James Lawton: Where in the world would coming fourth be more important than winning? Here

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The Independent Football

If you really want to know the extent of dwindling football values in this country and the wider world, you maybe need to do no more than consider an unfolding judgement on how we should properly respond to extraordinary achievement.

If you really want to know the extent of dwindling football values in this country and the wider world, you maybe need to do no more than consider an unfolding judgement on how we should properly respond to extraordinary achievement.

It centres on the growing possibility that Liverpool, against all odds, win the Champions' League and are then stripped of the chance to defend the greatest prize in European club football.

On the international stage a version of this has already happened to Brazil. They have to join the Bolivias and the Paraguays in the scramble for qualification for the next World Cup.

The rights of conquest, and a unique place in the history of the game that was ultimately dramatically reconfirmed in the last, largely mediocre finals, have been wiped away. But by what? The stroke of a bureaucratic pen.

Yes, of course, the first part of the Liverpool proposition remains in that status of mere hope and speculation; Chelsea, though uninspired in the first-leg goalless draw of the semi-final at Stamford Bridge, must still be favourites to ride out the tumultuous emotions of Anfield on Tuesday night, though much narrower ones than before the epic resistance of Rafael Benitez's team. It is even more likely that Milan will in the final not look so ordinary as they did in beating PSV Eindhoven 2-0 in San Siro.

But we know nearly for certain now that if Liverpool do it, if they rise again superbly to the greatest challenge the game can offer on the continent of Europe, and put behind them the inconsistencies, and in some extreme cases, the outright inadequacies of their League campaign, they will be denied the right of every champion to go down defending the title.

Every word from the top of professional football in this country has this week stressed the modern heresy ... it is more important to finish fourth in the Premiership than climb to the pinnacle once occupied by such a sublime force as the Real Madrid of Puskas and Di Stefano, and, we shouldn't forget, Liverpool's superb Anfield ancestors, four times.

You could laugh at the sheer predictability of this conclusion, one trailered some years ago by Arsène Wenger, if it didn't so bombard the spirit of those who believe that exceptional performance warrants the most special consideration. The Arsenal manager declared that it was more important to finish fourth in the Premiership than win the FA Cup.

Here we have a gross mutation of that soulless announcement. It is now more vital, more worthy of reward, to finish fourth, to head off Bolton and Charlton and Aston Villa, than master the most powerful teams money can buy, teams organised and motivated by the greatest coaching talent. available.

This, though, is not to sneer at the achievements of Everton, who have been competitive, to a certain point at least, on a fraction of the resources of the three teams above them. Under David Moyes, Everton have been a marvellous testament to how much can be done with so little. Indeed, if it was to happen, and all the indications are that it won't, that the FA decided that Liverpool, on the strength of becoming only the second Premiership team to win the European Cup, should take the fourth place granted to English clubs, it would be impossible not to feel the sharpest sympathy for Moyes and his men.

But then tea and sympathy is one thing; recognition of what is right and logical is quite another. Logical is Benitez's word for his club's claim to priority consideration, and when you think about it, it is surely the right one.

It is logical in that it is consistent with the point of football. It is not, however worthy it may be in the context of your own situation, to finish fourth and 25 points or so behind the champions. It is to win, to be the best in the field, and if Liverpool were to add the scalps of Chelsea and Milan, or the Italian club's possible conquerors, PSV, to those of Bayer Leverkusen and Juventus, who could deny them such status?

We are not talking about the FA Cup or the League Cup, tournaments of convenience into which clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal, and even Bolton Wanderers, dip into according to their passing needs and priorities. No, the Champions' League is on a completely different and superior level. It offers the ultimate goal of a European Cup. Winning it last year, persuaded Jose Mourinho that he was the Special One. Sir Alex Ferguson was knighted almost on the first dawn after victory over Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp in Barcelona six years ago. The brilliant Wenger aches to get within touching distance of a prize that haunts his football soul.

Yes, it is indeed logical that the winner of such a trophy has the chance to defend it. It is natural sporting law. The argument that new rules have been made which have supplanted that old imperative does not stand up. Some things in sport are eternal, and chief among them is the dream and the glory of winning a great title. Liverpool's possibility is that they might win the greatest one open to a football club, and then be told that it would have been better to work for qualification next year than take the prize. It is an ultimate absurdity.

The word is that Uefa have dismissed out of hand the possibility of the FA successfully appealing for a fifth Champions' League place, and that the matter will be turned over to the Professional Game Board, the national body's administrative arm for the professional game. There, we hear that the priority is to protect the interests of the Premiership, and that apparently means that Everton, if they secure fourth place, must go forward into the great competition.

For Everton it will be a triumph for tenacity, for a sustained display of application and over-achievement, and in almost every circumstance no one could reasonably begrudge them their reward. Except maybe for the one that would exclude the champions of Europe. If in life we should honour our dead, in sport it is surely also true of our champions.

In boxing there is only one place for a champion to his lose his title. It is where he won it, in the ring. In football, it is out on the field. It is the true, classic - and logical - way of sport.

Gerrard's conversion a prayer answered for the Anfield faithful

Steven Gerrard might provoke the cynical to say that it has caused in the England player an almost instant re-assessment of the value of club loyalty.

In the wake of Liverpool's stirring defiance of the will of Chelsea this week, and the loss of his team-mate Xabi Alonso for the second leg because of a yellow card, Gerrard declared, "People can say what they want. They said that when I wasn't fit against Juventus we wouldn't get through, but Liverpool FC isn't about one person. We play as a team. Everyone feels for Xabi but Didi Hamann is close to coming back, so that gives us an option."

This is in stark but impressive contrast to many of Gerrard's statements this season. Most persistently, he declared that his continued presence depended on Liverpool's ability to prove that they could win major trophies. Whatever the reason, Gerrard's conversion to the team ethic will be welcomed by his coach Rafael Benitez. As an old priest once said, it doesn't really matter what it is that persuades you to renounce sin. The important thing is that you do. To which all of impassioned Anfield will now say Amen.