Steve Tongue: Dudek's future as wobbly as his legs

Game of their lives: But how many of the conquering heroes will be at Anfield next season?
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The mixed zone - or "Mick's zone" as the Japanese authorities called it when Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland team played a friendly there before the 2002 World Cup - is an area where journalists wait after matches on one side of a barrier for footballers who do not want to talk to them and will use more wiles than most display on the pitch to avoid doing so.

The mixed zone - or "Mick's zone" as the Japanese authorities called it when Mick McCarthy's Republic of Ireland team played a friendly there before the 2002 World Cup - is an area where journalists wait after matches on one side of a barrier for footballers who do not want to talk to them and will use more wiles than most display on the pitch to avoid doing so.

One favourite tactic is to emerge from the nearby dressing room with mobile clamped firmly to the ear; the game occasionally being given away when it rings in mid-"conversation". Another is to start munching a sandwich and gesture apologetically how rude it would be to stop for social intercourse with mouth full.

But in the bowels of the sporting folly that is Istanbul's Ataturk Stadium, long after Wednesday evening had become Thursday morning, ecstatic Liverpool players were suddenly every media man's best friends, their particular catharsis taking the form of a torrent of words to anyone who would listen.

The temptation was to wonder not so much how many of them would be stopping come the first setback next season, but how many would still be at the club. For this is not the Liverpool of Bill Shankly, who when asked for his line-up liked to declare: "Same team as last season."

Rafael Benitez knows he must improve his options for the next Premiership challenge and that in order to do so, some of the 37 players currently in possession of a squad number must have it taken away before August.

Might the man who was proudly sporting the No 1 on his back last Wednesday be among them? It seems so. Jerzy Dudek emerged as one of the night's heroes with his astonishing double-save from Andrei Shevchenko and then his distracting antics on the line (or in front of it) during the penalty shoot-out; yet even if not guilty for any of Milan's three goals, he also displayed some of the familiar handling lapses that tend to undermine the confidence of defenders and coaches, and are stored long in the memory-bank of managers as cerebral as Benitez.

The young goalkeeper Scott Carson has already been entrusted with a Champions' League tie against Juventus, and is this weekend in the United States with England, all at the age of 19; if and when Benitez signs one of his favourite Spanish keepers, Jose Reina, who has helped keep unfashionable Villarreal in the top three of La Liga most of the season, there would be no need to hold on to Dudek.

Naturally the Pole did not see it that way in Wednesday's mixed zone, adrenalin still coursing through his veins, when it was put to him that he had suffered a little criticism of his overall performance this season. "Not just a little! Everyone is talking about a new goalkeeper, but it doesn't matter to me. I never think about that. When I came here, everyone was talking about Chris Kirkland. I have to be confident all the time, or it is difficult to be focused. When I don't feel pressure, I can feel best in the world. I have enough experience to deal with this." The question, of course, is whether Benitez feels the same way.

And what of another hero, Dietmar Hamann, whose belated appearance for the second half enabled Liverpool to adopt the tactics they should have been employing from the start? At once, there was a genuine defensive holding man to clamp down on the brilliant Brazilian Kaka, such as is always required against a team employing a midfield diamond; consequently Steven Gerrard was released to take the game to Milan, which for a while he did in a single-handed manner reminiscent of David Beckham's finest hour for England against Greece four years ago.

Hamann is said to lack pace, but does Claude Makelele, his opposite number at Chelsea, possess it in abundance? Or, more relevantly, Owen Hargreaves, the replacement said to be lined up if Bolton Wanderers, Everton or anyone else can afford the German's wages?

In the meantime, he is taking an admirably pragmatic approach to his future: "I hope it's not my last game [for Liverpool], but that will be decided within the next few days or weeks. I'm just enjoying the moment. You don't get to play a Champions' League final every year, and the manager showed in recent weeks that he's not scared to play players who are out of contract at the end of the season. He brought Vladimir [Smicer] on with 20 minutes gone and he's not certain what he does next season. That's not been a problem. We've all been professional, that's what you've got to do. You get paid until 30 June and until then you've got to put your best foot forward."

The eastern Europeans Smicer and Igor Biscan knew there would be no new contract even before the latter played his part in the epic semi-final victory over Chelsea and the former scored two crucial goals - one of them his team's final penalty - last Wednesday. Smicer, who had his day as an underdog with the lightly regarded Czech Republic team at Euro '96, only to fall at the final hurdle, accepted his rejection graciously, and even took to the streets of Istanbul to share the joy of the club's magnificent travelling support. His compatriot, Milan Baros, has managed only one goal every four games in his two seasons with the club, and did nothing to justify his unexpected place in the final. His chances of a reprieve - with Valencia interested - may depend as much as anything on how successful Benitez is in pursuit of another striker this summer.

There would at least be a queue for him, which could not be said of Harry Kewell, whose selection must have convinced every Championship Manager addict in the land that even the best of the real professionals get it wrong occasionally - not only in playing Kewell to the exclusion of Hamann, but in bringing on Smicer as substitute when his groin gave out again. So there will be another summer of frustration for the Australian, who should have been trying to find some form and confidence for his country at next month's Confederations' Cup in Germany.

"It's been like that for the last six months, rehab, treatment and all that," he said. "But if you'd have told me six months ago I'd be playing in the final but pulled my groin, and still been a winner, I couldn't have believed you. Tonight has been the highlight of my career, and it's been the worst nightmare of my career. It's disappointing, but at the end of the day it's a team game and we won. It's one of the worst games I've experienced, and yet it's also been the perfect ending to the season."

As to the sort of replacements Benitez will seek for those shown the door, he would do well to avoid last summer's understandable mistake in surrounding himself with fellow countrymen who - with the glorious exception of Xabi Alonso - took far too long to adapt to the tempo and physical aspects of English football. Anyone coming in must also embrace wholeheartedly the British refusal not to accept they are beaten, typified on Wednesday by Gerrard, now destined to stay, and Jamie Carragher, who was so emotional amid the celebrations on the pitch that he briefly blacked out.

Irrepressible as ever, Carragher wins the award for best mixed-zone performances of the season and therefore deserves the last words about one amazing night in Istanbul: "When Jerzy made the save from Shevchenko I thought we'd win it. I thought 'these things happen for a reason'. There were probably 40,000 Liverpool fans in the stadium yet the exact place I ran to at the end was where all my mates and my family were stood. Unbelievable."