When the fans and the pundits are united in bafflement, I always find that it helps to whip out Occam’s Razor, the 14th century philosophical principle which, as you won’t need me to tell you, posits that, when confronted by a range of competing explanations, the simplest is usually the best (Actually, I’m pretty sure that the concept is whole lot more complex than that but, hey, us sports hacks are not very sophisticated folk, so let’s just pretend that I’ve taken Occam’s Razor to it, okay?).
So, how to explain then that, one day, Liverpool can smite the royal household of Real Madrid and the next, struggle to cope with the potty men of Stoke? Before getting thoroughly lost in issues tactical, managerial and boardroom political, how’s about this for a simple, heretical notion: Istanbul was the worst thing that could have happened to Liverpool FC?
Yes, yes, it was sensational, fantastic, magnificent, mind-boggling. I know, I know — I was there, and the old laptop still bears the scars of my furious rewriting when, having used the half-time interval to fashion a smooth, considered piece about the how thoroughbreds of Italian football had put the carthorses of the English game in their place, I was obliged to hit delete — well, it was either that or hit the road — and turn my theory on its head as comprehensively as Liverpool did the game.
But one of the most famous nights in their already illustrious history seems to have had an unwanted ripple effect, as if that great escape has somehow seeped into the club’s psyche and turned Liverpool into a team which can really only thrive in adversity, saves its best performances for the grandest stage and is, in general, much more comfortable with the status of underdog than overlord. Give them a mission impossible and they’ll take it in their stride. But put them five points clear of the rest and they succumb to altitude sickness.
All of which would be much more acceptable if Liverpool’s pedigree was crazy gang, not culture club. But for Merseysiders raised on historic dominance at home and abroad, on a swaggering belief in their own near invincibility, the present-day flashes of glory are all the more frustrating for being so fleeting. Even a 0-1 away win over a Real side trading more on reputation than substance will have Koppites feeling, as the psychologists like to say, somewhat conflicted. For, given how irrationally Liverpool can go about their business under Rafael Benitez, the fans would probably feel a whole lot more confident if their team had to come from a goal down at Anfield the week after next. Then the well-worn script would demand, and indubitably get, another outpouring of Scouse passion, another rousing comeback, another escape to victory. But Liverpool as favourites? The natives will be nervous.
Benitez, as you would expect, dismissed rumours that he had been “considering his position” (Not that he would have much time, sez you, when he has all those pesky positions on the pitch to consider. And consider. And consider).
“I expect talks to continue between my lawyers, my advisors, myself and the owners,” he said, in one of those quotes that seems closer to the banking sector than the bootroom. And, for sure, that’s part of the problem too. But the manager hit on a deeper footballing truism when, again refuting speculation that he’d been on the point of resigning — before the news broke yesterday that it was Rick Parry who had finally blinked — he added: “The club has made it clear this rumour was not true. That is important for everyone. Stability is the key if you want to be successful.”
Quite so, and stability — in terms of team selection, tactics, transfer policy and, most of all, results — is precisely what has been lacking under Benitez. Cup competitions — even long drawn-out, partially disguised versions like the Champions’ League — can offer a safer haven for the inherently unstable. But the domestic league, with its routine but relentless tests of excellence and its many traps for the unwary, is where the cracks can start to appear. How else to explain why, in the past five seasons, Liverpool have won Europe’s premiere competition once, contested the final on a second occasion and are now on the verge of a fourth appearance in the quarter-finals — yet, at home, it’s 18 years and counting since the Championship pennant last fluttered over Anfield?
Unless the explanation is simpler still. Maybe, like the rest of us, Liverpool are just happier going on their holliers. After all, I suppose there are only so many times you can get your kicks at the Beatles museum.