Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Debreceni Vasutas Sport Club V Liverpool FC Dr. Joel Rookwood
There was something vaguely recognisable about Ferihegy Airport as I left the terminal building yesterday morning en route to central Budapest. The last time we had visited the Hungarian capital was during a painfully long European trip, the type only the UEFA Cup can serve up. It was an era that predated the continent’s current accessible, extensive and affordable budget airline network, and we inextricably chose Budapest as a suitable city from which to embark upon an overland journey to Sofia for the UEFA Cup tie against Levski in 2003. We seemed to overlook the fact that an entire country lay in between Hungary and Bulgaria. It proved to be an adventure of bribing corrupt officials, crashing into trams, sleep deprivation, uninsured driving and eating horse burgers for tea, a journey which also involved driving the length of the country formerly known as Serbia and Montenegro. The flashback inspired by the familiar landscape of greater Budapest was a reminder of a journey that seemed to epitomise the UEFA Cup experience, as a collection of epic expeditions into the unknown.
Since those mediocre (albeit memorable) days when the UEFA Cup represented the sum total of our realistic European ambition, Liverpool have been spoiled with success. In a re-evaluation of contemporary club status, failure to reach the final of the Champions League has been re-conceptualised as just that, failure. And yet, as a consequence of an uncharacteristically poor start to this season’s continental campaign, demotion into Europe’s secondary competition looked likely, after results in the opening four games of the group stage of the European Cup had not gone Liverpool’s way. The harsh reality is that Benitez’s side have been victim of their own inadequacies in failing to finish in the top half of a group which on paper did not present a serious challenge to post-Christmas qualification. The re-establishment of Liverpool under Benitez as regular participants in the latter stages of Europe’s premier competition renders the slide into the farcical experiment that is the Europa League particularly notable.
Liverpool went into the crucial match in Hungary against definitive minnows Debrecen knowing that victory in match day five would be rendered largely meaningless, if group leaders Lyon succumbed to defeat away to second-place Fiorentina. Liverpool’s latest European adventure commenced according to plan, as the visitors immediately took control of the Pest contest. A fourth-minute goal from Parisian striker David Ngog was all the five-time European champions required in order to secure victory in the game. Despite having another twenty shots in the match, Liverpool failed to add to their lead. In truth however it was a professional and economic performance from a Liverpool team who were without the attacking prowess of Fernando Torres, with Yossi Benayoun and Alberto Aquilani only granted a late slice of the action. As for other attacking members of the squad, I heard unconfirmed reports that Ryan Babbel was busy giving an interview to another ‘news’ paper, whilst Andriy Voronin was out spending last week’s wages on a new plough.
On a freezing Hungarian night the stewards, who all resembled body doubles for Nikolay Valuev, and the police, who came complete with a full military armour (including gas masks), seemed better prepared for action than most of the players. Liverpool’s goal seemed to foster a collective acceptance that it was to be the only significant act of the contest, which subsequently became something of a non-event, both on the pitch and in the stands. The hushed atmosphere was dictated largely by the Debrecen supporters, who despite filling most of the ground seemed ill at ease with their surroundings. Being forced to play their Champions League games in the national stadium (231km west of the second city) is never conducive to a colourful atmosphere, as supporters of Arsenal and Galatasaray will testify. With a Liverpool win considered inevitable, all eyes and ears were focused on the events unfolding simultaneously in Florence. However, with Lyon’s failure to find an equalising goal, following the conversion of an ultimately decisive Juan Vargas penalty, it was the Italians who celebrated qualification for the knock-out stages of the competition, temporarily appropriating top spot from Lyon in the process. It must be noted that Lyon and Fiorentina deserve to be in the knock out stages of the competition, and we wish them well for their remaining round of the Champions League.
Meanwhile Liverpool have been consigned to the UEFA Cup and cocky claims from some unnamed journalists that a final appearance in Madrid would prove a likely end to the season proved unfounded. As the mist descended on the Hungarian Stadium, named after footballing legend Ferenc Puskas, I looked up in a quiet moment and noticed a banner which read: ‘Reds go Hungary, Blues go thirsty’. And with that I was reminded not only of the forthcoming visit to Goodison Park on Sunday, and the necessity of improving our league form and position starting with the inevitable victory over little Everton, but also that our continental plight has moved the reality of a first ever European trip across Stanley Park a step closer. Every cloud has a silver lining.
I fully expect to return to the Isle of media sensationalism later today to hear extensive national criticism of Liverpool’s manager. Yet whilst the response of popular consciousness might be informed relative to Liverpool’s impressive tradition and existing resources, importantly it is also a reflection of the recent form in European competition. For that Liverpool only really have one man to thank. In his six seasons as Liverpool manager, his team’s performances in the Champions League have been consistently positive, albeit inconsistent in the degree of achievement. The performance indicators span the spectrum of outcomes, from winning the competition, to getting knocked out in the final, semi-final, quarterfinal, super sixteen and group stages. The fact our least impressive performance is our most recent will no doubt contribute to the panicked reaction, but as is often the case with the British press, this will not be proportionate to the issue at hand, and will not be reflective of the local media analysis. Importantly, on Merseyside the collective belief remains that this sorry experience is the exception and not the rule. And with that, I’m off to purchase the latest Hamburg guidebook.