I still think about the time I first heard of the disaster at Hillsborough. We generally couldn’t get FA Cup games in the States until they had reached this stage of the competition, because our outlet was usually the BBC and they usually didn’t cover the competition live until it had reached the semifinals. But I remember that, even then, the FA Cup had lost some of its shine to me, as I was mostly thinking about the league with the rather glorious squad we had at the time and the lost European opportunities because of the Heysel ban. So I wasn’t near a radio for a semifinal with Forest (who hadn’t been a threat/rival in a decade, by then) and only found out that something was up when one of the regulars in our Liverpool fan group called me and said: “Sounds like something really bad has happened.”
There’s been a lot of kinda bad, actually bad, and really bad that’s happened over the past year, both within Liverpool football and without. We’ve gone from the elation of the first league title in 30 years to wondering if we’re even going to make the Champions League next season (again, with a rather glorious squad.) Limping out of this year’s version of the CL yesterday, with what has until recently been considered the best front line in football yet again unable to produce anything on the scoreline, only kind of pours more disappointment on a season that can’t be called anything other than that. And then we come to April 15th and it’s hard to think about football. We (meaning the world) have spent the past year surrounded by the mortality of people who, with proper organization and care taken by the authorities, wouldn’t have had to die. It’s hard not to think about Hillsborough in that context, since it’s far more obvious than trying to control an invisible virus.
I’ve been a Marxist for most of my life, largely because I’ve been focused on the implicit justice (or lack thereof) of most of our circumstances. But that perspective is also rooted in a desire for people to simply give a damn about each other. The virus surging in Michigan right now makes it difficult to believe that people do. You’d like to think the events in Sheffield 32 years ago were different, largely because the people at the back of the pen didn’t know what was happening at the front. But there were people (aka police) who should have known, but instead thought: “They’re just football fans.” There were people afterwards (like a “newspaper” we won’t name) that knew better, but still belittled the dead and traumatized as criminals or hooligans or just Scousers. Similar vile opinions are behind what is driving the trauma here, as well, with a vaccine available and a way past this mess sitting in our hands. All it would take is for people to be patient and organized for a couple more months. All it would have taken is for someone to delay the kickoff for a bit…
I’d like to sit here and think that the most important thing to talk about is how the first leg is what ruined it for us and how yesterday was a steep hill to climb in almost any context and how things will undoubtedly be better when Virg and Hendo and Joe and others are back. But I was thinking like that when the vaccines went into wide release. I was thinking that when the Taylor Report was published. I’ve been thinking that “things will probably get better” for most of my political (and football fan) life. Sometimes I’m right. Sometimes I’m completely wrong. There’s really no way to tell. Who knew racists that once dominated the Democratic party would take over the Republican party? Who knew Naby Keita wouldn’t work out? Who knew that a hundred families and who knows how many friends and colleagues in Liverpool would have to wait three decades for some kind of justice and will still never feel whole? That, indeed, is life. So, we sit here in the shadow of death, both present and remembered, and a football match against Real Madrid seems like a very small thing, indeed. But football is one of those small things that makes life worth living for supporters like us and Liverpool Football Club is one of those slightly larger things. So, we’ll be here for the rest of this season, fingers crossed. And we’ll be here for next season, Champions League or no. But 96 of us will always be missing and it’s good to take time out to think of them, even amidst other sorrows or even joys.
Liverpool 0 – 0 Real Madrid
James Milner, Robot Warrior’s comment after the match was: “If we’d played the first game with the same intensity, it might’ve been a different result.” Jürgen Klopp added: “We didn’t lose the tie tonight. We lost it in Madrid.” They’re right, of course, and we can go on ruing the managerial and player mistakes that cost us in Spain or we can also look at the above and think: “For all that intensity, we still didn’t put the ball between the sticks.” That’s been a recurring problem for basically the entire squad other than Mo Salah this season and it showed no sign of changing. It isn’t as if we didn’t get good chances, most notably Mo’s in the first two minutes. But too often this season we’ve run into that fateful “0” when it comes to our goal tally and it isn’t because we can’t move or set up the ball. We’re underperforming our xG by a significant amount and it can’t all be traced back to the absence of Virgil Van Dijk to start things from the back line. With about 2/3 of the match gone, Trent Alexander-Arnold had created more chances by himself than everyone else on the pitch combined. How is this still the case with Mo having scored 28 and with Diogo Jota being described as a “goal machine”? In some ways, that’s football. We’re certainly also missing the chance creation of Captain Jordan Henderson, in addition to the cover that he provides for Trent. And it has to be said that for Thiago Alcântara to not be starting for both legs means that something still isn’t quite clicking for him in Jürgen’s scheme. So, a lot of things have gone wrong this season, on top of the whole… y’know… pandemic thing. But on that note about Thiago: there was some outrage swirling across Twitter as soon as people saw that Millie and Gini Wijnaldum were starting again. Those voices, of course, got really quiet once those two became easily our best players on the pitch for the first half. Milner covered 6.8km in the first half alone. Dude was relentless; almost like… a robot. We got overpowered in the midfield in Madrid. Gini and Millie made Toni Kroos and Luka Modric virtually invisible for most of the game yesterday. If only Bjorn Kuipers had seen fit to do the same with Casemiro’s dumb ass based on that tackle on the sideline, things may have turned out differently.
Zinedine Zidane came into the game saying “We’re going there to win” but it was obvious from the opening kick that they were there to sit on their two goal lead for 90 minutes. It was like playing Spanish Burnley. It’s not often that you’d expect to outdo Real Madrid in corners, 11-3, but there it is, and a lot of that was enabled by this man:
Their tagline is “Superb attacking performance” but he also made Vinicius Junior disappear. Granted, that’s after getting schooled by him a couple times in the first leg and with Madrid doing anything but wanting to advance the ball in this one, but it’s still the almost-perfect vision of the modern fullback. Standing close to that is the definition of the not-quite-modern centerback:
Yes, he doesn’t have the speed that Jürgen wants in his back line and, yes, his long-range passing isn’t close to what Virgil Van Dijk and Joe Gomez can provide. But he does launch a couple daisy-cutter midrange passes that are dead-on in almost every match he plays. He, of course, also remains an absolute monster in the air and his positioning is solid. Again, I don’t see any reason why we can’t retain the guy; not only because he probably comes cheaper than a lot of the rest of the squad, but also because he’s dependable and is one step closer to filling our homegrown quota.
Anyway, that’s the football. The CL is left with three oil teams (two complete with human rights violations; the third being just typical racists) and the most annoying club in the world. Have fun. We have seven matches left which could mean everything in terms of making next season closer to the previous two, rather than this one. We’re against Marcelo Bielsa and his Carnival of Whites on Monday. Here’s hoping.