Confidence is everything for Liverpool
Reds take strength from past victories as they seek to storm Stamford Bridge
Tuesday 14 April 2009
Liverpool are 7-1 against to progress from tonight's Champions League quarter-final at Stamford Bridge. Shorter odds than they were at half-time in the 2005 final against Milan in Istanbul, but long enough in a two-horse race to underline the implausibility of their quest.
But the weight of expectation can be a ruinously heavy burden in sport, as the closing round of the Masters reminded us. Phil Mickelson tore up the outward nine on Sunday night when he was a long-shot. Come the turn, when he had moved from outsider to favourite, his muscles tightened, not much, but enough to have a negative impact on his game.
Similarly, Kenny Perry was a par-by-par automaton until, with two holes remaining, the green jacket was undeniably his to lose. Suddenly, even this 48-year-old's experience was not enough to keep his swing steady. Two bogeys followed and his shot at glory drifted away.
Football is a game of continuous movement, with few of the long pauses in which to question oneself as golfers endure, but it is still played in the head as well as with the feet. Former Chelsea striker Tony Cascarino once wrote eloquently of the voice in his head which would insist, as he advanced on the goalkeeper, "you're going to miss it".
Tomorrow, if Liverpool score first, there will be a little voice whispering in the heads of Chelsea's players. It will tell them, "we're going to blow it, they're going to do an Istanbul".
That same voice warmed up on Saturday when Bolton came back from 4-0 down to 4-3 at the Bridge. "It was," admitted defender Ricardo Carvalho, searching for a positive, "a wake-up call." He added: "It's good because we have to think about it, learn from those mistakes and prevent them happening again."
Exacerbating Chelsea's wariness is the knowledge of Liverpool's propensity to rescue seemingly lost causes, most notably in Istanbul but by no means there alone. "We have to be aware of that," admitted Carvalho.
"Istanbul is our inspiration," said Pepe Reina, Liverpool's goalkeeper. "We know the tie is difficult, but still we have hope, and we know if anyone can do it, it is Liverpool."
The Spaniard added: "We also have the game at Old Trafford as a big example. We won 4-1 and no one expected us to do it."
Rafael Benitez added: "We have proved we can score away against the top sides." The manager also threw into the mix that Liverpool earlier this season had ended Chelsea's long unbeaten home record, and might also draw inspiration from the week's Hillsborough memorials.
As for Istanbul, "We have some players here who were in Istanbul and know how to do it. I hope the others learn and we can talk afterwards about another fantastic night."
While the Reds dream, the Blues fear, Benitez hoped. "We have nothing to lose so they will be under pressure," he said. "The first goal is very important. For us it would make a massive difference and it would affect Chelsea psychologically."
Liverpool did score first at Anfield, through Fernando Torres whose form, said Reina, "gives me extra optimism". Then Chelsea came back to score three times; but it was Liverpool who carried the burden of expectation in the first game.
Now it is Chelsea. "I am confident," insisted Carvalho, "we can hold on to a lead." He is now, but self-doubt is the enemy of sporting achievement and if Liverpool do score first, the delicate balance between confidence and doubt will alter for both teams. Then it will be down to which group of players can hold their nerve.
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