The Champions' League was designed for nights like these. Across Europe from the Mersey to the Bosphorus and in Rome and Barcelona, they will wait anxiously for the set of results that will mean either elimination of qualification for the quarter-finals of the European Cup.
At least Liverpool's task is uncomplicated. Only victory against Roma at Anfield will see them through and should they beat the Italian champions and Serie A leaders by two clear goals – something they have managed just once in this season's Champions' League – the result from the Ali Sami Yen stadium, where Barcelona play Galatasaray, becomes an irrelevance.
While the passion from the stands can be guaranteed, Gérard Houllier will not be at Anfield tonight and the club's other totem, Michael Owen, may not have recovered from a hamstring injury, sustained against Newcastle a fortnight ago. "It is touch and go," said Liverpool's assistant manager, Phil Thompson, of the striker whose goals overcame Roma in the Olympic stadium last season. "He will either be fit or not and, because of Michael's previous history with injury, you don't want to be gambling with him."
It had been suggested that Houllier would appear on the pitch before the game to fire up the crowd, just as Bill Shankly had paraded the FA Cup around Anfield in 1965, whipping the Kop into such a frenzy that Internazionale, unnerved, were beaten 3-1 in the European Cup semi-final. Thompson rejected the idea, saying the Liverpool manager, who will address his team on the day of the match, would be wrong to return until fully ready. Given the nature of Houllier's operation, it was perhaps unwise of the official Uefa press release to state that "an evening of high blood-pressure is guaranteed."
Liverpool are further weakened by the loss of Dietmar Hamann, described by his midfield colleague, Steven Gerrard, as the club's most influential performer this season but neither they nor their supporters will lack for belief. Thompson talked of recreating an atmosphere akin to that of 1977 when St-Etienne were overwhelmed against the odds in another emotional European Cup semi-final.
"This is the biggest game of the season," he said. "Because of what's at stake the evening will be very tense. But the fact that qualification from an extremely difficult group is now in our own hands is a testimony to the character of the players. If they want it badly enough and the fans want it badly enough, there is only one winner."
Fabio Capello, the Roma coach, may have something to say about that. Having crushed Lazio so badly in the Rome derby that the losers were imprisoned by their own supporters in their training-ground, Roma do not lack for belief, although were Capello to receive confirmation that Owen would definitely not play he would have rested easier last night.
Nevertheless, away from the despised domestic cup competitions, Roma have not tasted defeat since September. "We are a more mature side than last year [when they were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by Liverpool]," said Capello. "Since then we have won the scudetto and our players have grown in confidence but I think you can say the same for Liverpool because they have won so many trophies. However, we have come to this stadium to win not to force a draw."
Thompson would concur with that analysis, believing Roma would be "daft" to plan for a goalless stalemate. Given their history, it is perhaps inevitable Liverpool minds should wander back to the past but Gerrard was a four-year-old when they overcame Roma to lift the European Cup in 1984, and his attitude is forward-looking and fresh. "If we come through a group like this, we would be very confident about going all the way. Over two legs, home and away, we are confident we can beat anyone."
Liverpool (probable): Dudek, Carragher, Henchoz, Hyypia, Abel Xavier, Murphy, Gerrard, Smicer, Heskey, Owen or Litmanen.
Roma (probable): Antonioli, Panucci, Samuel, Aldair, Fuser, Tommasi, Marcos Assuncão, Candela, Totti, Montella, Delvecchio.
Referee: R Pedersen (Norway).Reuse content