Thursday, August 23, 2012

Europa League: Hearts v Liverpool

"When are games versus Scottish teams ever as easy as they should be?"

So asked one Liverpool fan after his team were drawn against Hearts in their Europa League play off.

The answer, a bittersweet truth to be sure, is that too many clubs from too many countries have found games against Scottish teams clubs to be all too easy in recent years.

Liverpool themselves have endured a few hard battles but five times out of six they've prevailed in the cross-border clashes that have punctuated their six decades of European participation.

The first test allowed two men on the road to greatness to meet head on in the Cup Winner's Cup.

Celtic v Liverpool.

Jock Stein v Bill Shankly.

It was Shankly who triumphed in 1966, a 2-0 win at Anfield securing a 2-1 win on aggregate.

The 1970-71 Fairs Cup saw Liverpool make their first competitive trip to Edinburgh with a 1-0 win over Hibs.

"Hibs are one down and are playing in front of the Kop. Need I say more?" asked Shankly.

Apparently not. A 2-0 win at Anfield completed the job.

Hibs had another crack in the 1975/76 UEFA Cup. This time a Joe Harper goal gave them a home win before John Toshack dominated the return leg at Anfield.

With Kevin Keegan providing the service, Toshack's hat-trick secured a 3-1 on the night.

By 1980 Liverpool were a major force in European football, Aberdeen the coming force in Scottish football.

In the second round of Alex Ferguson's first European Cup campaign Aberdeen lost only 1-0 at Pittodrie but were undone at Anfield by the eventual winners.

Ferguson said of that defeat:

"The 4-0 beating we suffered in the second was far too emphatic to to allow us to plead mitigating circumstances on the basis of the players missing because of injury. All we could was try to ensure that we learned from painful exposure to the proven masters of the techniques and discipline required in European competitions."

By 1997 Celtic and Liverpool didn't quite offer the same promise as they had when Stein and Shankly were building dynasties and taking the fight to the world.

They could still put on a show though. A goalless draw at Anfield was followed by a Michael Owen goal early in the second leg.

Celtic fought back. A Simon Donnelly penalty had them 2-1 up with 15 minutes to go before Steve McManaman settled matters with a late equaliser to seal a win on away goals.

This time Celtic didn't have quite as long to wait for revenge. The first leg of the 2002-03 UEFA Cup quarter final finished 1-1 in Glasgow.

Advantage Liverpool. But this was a determined - and very good - Celtic team.

A clean sheet and goals for Alan Thompson and John Hartson sent Celtic closer to the final and, after 37 years of sporadic attempts, finally gave a Scottish club a win over Liverpool.

As Liverpool made occasional visits across north, Hearts had to bide their time for a Scotland v England clash.

Not until last year - 53 years and 72 games since their European debut - did they face English opposition.

A long wait that ended rather abruptly.

A 5-0 win for Tottenham at Tynecastle in the first leg, a display of utter dominance.

The 0-0 draw in the White Hart Lane was creditable but irrelevant.

It was Hearts misfortune - there but for someone's grace go any number of clubs - that it was on their patch that the disparity between the SPL and the EPL would be most starkly illustrated.

Their misfortune too that the Liverpool game - lucrative as it will be - should follow so hot on the heels of their first stab at establishing cross-border relations.

The temptation is to look at what happened last year and allow that to inform our predictions for what will happen tonight.

Thus the challenge that Hearts are being set is not to make history but to stop history repeating itself. Don't reach for the stars, reach for the damage limitation manual.

Maybe that's symptomatic of Scottish football's drained confidence or maybe it's an example of brutally honest realism.

Either way I don't think it helps manager John McGlynn's cause.

Spurs were the better team by some distance last year but the constant pre-game reminders that they were up against a big side, a better side, can't have helped Hearts.

When the game started and Hearts froze the outcome was not only predictable, it could have been a lot worse.

With a younger team, with last year so fresh in the memory, there is a risk we'll see the same thing happen again.

Liverpool have travelled without Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez, Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson.

Big names missing as part of a European rotation policy. Mind you, those big names played last weekend in the 3-0 defeat to West Brom.

For their part Hearts might start with debutant goalkeeper Peter Enckleman.

Unlikely heroes can emerge on nights such as these.

Hearts will need as many of them as they can get.

How will it go?

Ladbrokes tell me it doesn't look good. Odds of 11/2 on a Hearts win and 8/15 on a Liverpool win tell their own story.

4-0 Liverpool is 28/1, a repeat of Spurs' 5-0 win is 66/1. Andy Carroll is 25/1 to score a hat-trick.

Ladbrokes Game On!I suspect Hearts will do well to score (John Sutton is 9/4 to score anytime) though so their best hope might well to a 0-0 draw, keeping the tie alive for the second leg.

You'll get 10/1 for that.

It's never nice to be reminded how well off your neighbours are. And we're forever reminded of the riches that flow into English football.

The reality is that Liverpool's second string would stand out in the SPL.

With nothing to lose Tynecastle will be in full voice. It could be a long night for Hearts.

What a boost it would be for Scottish football if it could also be a famous night for them.

(Remember folks, gambleaware.co.uk)