Thursday, April 26, 2007

Moments of Truth

Most of the season is about opinions. This time of the year is about truths. Two years ago Steven Gerrard's perception that he would have to leave Liverpool in order to win major trophies was altered by the truth of their Champions League triumph. Earlier this term, Jose Mourinho's boss reckoned his manager was not the man to bring him that same trophy; over the next few weeks, beginning last night, he too will see the truth emerge, whatever that may be.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett, Liverpool's new owners, will have received a bracing dose of reality also. If they understood what they saw, or at least were properly briefed on what they were watching, they will have seen the true nature of their job. Of course, a glance at the league table could tell them about the gap between their new investment and Roman Abramovich's four-year-old one.

Sometimes, however, the hard facts of the league table get sidelined in favour of the cock-eyed hokum of optimism. Liverpool fans could, of course, point to the semi-final of 2005 to back up their team's chances. But the law of averages suggests that a team whose strike-force cost £54 million will generally prevail over one which paid £15 million for their front two.

Yes, truths are established at this time of year. It might become a truth, in a week's time, that Anfield's special European atmosphere, Rafa Benitez's tactical acumen or Steven Gerrard's virtuosity are powerful enough to redress the fact of Chelsea's financial strength and Joe Cole's single goal advantage.

But all too true for Liverpool supporters last night was the fact that Boudewijn Zenden, a mediocrity unwanted by Chelsea even in the pre-Abramovich, pre-Mourinho days, was the wasteful endpoint of much of their attacking ambitions in a Champions League semi-final. Unavoidably factual were Alvaro Arbeloa's limitations at full-back, both defensively and in constructive play. Plain as the nose on your face was the difference between Chelsea's awesome juggernaut in attack, Didier Drogba, and the honest toil of Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt.

There is an old football expression about on-field bad times: All your best players are sitting in the stand. It is used by exasperated fans convinced that the kids and journeymen on the bench must be the answer to their current plight.

Looking at the Liverpool bench, anyone castigating Rafa Benitez's selections would have been halted mid-expletive. Who would have been the better option than the woeful Zenden? Marc Gonzalez, the callow winger? Jermaine Pennant, the wastrel? Did hopeful balls directed toward a clambering Peter Crouch really represent an improvement for Liverpool when the big striker came on for Craig Bellamy.

Taking a goal lead to Anfield, having not conceded an away score, bringing back Michael Essien and looking right back to their solid, formidable best, it's hard not to see Chelsea completing the job next Tuesday. For all the ferocious backing that Liverpool will receive from their supporters, there remains a shortfall of true quality in their team, especially when presented with the challenge of beating a team with plenty of it.

Their owner's will be well aware of the need to redress that. Chelsea's owner, meanwhile, might just have to change his mind about his manager. After all, the truth will out.

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