the one at Liverpool are very few and far between and even if the technology were available, whether it would be cost-effective is another matter.
Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.