Tuesday 20 March 2018

Ian Rush: Out-thought, out-fought, out-classed and out of Europe

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger

Ian Rush

We were the defending European Cup champions. Teams supposedly feared us. Were we guilty of complacency or believing our own hype?

Maybe we were. But in European Cup football, nothing ever came easy. We may have won a lot - four European Cups between 1977 and 1984 - but don't fool yourself into thinking we got those wins without a fight.

But on this day, we weren't fighting. We were being held by AZ Alkmaar, a team few in England had heard of. But Graeme Souness never waited until after the full-time whistle to conduct the post-mortem. He didn't even wait until half-time to correct matters.

Graeme's strength was to assume authority and galvanise those around him. "For f***'s sake Rushie," he screamed at me. "We need to dig deep here. We need to get f******g started."

We did get started. Alan Hansen scored a late winner and we went through.

I thought of Souness during the week as Manchester City went down to Barcelona and Arsenal surrendered meekly to Monaco.

And I thought of Tony Adams, Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard and players like that.

As I listened to the arguments about English clubs' tactical naivety, agreeing with practically every point made, I reflected back on the very basic point Souness used to make to us on the pitch.

"Never give up. Never believe it is lost."

The problem on Wednesday was that Arsenal did give up. When the game was in the melting pot, they didn't scrap enough.

Nor, for that matter, did City. In the second half, yes, they competed. But first-half? No. They didn't have the drive that you need to live with a side as good as Barcelona.

For someone who played in European club competitions and international football for 15 years, I know all about the arguments relating to continental players supposedly having superior technique and smarter tactics.

I've heard it since I was 19. Yet better skill in the countries beyond the English channel didn't prevent English clubs winning every European Cup, bar one, between 1977 and 1984.

Nor did it stop the following English clubs - Wolves, West Ham, Tottenham, Arsenal, Aston Villa, Ipswich, Everton, Nottingham Forest, Leeds United, Manchester City, and of course, Liverpool - reach 24 European finals between 1970 and 1985.

In that era, men like Graeme Souness were two a penny. All those teams had three or four leaders of that nature. All those teams had real character.

Look at the Arsenal team now and compare it to the side who won the Cup Winners Cup in 1994. Has the class of 2014/15 more skill? Absolutely. Are they technically inferior to continental European teams? No. Only two of their starting line up for the Monaco game were English.

Yet the 1994 team who beat Parma, then one of the hottest sides in European football, contained ten Englishmen and an Irishman, Steve Morrow. They also contained fighters and leaders. They had Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn lined up in their defence, helped by a five-man midfield.

That Arsenal team was not one of better ones in their history. But they had a plan, masterminded by George Graham, and backed up by men who were prepared to die for the team. Do you see that in any of Arsene Wenger's (below) men? Aaron Ramsey aside, I just can't see real leaders.

Yes, they didn't help themselves. Wenger's approach was too gung-ho. So too was Manuel Pellegrini's a night earlier. Tactically, England's clubs got it wrong last week. But don't tell me the Premier League is rotten as a result.

The truth is that City lost partly because they were too adventurous in their strategic set-up, partly because they don't have a Souness-type figure in their ranks, but mainly because Barcelona can beat anyone in the world when they click.

Tuesday saw them click. Messi was majestic; Luis Suarez was back to his best and as a unit, Barca were just sensational.

Monaco weren't. They were very good on the night but they won't end this year as Champions League winners. They profited from Arsenal being over-excitable in possession and then being too flaky when it came to a scrap.

And they, Barcelona, Fiorentina (conquerors of Tottenham) and Besiktas (who knocked Liverpool out of the Europa League) also benefited from something else. The English game demands too much of its players.

Thursday was Tottenham's 44th match of the season and Liverpool's 43rd. In contrast, Fiorentina have played just 34 games and Besiktas just 33. So while Tottenham have been rattling through 17 fixtures since December 20, Fiorentina have had it relatively easy, playing just 13 in the same time-frame.

Besiktas have played eight times since December 20; Liverpool on 18 occasions. So tell me which team was likely to be fresher?

Pochettino will earn his Spurs if he wins cup

When the sponsors were Worthington, the League Cup was once nicknamed the Worthless Cup.

And when you see the number of clubs who line up with second-string sides in the early stages of the competition, you can see why its credibility has been called into question.

But try telling the players and supporters of Tottenham and Chelsea that tomorrow's final doesn't count.

Spurs fans will be desperate to win it given how seven years have passed since their last major trophy - they have picked up just two pieces of silverware in 24 years.

Naturally, Chelsea are favourites. Top of the league, in a good position to reach the Champions League quarter-finals and with one of the greatest managers in the history of the game in Jose Mourinho (above), they have to be regarded as the likelier winners.

Yet Spurs won't fear them. They will remember the 5-3 game just before Christmas and the way Harry Kane absolutely ripped them to shreds.

Neither John Terry nor Gary Cahill will be relishing seeing Kane again. He's just such a handful. He dragged Terry and Cahill out of their comfort zone that night at the Lane and looked a class apart.

As a result, Mourinho will be studying the video of that game and coming up with a plan, whereas Mauricio Pochettino will be saying to his players, 'we beat them before, let's do the same thing again'. And I think they might.

Ordinarily, that game would be the stand-out fixture tomorrow. Yet tomorrow also sees Manchester City and Liverpool reunite.

And given how their clash last spring was the game of the season, I simply can't wait for their reunion. City will attack. It's all they know.

And that will suit Liverpool down to the ground. Remember how in December, it seemed as if Liverpool's season was heading into trouble. Now they seem set for the top four.

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