Thursday, April 01, 2010

The Passion of Lovers (Part 7)

The Business End

Normally at this point of the football season, I'm hoping that one of my teams is involved in something good. It usually ends up being a forlorn hope. When I say my teams, I obviously mean Spurs; but I also follow the fortunes of Northampton Town, Rushden & Diamonds, Kettering - all because I live in this county, Stevenage because it is the town of my birth. And good old Stenhousemuir up in Scotland. There are also other teams I keep half an eye on, but that tends to be when none of the above are involved in anything bar a relegation battle.

So imagine my surprise to see that Spurs are currently sitting in the last Champions League spot, with 7 (albeit monstrously tough) games to go; they are also in an FA Cup semi-final, against the financially and physically wounded Portsmouth. Yes, it's not challenging for the league, but so far we're the fourth best team in it - if we can finish in 4th, I'd gladly hand Portsmouth, Chelsea or Villa the FA Cup trophy.

But my main ambition this season is to finish above Liverpool. Hate is a very disturbing word and one usually reserved for Arsenal, but since Rafa 'El Camarero Gordo Espanyol' Benitez took over at Anfield, I've grown to loathe him and his football club with a passion. This is a pretty incredible volte face; back in the 70s and 80s, Liverpool were always my 2nd favourite club - if Spurs weren't winning, then Liverpool, with their iconic players and dour managers were. In Europe, we all became Scousers for the final's night. Even as recently as when Gerard Houllier was in charge; these once mighty giants were still likable and you didn't begrudge them showing a return to winning ways, knocking off 5 trophies in 2 seasons, I recall. Then Rafa came along...

If you look at his record, it's pretty impressive - he took a generally better than average Valencia team and won a few trophies with them. It has been widely reported that both Barcelona and Real Madrid were undergoing massive upheaval at the time, rebuilding after disastrous managers. Recently, The Guardian suggested that La Liga was becoming like the Scottish Premier League. A race between the 2 giants and all the others - also rans! That is not to say that teams such as Atletico, Valencia, Villareal, Sevilla or Deportivo aren't capable of giving our top 8 a run for their money; but you either have to be something special to beat Barca or Real, or they need to be in turmoil.

Rafa came to Liverpool with a huge reputation. He was heralded as the next great Spanish manager - the Red Shite's version of the Portuguese Jose Mourinho. The start couldn't have been much better - despite spending a season moaning about having inherited a poor team, they still managed to turn a 3 goal deficit against AC Milan into a penalty shoot-out win to win the Champions League. The fact that 10 of the 11 starters that day were Houllier purchases is often overlooked or dismissed by Liverpool fans. What they can't deny is that Rafa said immediately after the final that he needed to rebuild his team; they had finished 5th in the Premier League and were only back in the CL by virtue of having won it.
The following year an FA Cup won on the back of Steven Gerrard was all Rafa had to show. He said his team needed rebuilding. After a couple of years of relatively easy CL qualification and another final, Liverpool them did something no other team has managed - they finished 2nd with more points than most teams have won with. Had they not dropped points home and away to newly promoted Stoke City, they would have gone into the final weekend of matches as Champions, rather than not.
Liverpool's season imploded when, unprompted, Rafa took an unprecedented swipe at Sir Alex Ferguson. SAF is not the most likable of people, but you can't deny his ability. Rafa can. Yes, he made some valuable points about apparent favouritism shown to Man Utd; but he did it such a petulant and spoiled child-like manner that it only served to make him even more disliked among the press and the neutrals. I know Liverpool fans who claim the press is racist, which is about as stupid as you can possibly get. The press don't like Rafa because he lacks humility; he has zero charm and he takes everything personally - if he could be even a tad self-deprecating, without it seeming like a dig at someone else, perhaps people would warm to him.
I haven't even got into the transfers the man has done. Argue with a Pool obsessive and he'll say that the press distort the truth, that they lie and make up unscrupulous accusations about Rafa and its really the fault of the owners and former Chief Executive. This, to be fair, sounds pathetic. Rafa must have earmarked certain players. Yet over 80 arrivals and 50 departures in 5 years proves he hasn't got a clue what he's looking for.
Pool obsessives will also tell you that he hasn't really spent that much money; that a lot of deals are shrouded in secrecy and best of all, they have spent less money than teams like Spurs and yet still regularly place in the top 4. Recent Companies House figures show that Liverpool has spent £12m more than Spurs over the last 10 years; however, Spurs have shown a better return on that investment than Liverpool have. We might not have qualified for the big one and have only flattered to deceive in our attempts to break the big 4, but we've made money and are financially far better off than Liverpool - a position that may well begin to get exploited...

This season Liverpool have been great. They have supplied me with at least 10 days of utter joy and many others where they've drawn games they once should have walked. The players looked jaded; the manager looks old and tired and even the die hard loyal Red fans are beginning to call for the head of a man who insists on playing Insua more often than Aquilani - which, to anyone with any football nous will know is a bit like playing Steve Bull up front when you could have Ronaldo or Lionel Messi. Yes, I know one is something of a left back and the other is an attacking midfielder, but the point is, only Torres of recent acquisitions seems to guarantee a place in the team; it doesn't matter what you cost, if Rafa goes off you, your time has come - to leave.

They currently sit 6th in the table, they have 6 matches left, but 4 of them are should wins, one is against Chelsea and the other is away to Birmingham - who on the strength of this season and the draw with Arsenal should get a point at least. That means Liverpool could get 13 points to add to their current tally, meaning they will end the season on 67 points. Spurs are currently on 58 points, but can add a virtual point to that because of their goal difference. This means they only need 9 points to ensure Liverpool finish below us and therefore guaranteeing that Liverpool do not play Champions League football next season.
Now those 9 points Spurs need have to come against unlikely opponents. Away at Sunderland, Man Utd, Man City and Burnley; home to Chelsea, Arsenal and Bolton; you'd have to say on previous results it's a tough ask. Wins at Burnley and against Bolton at the lane would give us 6 of those points, but the other 5 games look about as tough as possible, with Sunderland probably being the best hope of a result, as they have nothing left to play for. A point against them, Chelsea and Arsenal would guarantee those 9 points and that would suit me, even if Man Citeh pip us to 5th.

I think Villa's 7-1 defeat by Chelsea could have serious effects on them; they might bounce back, but teams involved in relegation battles will smell blood and that defeat has meant Villa have lost the ability to put fear into lesser sides.

Everton need to beat everyone and hope results go with them. It's too much to expect this late in the season, but they still might have a say in who finishes fourth. I just wish they'd played against Liverpool the way they played against other top 3 teams this season - that would have put the Shite out of the race for Europe altogether.

Going down - perm any two from three: Burnley, Hull or West Ham. I think the Hammers will do it, but not before dropping perilously close to the drop. Portsmouth are down and could go even further down.

Elsewhere - the Bar Codes are coming back to the Prem. The Canaries are coming back to the Championship and The Cobblers hold their own play-off hopes in their own hands. They are the form team in Div 2 at the moment, they just have to sustain it.

In the Conference: Stevenage have virtually assured themselves of League 2 football for the first time and I'm dead chuffed - they've been close or deprived because of sub-standard ground before. Rushden look set for a play off date with either Luton or Oxford - I fancy them to maintain their momentum and join Stevenage.

One more of these to go - sometime around the FA Cup final.

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