With no headache to nurse after celebrations proved unnecessary, I’ve had a less impeded chance to consider the action in Athens last night and the task that awaits Rafa Benitez in the summer.
The final was in actual fact a relatively low key affair, the frantic pace of the first 35 minutes not withstanding.
Benitez tactical decisions were certainly spot on. He started with two wingers, but selected Steven Gerrard to play in the hole. This allowed Liverpool to exploit Milan’s lack of width but enabled the midfield to be compact enough to prevent the Italians outnumbering them, as had happened to Manchester United in the semi-final 2nd leg.
These tactics worked. Gerrard was a constant threat with his surging runs from deep, Mescherano was able to sit in front of the back four and restrict Kaka to a few moments of brilliance and Xabi Alonso found his range of passing relatively early on. Similarly the predicted space for Pennant and Zenden was apparent. And it is the limitations of these pair that caused the Champions’ League bid to falter.
Benitez was tactically correct, but he simply didn’t have enough quality in these positions. Zenden is industrious and positionally aware, but he is slowing badly and his first touch can let him down. Pennant is youthful and quick, but his delivery is frequently poor, he isn’t aware enough to track back when threats present themselves down his flank, and he doesn’t always have the ability to beat capable defenders. Given two high quality wingers, I believe Liverpool would have won the game comfortably.
After an impressive opening period, punctuated by the great positions being squandered by Jermaine Pennant, Liverpool were hit by a sucker punch, in the form of a deflected Pirlo shot “converted” by Inzaghi on the stroke of half-time. There was a grim inevitability to the goal. I said that it would undoubtedly hit the net, and sickeningly I was proved correct. At that point I simply knew that the European Cup wouldn’t be coming home this year.
That goal dictated the rest of the game. Liverpool were forced to chase a lead and this eventually led to Mescherano being sacrificed for the introduction of Peter Crouch. Four minutes later, Kaka, freed from the shackles of his Argentinian rival, was allowed enough freedom to thread a through ball to Inzaghi who finished clinically. Despite a late Liverpool rally, and a goal from the industrious Kuyt, Liverpool’s fate was sealed.
Liverpool might easily have won the game, given some fortune. Certainly Milan did not look the superior outfit. But realistically the match reaffirmed what Rafa knew about his squad and about the task which awaits him this summer. In a number of key positions his players are simply not good enough. And to mount a serious league title challenge there must also be strength in depth. This depth is not yet present in the current squad.
Crucially a top class winger, perhaps two wingers are needed. The wide berths have hamstrung Liverpool for years and every apparent solution has ended up in disappointment. Neither Kewell nor Pennant has any future at the club in my opinion. Both have talent, but neither possesses enough application and Pennant has obvious frailties in his game, which he doesn’t seem inclined to labour to overcome. Simao, Alves and Shaun Wright Phillips are all names that spring to mind should Rafa decide to spend to solve this problem.
Likewise the current crop of strikers are neither prolific enough, nor sufficiently talented to take the club where it needs to go. Fowler will leave in the summer and Bellamy has neither the temperament nor the ability to remain at Liverpool. Rafa has moved to sign a journeyman Ukrainian, Voronin, whom it is difficult to see impacting the Premiership greatly. Kuyt and Crouch have roles to play and should be utilised as part of a freshened squad. Neither are the free-scoring, pacy, world class forward required of a championship winning side. Benitez is likely to look to Spain for these qualities and certainly David Villa or Fernando Torres could fit the bill.
Personally I would like to see the squad bolstered in other areas as well. Centre back springs to mind. Can Sami Hyppia provide adequate cover should Jamie Carragher or Daniel Agger suffer injuries next season?
Losing a Champions’ League final is a crushing blow, but it clarifies to the manager exactly how much work remains to be done. Another win may have contributed to the delusion that the current squad are the finished article – after all Champions of Europe two out of three seasons would be about as much achievement as some of the greatest ever sides have mustered.
Liverpool did remarkably well to reach this stage, so soon after being champions in 2005. Benitez is an extraordinary tactician and it is in Europe where his abilities become most apparent. But the current squad at Anfield still retains weaknesses and contains mediocrity and Rafa must put the American dollars to considerable use in the close season if we are to mount a challenge for the title next year.