Two managers scurried away from Anfield last week, bearing very different messages from Liverpool's ultimately comprehensive defeat by Barcelona. Peter Reid might have been watching a game of Quidditch, for all the relevance the Champions' League encounter had to the visit of his Sunderland side to Anfield this afternoon. You can imagine Reid driving back over the Pennines wondering whether Gavin McCann could play the Rivaldo role and big Niall Quinn morph into Patrick Kluivert's withdrawn striker. No, better just to belt it and push on for the knockdowns. Why change the habit of a lifetime?
Sven Goran Eriksson's perception of the evening might have been rather different. On the plus side came further evidence, if any were needed, of Michael Owen's ability to unlock the most experienced of continental defences and, if he was being particularly pragmatic, the thought that Liverpool's exit from the Champions' League would not necessarily be the worst outcome for England's prospects in the World Cup, given the inevitable fixture congestion at the end of the season. On the minus side, another ineffective performance by Steven Gerrard, replacing Didi Hamann in the holding midfield role, and the sight of a significant core of his World Cup team being handed a masterclass in passing and movement by Barça, who, at the start of the second phase, were hardly being touted as potential champions.
Phil Thompson, the caretaker coach, admitted that "they", meaning continental players, do keep the ball better than English players, a matter of culture as much as coaching. "We had to work exceptionally hard to get it back," he added. "It hurts me a great deal to lose to Barcelona. But people have to remember that for 80 minutes we were as good if not better than them."
Yet what will concern Thompson and Gérard Houllier, as he recovers his strength, is the meek acceptance of the sweeping, passing, movements which so mesmerised the tiring Liverpool players – and their fans – late on Tuesday evening. No Liverpool player was booked, an admirable statistic, yet indicative of their strangely passive resistance.
"We tried," said Carles "Charly" Rexach, the shrewd Barcelona coach, "to keep the ball moving quickly at all costs. That is the only way to play against a team like Liverpool who press you all the time. We played with a lot of depth, were patient in our build-up and circulated the ball well. We are very difficult to play against when we do that and, for the last 20 minutes, we did it almost perfectly."
It would be unwise to rush to far-reaching conclusions about the manner of Liverpool's defeat. The narrative of the game fell right for Rexach's men, both in the timing of the equaliser late in the first half when Barcelona were deservedly a goal behind and in the hamstring injury which forced Luis Enrique to give way to the more incisive Marc Overmars after 17 minutes. The Dutchman was the catalyst for Barcelona's revival, consistently exploiting the space between Jamie Carragher and company. It was Overmars who fed Rivaldo for Kluivert's critical equaliser and Overmars who rounded off a 29-pass move for the third goal when both camera and linesman had already been hypnotised. By then, a goal to the good, Barcelona were able to indulge themselves, with Rivaldo the fulcrum of some intricate passing patterns.
Eriksson will not be the only one concerned about Gerrard's loss of spark. Gerrard's elevation to a status alongside Duncan Edwards in the aftermath of the rout of Germany was always liable to be premature. But few would have calculated the speed with which that comparison has been undermined. He looked a forlorn figure in midweek, asked to play in a position which did not engage his attacking instinct and repeatedly giving the ball away in the centre of the field. There were none of the long, raking passes which so unsettle defenders, not one meaningful shot on Barcelona's goal nor a trademark gallop into the heart of the opposing defence. His one significant contribution to the cause was the tackle and pass to Vladimir Smicer which prefaced Owen's opening goal. Eriksson can cross Gerrard off the short-list for the job of defensive midfielder. Unlike the nutmeg, it is simply not part of his repertoire at the moment.
There was something mildly humbling about Gerrard's assessment of the night. "The biggest thing I learnt was how to keep the ball," he said. "They passed it better than us and kept possession better than us. We've now got to win the remainder of our home games and get a draw or two away." The trip to Rome in 10 days, venue for one of Liverpool's most impressive results last season, now takes on extra significance. Another defeat will realistically seal Liverpool's fate; a draw or a repeat of last season's 2-0 victory will give them a foothold before the third round of matches in February, by which time Houllier should have returned.
Whether any wider implication about the state of the domestic game should be drawn from the continued dominance of Spanish teams in the Champions' League is another matter. Gerrard's vow that, one day, Liverpool would reach the same level as Barcelona was a peculiar admission of inferiority from the reigning Uefa Cup champions, who went into Tuesday's match as leaders of the Premier League and on the back of a handsome victory over Manchester United.
The gap in education for a club with the pedigree of Liverpool is a worrying reflection of English clubs' inability to cope with the varying demands of domestic and European football. Until Tuesday, Liverpool had shown every sign of being the most tactically compact of the trio of English clubs in the Champions' League and it might yet be proved that their counter-attacking style, so despised by Barcelona, is best suited to playing away from Anfield. But there is a nagging feeling that the rules of engagement in Europe, the officious refereeing and the accent on retaining the ball, are increasingly at odds with the pinball wizardry of the Premier League.
Any similarity between Barcelona's elegant passing and the defensive mayhem of the 4-4 draw between Charlton and West Ham with which the week began was purely coincidental. It was barely the same game. While Rexach, a disciple of Johan Cruyff's beautiful game, was able to contemplate the artistic content of his side's performance, Liverpool were already preparing for the more prosaic demands of a visit by Sunderland. If Sunderland hold on to the ball for longer than 10 seconds this afternoon, Peter Reid will want to set up a court of inquiry.Reuse content