Liverpool have to take heart from Leeds' example

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Before Anfield's 16-year absence from the European Cup itinerary ended in September, Gérard Houllier looked to Leeds United's advance on the semi-finals last spring to show his own Champions' League novices what was possible. After Liverpool began the second phase with a 3-1 home defeat by Barcelona, the precedent set by David O'Leary's side becomes increasingly pertinent.

The parallels between the respective campaigns are instructive. Just as Leeds endured a torrid introduction to the tournament, losing in Barcelona, so Liverpool opened falteringly with a home draw against unfancied Boavista. Then, much as the Yorkshire team were unbeaten thereafter in the first phase, Liverpool emerged as undefeated group winners.

Leeds also launched the second phase by losing at home to Spanish opposition, namely Real Madrid, the two-goal margin and chastening manner of the reverse finding an echo in Barça's success on Tuesday. But O'Leary, a friend of Houllier's and the manager in the visitors' dug-out the day he was stricken by heart trouble, could encourage the Frenchman's understudy, Phil Thompson, by reminding him of what happened next.

In Rome's Olympic stadium, Leeds secured a 1-0 victory over Lazio on 5 December, exactly 12 months before Liverpool face Roma there. That triumph, plus back-to-back wins over Anderlecht, propelled Leeds into the last eight. Liverpool have their own, more recent example to draw on, of course, having won 2-0 at Roma in the Uefa Cup. The incentive for repeating the feat is a February double-header with Galatasaray, a formidable team yet one from whom Houllier, who aims to be back in the front line by then, must look to pick up points.

While Leeds somehow finished above Barcelona, the Catalan club look a stronger all-round outfit now. Their improvement, even in the six months since Liverpool beat them 1-0 to reach the Uefa Cup final, has been conspicuous. A side top-heavy with attacking players under Llorenc Serra Ferrer have a better balance since Carles Rexach invested in greater defensive solidity by signing Philippe Christanval, Patrik Andersson and the goalkeeper, Roberto Oscar Bonano.

The introduction of a four-man rearguard plus two covering midfielders may seem indicative of a negative strategy. In fact, it provides a secure platform for Rivaldo and co to express themselves. The Brazilian's composure and distribution under pressure ought to be compulsory video viewing for Steven Gerrard, who gave the ball away too often.

There is a new, pragmatic streak in Barça, perhaps stemming from Rexach, a former playing stalwart and assistant coach to Johan Cruyff, who has always lived in the square mile around the Nou Camp. Whether it will help them win the Champions' League remains to be seen; Real Madrid, for one, still look to have more big-game players. However, the way they have gone about their business in this season's competition (six wins, one defeat) suggests a recognition that a solitary European Cup is a poor return for a club of their size.

As for Liverpool, who ended up being outclassed and chasing the game in a fashion ill-suited to their counter-attacking style, they should not be downhearted. There were periods when their "British" tempo and Michael Owen's searing pace ruffled even Rivaldo's cool. But they suffered a lack of width going forward, a failing highlighted by Marc Overmars' menacing cameo on the left, and they missed the suspended Dietmar Hamann's ability to break up attacks.

They also had no luck, two of Barcelona's goals coming from offside positions. But as the impressively magnanimous Thompson noted, there are still 15 points to play for, and Liverpool, like Leeds before them, have reason to remember that hope springs eternal in Rome.