After a slightly embarrassing week for English clubs in the Champions League, the watching nation turns its eyes once again to the Europa League in search of the excellence, the refinement, the tutored craftsmanship and, perhaps above all, the respectable defending that we hope for from European football at its best.
Massive, additional expectations, then, hang over our second leg tie against Slavia Prague at Stamford Bridge tonight, and, to a certain extent, I guess, over Arsenal’s match in Napoli. One can’t speak for Arsenal, of course, but we’re used to that kind of pressure around here, where the obligation to deliver in style permanently looms large, and no doubt the players will do their best to oblige.
And hopefully they’ll do so in such a way as to provide the redemption the neutrals must be craving after watching Manchester United receive a beginners-level tutorial in the Camp Nou and City and Spurs play a 90-minute game of ‘incompetence bingo’ at the Etihad. (4-3, as we all know, is a basketball score, not a football score.)
It would have been 4-4, too, if UEFA hadn’t taken the misguided step of installing VAR, enabling the referee to rule out that last-minute Sergio Aguero goal on the basis of a marginal offside visible only with computerised assistance. Imagine: no VAR and today we would be talking about Tottenham’s exit from the Champions League on the back of a goal that television pictures had later ruled to be minutely illegal. And what conversations those would have been – conversations that might have taken us through the summer and beyond.
Alas, though, that’s the bleak future that lies ahead of all of us as we enter the electronically monitored age – a future in which the many pleasures of controversy arising from human error by referees are denied us and when we have nothing much to talk about, really, except the good old days of marginally erroneous decisions, pre-VAR. One appreciates that there are positives arising from the arrival of screen-based assistance (coming to the Premier League next season, don’t forget). But boy, are there also some negatives.
Still, tonight, as we set about restoring pride to English football’s battered reputation, we will simultaneously be striving to leave behind the disappointments of last Sunday at Anfield. A lot was made in the run-up to that game about the memories of April 2014 - the slapstick of Gerrard’s slip and the opportunity for a Chelsea side once again to spectacularly derail a rare Liverpool title challenge at a critical moment. In a general symbol of the pre-match mood, in a widely shared and much chortled-over meme, the Chelsea team was ‘leaked’ well before kick-off and featured a shock starting place for Demba Ba.
For me, though, all that history and all those achingly tempting parallels were never the primary consideration, nor ever the most important thing at stake last weekend. Indeed, if I may say, I found it a little immature of people to be thinking that way and anticipating the day quite so gleefully. We had our own reasons, entirely independent of Liverpool’s situation, to be in search of points at Anfield – namely our position in an increasingly tight battle for space in the top four. And if the consequence of gaining those points had been that Manchester City had, in effect, been handed the league, sending Liverpool’s title drought into its 30th year… well, that would just have been one of those random consequences of our mission that one would have barely found oneself mentioning or even thinking about, I’m sure.
Anyway, it didn’t happen, so the topic never came up. That’s another decent conversation this week has managed to deprive us of. Pity, of course, about the Eden Hazard shot which hit the post, and which could possibly have put the subject back on the agenda. We currently lead the Premier League in woodwork-hitting. We’ve struck the frame 21 times, putting us ahead of Manchester City (19) and Liverpool (17) with Crystal Palace, perhaps surprisingly, in fourth place on 15. For the record, last season we finished ninth in that particular league with only 11 hits of the woodwork, so don’t let anyone tell you that things aren’t improving around here.
I know, I know: a miss is as good as a mile and you get no prizes for bouncing it off the bar except sometimes, in some grounds, at half-time. And even then, it’s not points, it’s normally a voucher for the megastore or maybe a cash prize, or similar. Still, you can’t help feeling slightly rueful about those 21 strikes and wondering how different things might currently be if even a third of them had altered their course ever so slightly. Game of fine margins, clearly. Ask Manchester City.