If Liverpool hadn’t come back from the dead to perform ‘The Miracle Of Istanbul’ in 2005, a lot of my friends or perhaps, more accurately, former friends, would have been mercifully spared my patented ‘Did you know I was there?’ juggernaut riff, a sort of journalistic equivalent of ‘Smoke On The Water’. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times. And, trust me, you’ll hear it again. (Still, it could be worse for the hearers – imagine if I lived in Milan).
But if the Italian side hadn’t surrendered their three-nil half-time lead in scarcely believable circumstances that night, well, no matter, like any good pro I’d simply have altered my personal greatest hits set-list to give prominence instead to the semi-final of one month before, when Liverpool knocked Chelsea out of the competition through Luis Garcia’s ‘phantom goal’ in Anfield.
Yep, I was there that night too, and even more than the controversial drama on the pitch, what lives longest in the memory is how ferociously intense the atmosphere was, beginning with a pre-match rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ which was sung with such an almost desperate passion, that it felt more like a seismic event than a ritual anthem.
Not being a regular on Merseyside, I checked with some veterans in the press box to see if this was in any way a departure from the norm: to a man and a woman, they confirmed that what I was experiencing was indeed something out of the ordinary, even for a club with such a storied history of big European nights.
And the players felt it too. Years later, Garcia himself would say of the white-hot atmosphere: “It was incredible. They had a machine to measure how loud the Kop was that night and I think when the goal went in it was one of the highest decibel readings ever in sport”.
If there was any doubt that the modern rivalry between Liverpool and Chelsea had developed into one of the most bitterly contested in English football, it was blasted into submission that night as the two sets of supporters traded choral insults to the tune of ‘Lord Of The Dance’, the Kop accusing their nouveau riche London visitors of lacking history and the Chelsea support retorting that the Scousers were living in the past. (All this with added vernacular venom, of course).
Ten years on, attitudes on both sides have hardly softened, meaning that any collision between these two clubs is hugely compelling and potentially combustible even when, ostensibly, there might appear to be little more than bragging rights at stake.
Take today’s latest instalment at Stamford Bridge. Strip it back to its basics and what have we got but a game between the team in ninth and the team placed 15th in the Premier League — on the face of it, hardly the stuff of a ‘Super Saturday’, even by Sky’s hysterical standards. Yet, rarely has a mid-table fixture felt like such a high-stakes affair.
For Liverpool, it’s a chance for Jurgen Klopp to finally kick-start his Anfield reign after an underwhelming introduction. The man might have a winning personality but, but one victory in the League Cup against Bournemouth, is not the winning record the faithful were anticipating when he bounced in to take over from Brendan Rodgers.
Leave Stamford Bridge with three points today, however, and Kop and Klopp will be taking their relationship to a whole new level.
And then there’s the gaffer in the home dugout...
Never mind the ghost goal, right now Jose Mourinho looks like the ghost of the man who, notwithstanding that infamous Champions League exit 10 years ago, was then on the cusp of greatness at Stamford Bridge, having lifted his first piece of silverware at the club — the 2005 League Cup, against Liverpool — a few months before.
Since then, and not just in West London, he has become the manager with the Midas touch, the serial winner, almost the first name you instinctively reach for when requiring a handy byword for guaranteed success. Like the way John Hartson assured a few of us earlier this year that Wales would beat Ireland all day long.
“I just think that they’re going through a difficult period,” Hartson said of Martin O’Neill’s side. “And I don’t care if it was Jose Mourinho in charge...”
Not an eyebrow was raised. And that was only at the beginning of August, as Chelsea were gearing up for a new season as defending champions and most of us were tipping them to simply take up where they had left off when, as by some considerable distance the best team in England, John Terry had hoisted the Premier League title in May.
The club’s precipitous decline since then, marked by the manager ignominiously turning on his own staff – and how much did his hounding of Eva Carneiro unsettle the dressing room, I wonder? — and repeatedly succumbing to the blame game, while his team suffered a chronic individual and collective collapse in form, has been by some distance the story of the year so far in English football. As it happens, you don’t have to go back too far to find a similar dramatic reversal in fortune for defending champions – except that, for obvious reasons, David Moyes following Alex Ferguson into the hot-seat at Old Trafford was never going to be anything like a silky smooth transition of power.
At Stamford Bridge, as one season rolled into the next, the circumstances appeared entirely different, the assumption being that, given Chelsea’s position of absolute strength and superiority, only a modest amount of tweaking would be required to keep the show rolling merrily along.
I mean, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Well, it certainly needs fixing now, as Mourinho prepares for the visit of a club whose supporters will be only too delighted if their team can make a bad situation worse, and possibly even terminal, for their managerial bete noire.
Whatever happens, we know that Klopp, the self-styled ‘Normal One’, will live to fight another day. But Mourinho? Right now, he’s the ‘Abnormal One’, at times almost unrecognisable in his apparently helpless and hapless watching brief, with even his side’s more encouraging performances failing to secure the desired results.
It’s a bit like watching Tiger Woods hacking his way around a golf course, the kind of surreal and sorry spectacle that might make even a Liverpudlian feel a twinge of sympathy for the devil.
Might, but won’t.
Not least because there’s always the possibility that, starting today, Mourinho will end up having the last laugh.
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