Liverpool face Manchester United
later today next weekend in what should be one of those top top top games that define a season because media luvvies told us so. Jesting aside, it will be significant for Liverpool's outside title chances and push for automatic qualification for the Champions League. While Liverpool fans understand the benefits of an extended break after midweek internationals for the players, it leaves a hole in our schedules. Where has the football gone?
Clearly games that have any relevance to Liverpool's fortunes will be checked up on but there are also teams that we respect for various reasons. Some of these teams have become a second team over the years while for others it rotates season by season. While some teams may be barred from ever coming close to our affections because of recent or long-standing rivalry (see Chelsea and Manchester United), other rivals don't seem to stir similar feelings of disdain. Arsène Wenger and his footballing philosophy is the chief reason why Arsenal will usually retain my respect even if his side remains a rival and has been for quite some time.
Liverpool and Arsenal never seem to be in direct competition with each other for the biggest prizes. When Liverpool faced off against FA Cup last month, supporters of both clubs and neutrals saw an entertaining game. Liverpool snared a dramatic FA Cup triumph courtesy of two late Michael Owen goals in 2001 even if Arsenal exacted revenge in the third round the following season to knock out the holders. Liverpool's Champions League quarter final victory in 2008 was even more so and who can forget that 4-4 draw at Anfield as Rafa Benitez's Liverpool chased an elusive league title? While Liverpool's recent league victory over Arsenal finally broke a poor league run against Wenger's side.
Liverpool's last league victory against Arsenal came at the end of March in 2007 and was accompanied by a Peter Crouch treble. The pain of being knocked out of the FA Cup and League Cup in the space of three January days at Anfield was healed somewhat. Arsenal have a fine record against Liverpool since the turn of the century while Liverpool held supremacy over Arsenal in head to heads throughout most of the 1990s. Still, Wenger's positive approach to football, the quality of players, and Arsenal's commitment to a financially sustainable model was worthy of respect.
Arsenal's record of qualifying for the Champions League season after season illustrated that Wenger's side could compete at some level even if the trophies eluded both manager and club for the best part of a decade. Arsenal's status as nearly men was quite endearing and made it easier to think that they weren't the big bully stomping all over the Premier League playground when Chelsea and Manchester United were around. Sir Alex Ferguson's long reign and David Moyes' recent one has ensured that little credit will ever travel towards Manchester United from the Liverpool fanbase.
Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea wasn't as antagonistic as José Mourinho's. Carlo's Chelsea scored goals, played expansively, did the double, and he was sacked after a couple of seasons. Rafa Benítez's curious time at Chelsea brought out strange feelings of wanting Chelsea to succeed so they could see how good our Rafa was and finally respect a man who thwarted them many times. While I understand that Benítez needed a launchpad to rebuild his reputation after a poor stint at Inter Milan, I couldn't understand why he would follow in Mourinho's footsteps again. Rafa is made of stern stuff and despite the horrible abuse, he succeeded in his mission. Benítez won a Europa League at Chelsea and is experiencing a strong debut season at Napoli.
A second team may possess a rich and interesting history like Boca Juniors. They could be European juggernauts like Bayern Munich or a side building in the right way such as Swansea and Southampton. When I think of those last two sides, I cannot extract them from Brendan Rodgers, Michael Laudrup, and Mauricio Pochettino. Those managers were crucial in the success of those sides. It was the way they played and continue to play. Sure, they weren't going to win the Premier League but their approach to the game just felt right. Jürgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund and Thomas Tuchel's Mainz have also become highly respected in the Bundesliga. It's probably the same with Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool now. Pep Guardiola will most likely have footballing disciples huddling after him wherever he goes. Yes, he's that good.
Football teams are often inextricably linked with their managers and these figureheads can lead where we cast intermittent amorous glances when Liverpool are removed from the footballing battlefield. Sometimes it can be players who draw us to football clubs and we follow them wherever they go. Gabriel Omar Batistuta. Batigol. El Ángel Gabriel. 300 brutal goals in 516 career appearances. 56 thundering goals in 78 appearances for Argentina. He even scored against Nigeria in the 2002 World Cup but it was El Ángel so tough luck Nigeria. I studied his career fastidiously and learned much about Fiorentina and AS Roma through his association with both clubs. He wouldn't win much but what he won at Fiorentina and Roma was significant. La Viola and Giallorossi will be eternally grateful to the man and I remained a sympathiser of both clubs.
Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima and Álvaro Recoba. Il Fenomeno because Ronaldo was just that. El Chino because Recoba looked Chinese, yes football fans can possess inordinate amounts of originality. Internazionale had a fan ever since the mid-1990s and those two players were magical. Serie A was dominant in that time and a young CStars eagerly consumed as many tactical battles as possible wondering when it would be the Nerazzuri's time to shine. Jay Jay Okocha and Nwankwo Kanu made me follow a couple of sides I had no business following and their departures ended any interest immediately. With Inter, it was different. I would always have a Liverpool save and an Inter Milan save in Championship/Football Manager. Yes, it was that deep.
Of course, no club could touch Liverpool but some clubs happily nestle in second place. There will be no mutiny, this marriage is till our dying days, and our allegiance may be tested but never broken.
Fans. Blessed, realistic, and sensible fans. Fans can make it extremely annoying to be magnanimous when considering other clubs and for this reason, having a second team in the same league is extremely rare. While being a sympathiser can be discarded to mock domestic opponents, supporting another domestic rival makes it naturally difficult to do so. This is the reason why I will ever only support one English club and any other European club I support will always be a distant second to Liverpool FC.