A disappointing end to a disappointing Champions’ League campaign in a disappointing season so far. It is fair to say I’m disappointed! But I’m not surprised. It would be very blinkered of me to say Rafa is perfect. Yes he has made mistakes this season but I still think he is the right man for the job. If you had to work with your hands tied behind your back, see how well you could do your job! Don’t worry I am not about to launch into a full blooded defence of our manager. That has been done often enough and I would just be repeating myself. One thing I will ask all the doubters is where were your voices and calls for Benitez’ head last season? Where were you after Old Trafford when we were back in the title race?
As a club, we have had our fair share of late goals, some of which we have deserved and others for which we have been extremely grateful to get. Last season, was a prime example. Late winners against Fulham, Middlesbrough, Man Ure, Sunderland, Man city….the list goes on. So we cannot complain when 2 goals scored from the 90th minute onwards sealed our Champions’ league fate without counting last night’s cruel finale. This is, of course, conjecture but had we held out in our two games against Lyon to get our just desserts, we would have been 3 points better off, qualified and with top spot to play for in the Fiorentina game.
It would be remiss of me to say we are playing in a style worthy of continuing participation in this year’s competition but equally we have not deserved to go out with such a whimper in the group stages for the first time during Rafa’s tenure. The most worrying thing about last night’s game is that it could be our last Champions’ League game for the foreseeable future unless substantial investment is made in our team. There has to be an end to this ‘Sell to Buy’ policy that has strengthened the starting XI but weakened our squad overall.
It was not all doom and gloom last night. There were promising debuts for Stephen Darby and Daniel Pacheco and of course a long over-due first start for Aquilani. Darby, while solid in defence, was hesitant in possession. Aquilani showed some promise but was careless in two passages of play that put our defence under pressure. He was anonymous in the second half but this was obviously down to tiredness, pointing to the lack of sharpness Benitez has mentioned in recent weeks. This is understandable considering his lengthy lay-off. The jury is out, but it is nice to have a central midfielder who is always looking forward rather than sideways or playing easy balls backwards when a more difficult attacking option is present.
Daniel Pacheco is a real talent and needs to be involved with the first team more. He looks to have carried his form for the reserves through into his first team debut. Having witnessed his play first hand, albeit against substandard opposition in the shape of Bohemians in Dublin in August of this year, there is certainly more to come from the young man from Spain. Perhaps it is time to withdraw Stevie G into a more traditional central midfielders role and let Pacheco play off Torres up front?
For this season at least, Champions’ League football is over and the priority has be ensuring qualification for next season’s competition. But in the 25th anniversary of the Heysel disaster, what are the odds on a Europa League (UEFA cup) final being contested by Liverpool and Juventus? Michel Platini’s dream and showpiece final could be the making of this newly branded competition!
Onwards to Hamburg!