‘The Real General Election’ trumpeted a cynically astute headline in the Daily Mirror last week over a large blue campaign rosette bearing the picture of Frank Lampard alongside a red one framing Steven Gerrard, respective midfield dynamos of Chelsea and Liverpool football clubs which relishingly meet on Wednesday in the first semi-final leg of Europe’s Champions’ League competition. The winner will play either AC Milan or PSV Eindhoven in the final at the Ataturk stadium, Istanbul, on 25 May. Chelsea fancy themselves to settle the tie at this first strike on their home paddock. They have led the domestic Premiership by an ever lengthening street all through the winter (beating Liverpool three times for good measure). With fair reason, I suppose, is the London team collectively almost as self-regarding as its shamelessly immodest, one-off Portuguese manager Mourinho. It’s only a game after all, so his conceit is allowable. Zillions of Russian roubles are one thing, quite another is the way Mourinho has used them to shatter in six months the hitherto accepted divine law of English football that only Arsenal or Manchester United should win every prize on offer. Liverpool’s enterprising and skilful run in Europe, plotted by the more sober Spaniard Benitez, has further slapped the old dual monarchy across the chops. To think that only last autumn Arsenal folk were swaggering about the land in the cloying swank that their team was the finest ever — ever! — to play in these islands.
Week by week, Chelsea dismantled that strut. Steadily, they built up team spirit; then just as pointedly turned up the revs. In their first 10 matches they scored 14 goals; in 10 up to last week’s quarter-final in Munich they scored 26. Beefed up by their Cockney homegrown, Chelsea’s incomers have taken vibrantly to the non-stop hurly-burly of the Premiership, while Liverpool, I fancy, have too readily allowed themselves to be pushed about on rough-and-tumble Saturdays in England, their foreign players enjoying the more sedate, skilful and technically cunning pace of Europe. Which is where their main chance lies on Wednesday: if the reds can contrive to get the blues to tone down all their high tempo surges and irresistible adrenalin rushes, then we could, in election terms, be thinking of recounts. Whatever, the contest promises a London night of tense and intriguing passions.
Liverpool’s one other hope is soothsayer’s baloney. They won this Cup in 1978, the year a Pope died. They won it again in 1981 only weeks after the last 7–1 shot, like this year, won the Grand National, and when not only Prince Charles first married but so, apparently, did Deirdre and Ken in Coronation Street. This month of 2005 they have all remarried. History’s coincidence is less persuasive for Chelsea. Mind you, in their precise 100-year history Chelsea’s only two League titles have occurred in this, their centenary year, and at their half-century in 1955 (when they qualified for the Champions’ Cup but haughtily deigned to play in it). One hundred Aprils ago, when applying to enter the League, Chelsea were also being pilloried for attempting to ‘buy success’ as the world gasped when their application revealed they had spent £640 for new players — famed goalkeeper ‘Fatty’ Foulke from Sheffield Wednesday for £300, and three luminaries from Small Heath (which had just grandly changed its name to Birmingham City): James Windridge (£190), Bob McRoberts (£100) and Jim Robertson (£50). Even Parliament asked, ‘Where will it all end?’