Luckily for Manchester City, the bloated Champions League format means that opening group games can hardly be regarded as critically important, never mind ‘must win’, but even if the competition couldn’t ever hope to hit the ground running the way the World Cup did in Russia, this week’s action did see some of football’s global superstars exhibiting varying degrees of luminosity — from dull to blinding — in their attempts to twist again like they did last summer.
While Paul Pogba rolled back the months in the service of Manchester United, Luka Modric and his Real Madrid team-mates showed there is indeed life after Ronaldo, something Juventus also found themselves obliged to demonstrate, albeit in rather more unexpected and controversial circumstances.
Meanwhile, Lionel Messi put his summertime blues behind him as only he can, his sumptuous hat-trick just the latest ringing rebuke from the world’s greatest player to all those recurring and still premature obituaries.
But no arena looked better suited to recreate the rush of Russia than Anfield, where Liverpool hosting PSG meant that Neymar, Mbappe, Cavani, Salah, Mane and — eventually and decisively — Firmino would all be on show.
But, on the night, you could credibly argue all the stars were eclipsed by a 32-year-old player who was already two years retired from international football when the first ball was being kicked in Moscow in June.
Step forward — and backwards and sideways and, indeed, every which way but loose — James Milner.
I first saw Milner in the flesh in Turner’s Cross in 2007 when he was playing for an England U21 side which beat Don Givens’ Ireland 3-0 in a European Championship qualifier.
West Ham’s Mark Noble scored two for the visitors that night but, to my eyes, Milner was the stand-out player in white, even if his own contribution to the scoreline was a shot which took a wicked deflection off Darren O’Dea to leave a certain Darren Randolph helpless in the Irish goal.
Milner was with Newcastle at the time, building on the reputation he’d established when, as a 16-year-old playing for Leeds United, he overtook Wayne Rooney to became the youngest player to score in the Premier League with a goal against Sunderland in 2002. (Three years later, James Vaughan, playing for Everton, would nick the record).
From Newcastle, Milner moved to Aston Villa and then onto Manchester City but, despite winning two titles with the club, he had by then become one of those footballers who seemed to be regarded more for his versatility than anything else, even designated by many a ‘utility player’, to use one of the game’s most damning forms of faint praise.
Still, there was nothing half-hearted about Manuel Pellegrini’s panegyric when expressing the hope in 2015 that the then out of contract 29-year-old would opt to stay with City.
“I am Milner’s number one fan — find me a more complete English player,” the manager said in a perceptive analysis.
“There are players who are better technically, yes. Quicker players, yes. Players who head better, yes. But show me one who does all the things Milner does well. There isn’t one.
“Milner is a phenomenon, a guy with big balls and a heart this big. Intelligent, great mentality, one of those players that when you leave him out you’re left with this feeling of injustice. It hurts because he should always play but sometimes you need a technical player with other characteristics.”
And there was the rub.
Understandably, Milner felt the injustice of being omitted, especially in the biggest games, rather more keenly than even his manager and so opted to move to Liverpool on a free transfer, a neat piece of recruitment by Brendan Rodgers which is now reaping huge dividends for Jurgen Klopp.
Against PSG in the Champions League on Tuesday night, Milner was outstanding throughout the 90 minutes, from that ‘welcome to Anfield’ tackle on Neymar to, in time added on, stopping Mbappe in his tracks to start the move which resulted in Liverpool’s winner.
And in between, he showed supreme confidence in slamming home the penalty which gave Liverpool a 2-0 lead before, in the way they tend to do things on Merseyside these days, the home side decided to make life a bit more interesting for the Kop until Firmino entered to ensure that, at the death in a hugely entertaining game, victory went to the side which really deserved it.
But the Brazilian would never have had the chance to supply the combination of trickery and potent finish which won the game 3-2 for Liverpool if, in the first place, Milner hadn’t still been both alert enough and properly positioned to take advantage of Mbappe’s attempt to play out from PSG’s own third of the pitch.
Milner was apparently a strong long-distance runner as a kid and that stamina, that ability to go the distance — both in game and career terms — is one of the main reasons why, when he could be entering the twilight of his career, he is now not just important to Klopp’s high octane Liverpool but pretty much indispensable.
There are bigger stars, bigger marquee names, and certainly more technically gifted footballers in the team — and in many other teams — but for young players coming into the game, Milner is a tremendous example of what can be achieved if you’re willing to put in the time and effort, year upon year, to ensure you can make the very most of your attributes as a footballer.
It’s been quite the journey for the erstwhile journeyman, and that it’s also taken a long enough time for the penny to drop for even experienced observers of the game was evident when Gary Lineker recently felt honour-bound to confess in public to having gotten Milner wrong.
“I once tweeted that I don’t know what James Milner was on the football pitch,” he said in, of course, another tweet. “I do these days and owe him an apology. He’s a terrific, versatile and intelligent footballer. My bad.”
“Thanks Gary, always appreciated your role on the football pitch…and your punditry is now terrific and intelligent.”
With a winking, smiling emoji thrown in for good measure.
A class act, this guy.
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