Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers is a master, a genius. If only it were as a football coach.
No, his gifts come in a much more productive area for the modern manager, that of positive spin and subtle self-praise. First spotted from him in that toe-curling American-flavoured documentary inside the club from 2012 and used to full effect as Liverpool meekly exited the Champions League with 5 points out of a possible 18. In a group that included Basle and the mighty Ludogorets.
In his quiet, knowing, emphatic tone the new Shankly – in his mind – talked about the potential to finish fourth this season to qualify for next season’s competition. And with the Premier League as exciting, open and low in quality as it’s ever been that is in fact a realistic aim. But was anyone getting the irony?
Here is a man, and he’s far from the only offender, talking with determination about finishing not first, second or even third. But fourth. Traditionally that most damning of finishing spots, as any Olympian will tell you.
And what would happen then? Would Liverpool grace next season’s competition as they have this one, with one mediocre and five terrible performances? Rodgers described his team’s second half performance against Basle as ‘magnificent’. And he’s meant to be a strong orator? My dictionary definitions of magnificent are beautiful, elaborate or impressive…very good or excellent. Liverpool weren’t even close to any of those.
He showed his cunning fully when he said he was “favourite to be sacked”. Being honest and gracious? Far from it. The full quote was “and I was Manager of the Year last year.” And that was the point of his quote – “football is mad isn’t, if I’M in trouble after all I’ve achieved.”
Rodgers did admit Liverpool were not good enough but by this stage he had no option, and it’s his fault as much as anybody’s. When he chose to try and be clever by picking reserve players for a match in the Bernabeu it revealed a man who would be out of his depth at Liverpool over the past 50 years. Maybe right now he’s probably a perfect fit. I am sure qualifying for next season’s Champions League is as important to the owners as it is to Rodgers. With the finance and prestige and excuses it can bring.
But guess what. The Champions League is not as hard to win as some will tell you. It’s often far harder to win a domestic league. Wenger was on to something when he criticised Liverpool’s 2005 triumph, though it came out of spite and from a position of someone who has somehow failed to follow the ‘easy’ path Liverpool took to actually winning the thing.
Liverpool are not the only example of a less than outstanding Premier club managing to triumph. Chelsea in 2012 deserved everything that came their way but it was their fighting spirit that pulled them through not their quality.
Where exactly was the fighting spirit in Liverpool of 2014? They COULD have got something from the Bernabeu on the night. They COULD have upset a better team in the last 16 with a big performance at Anfield. But never mind competing to your peak in the actual competition. As long as you qualify for it. Eh?
I can’t be the only person fed up with the importance placed on Champions League qualification. It’s clear a lot of Arsenal fans have had enough too, with their two decades of successful champions league qualification put forward as some kind of triumph while the trophy cabinet is hardly tight for space these days.
Perhaps at some stage the actual performance of English clubs in Europe won’t be enough for a coefficient of four places. And we’ll all aspire to third place, getting misty-eyed at the good old days when fourth was enough.
And this is far from just a Premier League issue. In Spain what has anyone outside the top three got to aspire to beyond finishing third or fourth and securing a Champions league place? Wouldn’t it be nice if a smaller club could actually challenge for La Liga.
In Germany Bayern have the Bundesliga wrapped up, PSG in France and in Italy it’s far more realistic for a Napoli or Milan to finish third and get into Champions League than properly challenge for the Serie A title. But increasingly it seems to appease owners and fans.
Look at the wailing and gnashing of teeth around Manchester United’s failure to reach the Champions League season. Mercifully for them they avoided the Europa League. Not to mention City’s failures in Europe being accepted, as if progressing from the groups in the Champions League is genuinely harder than winning the Premier League (it isn’t).
It all adds up to participation being enough. What happened to winning for goodness sake?!
If football was about finishing fourth we’d laud the team who finished fourth in the greatest football competition of them all, the World Cup.
It was Brazil.
Lee Wellings is the Sports Correspondent for Al Jazeera English based in London. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Lee on twitter @LeeW_Sport