Thursday 22 August 2019

Dangers in familiarity for English foes

Tottenham will be determined to make home advantage count when they face Manchester City at their brand new stadium in Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final first leg. Photo: Nick Potts/PA
Tottenham will be determined to make home advantage count when they face Manchester City at their brand new stadium in Tuesday’s Champions League quarter-final first leg. Photo: Nick Potts/PA

Paul Wilson

A new chapter in the colourful history of English teams meeting each other in the Champions League is set to open on Tuesday, when the first European game at Tottenham's shiny new stadium is bound to generate an atmosphere all of its own.

In such circumstances anything can happen, and all-England European nights already have a reputation for taking on a life of their own, sharing a similarity to derbies in which form and league placing are temporarily set aside.

Manchester City will be favourites to make it to the last four but Pep Guardiola and his players will also be uncomfortably aware of what happened at this stage last season against Liverpool.

Spurs are in a position almost identical to that of Liverpool last year going into the quarter-final. The Champions League is their only remaining hope of glory. The only other distraction being the necessity of securing another top-four finish.

Liverpool finished fourth last season, City were champions with a record number of points, but there was only ever going to be one winner after the home side scored three goals in a stunning 20-minute burst at Anfield. City did not play badly in either leg but ended up losing them both.

After beating Manchester United en route to the Europa League final two years earlier, Liverpool had rediscovered the art of making European nights spine-tingling even when the opponents were familiar, something Spurs might do well to try to emulate.

Normally in Champions League ties there is a certain reserve, the teams do not know each other all that well and tend to overdo the respect and caution. It is harder to get the approach right when you see the opposition every week, and in fact to emphasise that point City and Spurs meet in a Premier League match straight after the second leg.

"We know them but they know us as well, that's the thing," says Manchester City's Riyad Mahrez. "We've faced them many times and beaten them, but maybe knowing each other very well could also be a disadvantage."

Liverpool can vouch for that. When Bob Paisley's side met Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in the first all-English encounter in the European Cup in 1978 the competition was still in its old format. Forest had qualified for the first time by winning the league; Liverpool joined them as holders and, rather too predictably for most people's liking, the pair were drawn together in the opening round.

The record books show that Forest won 2-0 on their own ground and held Liverpool to a goalless draw at Anfield on their way to winning the trophy, though that does not tell the whole story.

Kenny Dalglish described Liverpool as naive at the City Ground for chasing the game and conceding a second goal when they would most likely have been able to recover from a 1-0 first-leg deficit at home. Garry Birtles remembers the Forest team coach making an unusual detour on the way to Anfield to pick up a passenger who turned out to be Bill Shankly. "Don't ask me why or how that happened, it just did. You didn't ask any questions."

The point about the tie was that because it was so unusual it was played on English, rather than European terms. Birtles said Forest were initially disappointed by the draw, first because they were likely to lose and second because they had been hoping for a more exotic destination for their first European Cup foray.

Dalglish thought the reason Liverpool played like European novices in the first leg was because Forest were such familiar opponents. They would have settled for a 1-0 defeat in a continental stadium.

Liverpool came up against Chelsea in the Champions League five years in a row between 2005 and 2009, meaning two sides who had never really had a domestic rivalry ended up with a grudging respect for each other through Europe.

Liverpool cannot really sing their history song any more, at least not with as much fervour, for Chelsea eventually acquired some.

They have won the Champions League more recently than Liverpool, after all, not to mention five league titles in the last 15 years. Even in 2005 José Mourinho was well on the way to changing the perception of Chelsea as Champions League interlopers.

They would win the English title that year, as well as the next, while Liverpool finished behind Everton in the table and outside the top four, only qualifying for the following season's Champions League by virtue of a rule-change after winning in Istanbul.

Yet once again league form was overturned, with Luis García's 'phantom goal' settling the tie, ruining Mourinho's mood and allowing Liverpool to proceed to the most dramatic of finals.

Arguably the best-remembered meeting of English clubs in Europe was in 2008, the only time so far it has happened in a final apart from when Tottenham beat Wolves in the first final of the UEFA Cup over two legs in 1972.

If the restructuring of the old Fairs Cup did not quite capture the imagination to the extent that the organisers had hoped, the meeting of Chelsea and Manchester United in Moscow 36 years later certainly did.

UEFA were worried about English domination by this stage. It was the fourth year running that at least one Premier League team had made it to the final and the second consecutive season (a third would follow) when England supplied three of the four semi-finalists.

What is recalled most readily about Manchester United's third conquering of Europe is John Terry slipping and hitting a post with the penalty that could have won the shoot-out for Chelsea and brought a first Champions League success to London four years before it finally happened under Roberto Di Matteo.

Terry was distraught, and everyone remembers that too, though what tends to be overlooked is the fact that Didier Drogba might have been taking the penalty if he hadn't got himself sent off four minutes from time for wafting his hand in Nemanja Vidic's face.

Terry's miss sent the shoot-out into sudden death, where Edwin van der Sar denied Nicolas Anelka to secure a 6-5 win. Avram Grant's Chelsea came second in the league to Manchester United that year, too - the poor results that ended in Mourinho's dismissal had left them with too much ground to make up - yet it could easily have been different in Russia.

One notable aspect of the most recent meeting between English clubs in Europe was the apparent inability of Merseyside police to protect City's team coach as it made its way through the streets near Anfield.

Unsavoury evidence of new ill-feeling between the clubs - City have never before managed to get in the way of Liverpool's traditional antipathy towards United - came raining down in the form of bottles, missiles and flares.

Champions League meetings appear to have the ability to create new hostility as well as new rivalries, though relations between City and Spurs fans have been described as healthy, and let us hope they stay that way. These are two of England's best attacking teams; the world is waiting to be entertained.

Observer

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