Belfast Telegraph

Round one to Liverpool in the battle of the continental giants

By Ian Herbert

The Uefa Cup was the trophy Liverpool cared for in the days before Bob Paisley turned them into a side of European sophisticates with that penchant for bigger, far heavier silverware which Joe Fagan and Rafael Benitez perpetuated.

It's why there seemed to be something forced in the club's laudable efforts to amplify the significance of what the distinctive match programme cover proclaimed, in the style of a boxing bout billboard, to be "this evening's main event", pitting the local side "weighing in with 11 European trophies" at "their mythical home" against their "fierce rivals and fellow giants on the European stage".

Though the artifice worked in a way that United's ill-conceived plans to create a "wall of white" - by dishing out away shirts - did not, these clubs just had not anticipated their first European tie being played out on a Thursday night. Jurgen Klopp said in his programme notes that "we have all had moments in our lives and careers where things are not as you would want them to be" and the irony seemed to run through those words, too.

On the evidence of the first leg, though, one of the two teams divined that a result, an occasion, a sense of football romance, the uncomplicated thrill of victory, matters infinitely more than the name printed on the tournament livery and carved into the trophy. It's 15 years since the Uefa Cup was part of a treble which broke a 17-year wait for silverware for Liverpool and perhaps that went some way to explaining why the match carried a significance for them. Why the agonies of the nerve-shredded souls in the Main Stand were even greater than usual.

The older ones in that number knew that Bill Shankly, the creator of so much of the joy that has flowed at Anfield, would not have viewed the Europa League as an embarrassing reflection of straitened times - and nor, too, his players. John Toshack played holy hell with Shankly for not naming him in his team for the fog-abandoned Uefa Cup final first leg against Borussia Monchengladbach in 1973. Toshack was selected for the re-arranged game and playing a big part in winning it. Toshack, with a deteriorating knee condition, knew all about the struggles for fitness we have seen in Daniel Sturridge, and the frustrations of being asked to play through them, and there was something of his spirit in what we saw from the 26-year-old as Liverpool's night burst into life, midway through the first half.

Perhaps the sense of victimhood he feels about the way his commitment has been questioned will serve Liverpool well. He seemed to have something to prove in his 63 minutes of football. There were signs of the threat Liverpool have been waiting to rediscover in him - not least his shimmy across the right side of the penalty area to deliver a precision cross that Philippe Coutinho would have netted had he let it flow naturally on to his left foot rather than strike with his right.

That would have doubled the lead Sturridge had driven Liverpool into, with his pinpoint penalty-kick.

It's not a vintage Liverpool, of course. It may be 18 months before we begin to see the Liverpool Klopp imagines. But Europe - even in this shape and size - seemed to be a matter of life and death.

Though this is the competition that Sir Alex Ferguson once described as "a penalty", United's need to win it is arguably the greater. The near three-year wait for silverware is as nothing compared with what Liverpool have suffered, yet the oxygen that some kind of glory would send through Old Trafford's stifled corridors is incalculable. Louis van Gaal's team reflected his grey demeanour: shapeless, lifeless, occasionally witless in defence. The worry for Liverpool was that the superiority had not really paid out until Michael Carrick's timid clearance handed Firmino the chance to double the lead, which so he gratefully accepted.

There are echoes in the 2-0 scoreline of Liverpool's all-English European Cup tie with Nottingham Forest in 1979, when Paisley's side conceded a second goal at the City Ground that proved so decisive. And at the end United's supporters seemed to know it.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph