Culture shock at wheel of Red rollercoaster

Champions' League: Foreign players' struggle to adjust to Premiership may explain Liverpool's hit-and-miss season
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The Independent Online

The season, five years ago, when Real Madrid finished only fifth in their domestic championship but more than compensated by winning the Champions' League was famous long before its joyous finale for what the crowd chanted during a humiliating 5-1 home defeat by Real Zaragoza: "We're going to burn your Ferraris!"

The season, five years ago, when Real Madrid finished only fifth in their domestic championship but more than compensated by winning the Champions' League was famous long before its joyous finale for what the crowd chanted during a humiliating 5-1 home defeat by Real Zaragoza: "We're going to burn your Ferraris!"

Yet if Liverpool supporters, experiencing a similar sort of season, have occasionally felt similar disgust in the past few months at performances like the abject defeats away to Crystal Palace, Manchester City, Birmingham and Southampton, there has not been so much as a scratch down the side of a 4x4 at the club's Melwood training ground.

Perhaps it is all a matter of expectation. Madrid were, and are, the biggest club in Spain, which is one reason there was so little outcry at the national federation's decision to nominate them for the following season's Champions' League at the expense - ironically - of Zaragoza, who were demoted to the Uefa Cup and lost in the first round.

Liverpool, who will have to rely on European football's hitherto unsympathetic governing body for a similar dispensation if the same situation arises, went into this season aware of entering a period of transition under a new coach. Rafael Benitez was expected only to revive the tradition of entertaining football, overhaul the playing staff and offer some hope for the future, rather than decking the halls with silverware.

The austere Spaniard has been as harsh on himself as his players in assessing the club's achievements to date, offering a typically succinct summary: "To win trophies in the future means playing to a high level in every game, not just in Europe. We can't think it's OK to come fifth just because we've reached the final."

That is the message he has been attempting to hammer home in the euphoric period between victory over Chelsea in the Champions' League semi-final last Tuesday and this afternoon's away game with Arsenal. For all last week's heroics, and even with the return today of Xabi Alonso and his less successful compatriot Fernando Morientes, it would be no great surprise if the team reverted to type with the sort of performance that for a while threatened to emulate their worst Premiership finish (1999's seventh place, with 14 defeats) in a decade.

So why the discrepancy between domestic and European form? Why 10 away defeats in the League, during which Liverpool have scored precisely once (an own goal by Manchester United's John O'Shea), while keeping clean sheets at Deportivo, Juventus and Chelsea?

The most obvious answer is that seven new foreign players, making 113 Premiership appearances between them in this first season, have suffered a huge culture shock after working in Spain or France. One of their number, Luis Garcia, admitted recently that he was taken aback by the pace of the game, its unremittingly physical nature, permissive refereeing and the direct approach of many sides. Multiply his bewilderment by seven, substitute four games in nine days for a Christmas break - Liverpool had their worst run of the season immediately after the "holiday" period - and the risk of allowing a foreign manager to sign so many players he knows rather than players who know English football is evident.

The deficiency has been most acute in attack. Milan Baros's six-month absence last season has meant that he is effectively another import still adjusting; Djibril Cissé was cursed with an even worse injury; Morientes has been particularly slow to adapt; and the upshot is that, to the amusement of apologists for the much-criticised Gérard Houllier, Liverpool will almost certainly finish the Premiership campaign with fewer than last season's 55 goals and no one approaching the departed Michael Owen's total of 16.

In Europe, however, fewer of Benitez's new signings have tended to play - for the second Chelsea game, Luis Garcia was the only one to start. The gifted Alonso has obviously been influential and all the imports, when called upon, have been able to enjoy the best of both worlds, playing at their more natural tempo against Continental opposition or adopting Premiership pace when it suited the team to launch an early blitz at home to Juventus and Chelsea, or a late one against Olympiakos and Leverkusen.

It is worth remembering as the final beckons that Liverpool were two minutes from elimination at home to the Greek side in their final group match back in December, before Steven Gerrard's stunning goal.

Those periods of attacking brio aside, success has largely been based around a defence guarded by two midfield screening players, in which Sami Hyypia, often looking slow in the Premiership, and Jamie Carragher have been outstanding. All credit to the manager for spotting early on that Carragher - "a quick player to play with Sami" - was best employed at centre-back, in place of the discarded Stéphane Henchoz. No Premiership team have put three goals past Liverpool this season, and the Champions' League record is excellent, with seven goals against in 14 games.

Gratitude too to Juventus and Chelsea for playing into this pair's hands - or rather on to their heads - with a diet of long balls they were probably cheering even as they headed them away. There was a classic moment in the first half at Anfield when Tiago, in an apparently promising central position 30 yards out, looked up and suddenly saw six red shirts clustered all around him; not surprisingly, he was hustled off the ball.

Official figures giving Chelsea only a laughable 53 per cent of possession in that second leg may have suggested there are lies, damned lies and Uefa statistics, but it was true that they managed only one shot on target in each match, as Jose Mourinho, the supposed sophisticate, ended up playing football his abhorred Bolton would have disdained - what you might call a hoof to Huth.

Last season, Didier Drogba had scored for Marseille in each leg of the Uefa Cup quarter-final, playing first against Henchoz and then Igor Biscan; none of that made him worth £24m, and Carragher proved a different proposition. So might the vote have done for the individual player-of-the-season awards, if they had taken place later in the season. As it was, Carragher finished an honourable third behind Frank Lampard and John Terry in the Footballer of the Year ballot announced on Friday.

He had praised Benitez's tactical nous in Turin, and did so again in a surprisingly sober appraisal after emerging from a delirious Anfield dressing room: "The manager probably deserves a lot more credit than anyone. I mean, we're not kidding ourselves that we're a great side. You see that in the Premiership.

"We've beaten the top clubs in the Champions' League, but the Premiership's where you're judged, and he has come out and said it's not acceptable what we've done, and that we need to do better next season. But you think of some of the great Arsenal sides who've won Leagues and Doubles but never got this far... you realise just how big an achievement it's been."

Best not to mention it at Highbury this afternoon, though - unless midweek form is at last beginning to look something like the weekend norm.

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