Clinging to the rickety banisters I walked slowly up the seemingly endless winding staircase before climbing onto the roof of the Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere. The guide directed us down a narrow passageway which led onto an overhanging balcony that can’t have been designed for touring parties. I was beginning to think the middle-aged tour guide, whose capacity to converse in English would rival Paul Merson’s, Judi Online24Jam was not as official as he had claimed. Having seemingly made up a route around the upper echelons of this impressive eighteenth century structure, he proceeded to bombard us with the least interesting and most questionable information known to man. It was like spending an afternoon with Bryan Robson.
Accompanying me and the linguistically challenged but otherwise likeable pensioner was little Danny, a connoisseur of great heights and an experienced building site campaigner. The rest of the lads wisely opted to remain in the bars and leave the culture well alone. Danny laughed at my fearful shuffling across the roof, and pushed me into every dangerous surface he could see. When I eventually summoned the courage to stand on and then look out over balcony however, I was suitably impressed with the view of Lyon that stretched out below us. The guide pointed out the ground of Olympique Lyonnais, and immediately our mindset changed. We could only hope that as the events of that evening unfolded, Liverpool’s grip on their Champions League status would be as unyielding as my grip on the stone handles of the Basilique.
As impressive as the building was, this tour was not the cultural experience I was expecting on arrival in France’s second city on Wednesday afternoon. It was however a far safer adventure than that experienced on my last visit to Lyon. We had stayed in the city en route to getting knocked out of the UEFA Cup in Marseille in 2003. On that occasion an unofficial stadium tour was preceded by the even less official leap off the top diving board into the open air pool in the grounds of the stadium. It was a strange decision to make on a murky March morning, and in retrospect it was an act I wish I had performed with clothes on. This time around there was to be no such embarrassing antics, and yet the painful irony that the events of match day four could see Liverpool knocked back into the UEFA Cup was not lost on any of the 3000 travelling Scousers.
When news reached me of the draw for this season’s Champions League I was somewhere in the Australian outback, trying not get eaten by spiders. My arachnophobia was not matched by a concern for Liverpool’s impending season, which promised a great deal. I was suitably convinced that Fiorentina (whose solitary European success came in the 1961 European Cup Winners Cup), Lyon (who had never won a league title before 2002) and Debreceni Vasutas Sport Club (who?) would not produce a significant threat to Liverpool in the group stages. On the pitch, the sublimely talented but ultimately ineffective Xavi Alonso may have departed for Real Madrid, but with the limited Alvaro Arbeloa joining his countryman at the Bernabeu, we had acquired the cash to fund the purchase of Glen Johnson, a defender capable of crossing the halfway line, and Alberto Aquilani, a midfielder who could and indeed would score goals. Pre-season optimism in Liverpool was predictably high – and yet the quest to bring promise and practice into closer alignment so far eludes us.
In European competition a lacklustre victory at home to Debrecen was followed by a deserved defeat in Fiorentina and an ill-deserved loss to Lyon at Anfield. The match-winner of the latter fixture, Cesar Delgado, had by that stage written off Liverpool’s chances of progressing to the knock-out stages of the competition. Liverpool went into the return fixture in France knowing that defeat to group leaders Lyon would leave them on the brink of elimination, with second-placed Fiorentina favourites to beat the pointless Hungarian minnows Debrecen. Delgado might as well have knocked on the away dressing room of the Stade Gerland before kick off on Wednesday and said, ‘Mr Benitez, I know you are under pressure so I have taken the liberty of writing your team talk to inspire your side’. He was quoted in an unmentionable newspaper as saying: “It won’t surprise me if we beat them again. People thought Liverpool would be a fixture in the quarter-finals but now we make sure they are left out. The problem with Liverpool is they are so inconsistent, with huge differences in the levels of their performances. We have analysed them against Manchester United and against Fulham and they are like two different teams. Nobody could doubt that Lyon are the best team in the group. We can go a very long way.”
The match that followed was inevitably dominated by Liverpool, although the least balanced attack in world football proved unable to break the deadlock. The exceptional Fernando Torres looked as confused as the rest of the Liverpool faithful as his enigmatic partner Andriy Voronin exhibited an alarming tendency to squander both chances and possession. The equally frustrating Ryan Babel replaced the Ukrainian ‘footballer’ with twenty minutes remaining, yet surprisingly it took him only twelve minutes to find the net. As if to confirm the view of the ‘it’s not meant to be’ brigade, Liverpool’s deserved lead was cancelled out in stoppage time however, as the hosts forced home an equalising goal. Lyon’s qualification was confirmed in the process whilst Liverpool’s chances of avoiding relegation to the farcical Europa League were slipping away.
Following a wave of unexpected defeats however, I am not about to offer a diagnosis on ‘where it has all gone wrong’ at Liverpool, like so many other journalists have insisted, somewhat prematurely, in doing. Liverpool truly are hanging on to the threads of their Champions League status, and their campaign looks on the brink of ruination. This draw may have been preceded by six defeats in seven matches, and at some clubs that would indeed leave the manager searching for alternative employment. But this is Liverpool. We will not bow to the weight of pressure from the press. We will put our faith in the man responsible for putting Liverpool back on the European map. The man who took a team without a centre forward to the European Cup final twice in three years. The man responsible for giving Igor Biscan and Djimi Traore a winner’s medal that John Terry and Frank Lampard can only dream about. Rafa has earned patience and will be given the opportunity to rectify his mistakes – and Mr Dalgado, how’s this for cockiness: I’ve just booked my flight to Madrid for May 22nd. Your team won’t get past the quarter-final.