Monday, September 30, 2013

The European Champions Cup was the most important club tournament to clubs, fans, and specialists. Back in the fall of 1977, the first round went without surprises – the favourites won, the outsiders lost, and the few pairs between more or less equal teams ended with wins of those in better form. Benfica and Torpedo Moscow were unable to score even a goal and penalty shoot-out decided the winner – Benfica. Wacker (Innsbruck) eliminated Basel thanks to away 3-1 win. In the second leg the visitors won again, but it was not enough – 1-0 for Basel. Surprisingly well playing Levski-Spartak (Sofia) eliminated Slask (Wroclaw) after 3-0 and 2-2 tie in Wroclaw. Albania did not participate and Liverpool got a bye as a reigning Cup holder.

The 1/8 finals also went as predicted – the only surprise was the elimination of Celtic. They won 2-1 in Glasgow, but lost 0-3 the second leg in Innsburck. Wacker qualified. Levski-Spartak lost minimally to Ajax – both matches ended 2-1 for the Dutch. Borussia (Moenchengladbach) destroyed Crvena zvezda (Belgrade) – 3-0 away and 5-1 at home.

The ¼ finals were serious – no more outsiders, apart of Wacker (Innsbruck). The good luck abandoned the Austrians at last – they played still well and won their home match with the impressive 3-1. But they were facing Borussia... the second leg ended 2-0 for the Germans, just enough to qualify. Similarly tough was FC Brugge vs Atletico (Madrid). The Belgians won 2-0 at home, lost 2-3 in Madrid, and finished with a goal more. Ajax and Juventus were unable to edge each other – two 1-1 ties, leading to penalty shoot-out, which Juventus won. The hopes of Ajax's revival ended. Liverpool were confident winners in the both legs with Benfica – 2-1 in Lisbon, and 4-1 at Anfield.

The draw for the ½ finals was unlucky for Liverpool. Bob Paisely was upset, for he feared Borussia and preferred anybody else. FC Brugge was perhaps the most desired opponent, but Juventus got the Belgians. Borussia was the worst opponent – they met Liverpool the previous year at the final. Earlier in the 1970s both teams met again – Borussia lost to Liverpool so far, but they were strong, ambitious, and German... dangerous team with difficult style, and surely itching to avenge themselves. Paisely feared them. And rightly so:

Liverpool preserved the tie almost to the end at the first leg in Dusseldorf. Then Bonhof scored from a free kick and Borussia won 2-1. Not much of a lead, but a lead. But in Liverpool the hosts clearly dominated and won by comfortable 3-0. Perhaps Paisely worried for nothing, perhaps his worries helped the preparation and the motivation of Liverpool. Liverpool qualified quite easily, compared to the drama of the other ½ final.

Juventus won by the eternal Italian one goal difference in Torino – 1-0. FC Brugge won 1-0 the second leg and extra time was added. In the overtime the Belgians scored a second goal and clinched final victory. Paisely's dream of meeting Brugge materialized... the weakest of the ½ finalists... may be.

For Liverpool the deja vu continued – after the 'replay' with Borussia, a 'replay' with the Belgian side followed – both teams met at the 1976 UEFA Cup final. With considerable difficulty, Liverpool won. The 'replay' was not going to be a breezy walk in the park – the players of both teams were pretty much the same. Also the coaches... Happel alone was enough to give sleepless night to every opposition. And to his employers too, for because of the final he was missing the preparatory camp of the Dutch national team. He was their new coach, the World Cup finals were knocking on the door, and the Austrian was absent, having club final to play... On the surface, Liverpool looked worse than two years ago – Keegan and Toshack were no longer in the team. FC Brugge had no such losses, but all is relative – Liverpool still had classier squad, Keegan successfully replaced by Dalglish. Souness was also in the team by now. And the final was to be played in London. 92 000 fans attended on May 10th, overwhelmingly Liverpool fans.

Both teams fielded their best, apparently, no injured and out of form key players. FC Brugge – or Club Brugge KV, as the proper name is – had one new guy: Laszlo Ku. A curious addition – the former Hungarian national team player was somewhat forgotten by 1978. About five years earlier he was kicked out of the national team for some disciplinary reasons. Did he run away, as many of his compatriots did, or was he legally transferred to Brugge? The year is significant: although it was not publicized, Hungary allowed some players to go to Western clubs in 1978. Was Ku one of the first? May be, because if he was a defector, he would have been under UEFA suspension. Yet, it is unknown when he left Hungary – unlikely in 1978, for there was no transfer window in the spring. Anyhow, Ku had a rare chance for a Hungarian footballer – only Puskas played at European Champions Cup so far.

Ku was not Puskas, but Brugge was difficult opponent. Once again, Liverpool had to really fight a very difficult foe. Happel, knowing well that Liverpool had superior players, did not look for fancy game, but for disciplined collective play. To the growing frustration of Liverpool, there was no way to break the Belgians. The game was not beautiful.

It was just close marking, no open space, determined struggle for every ball. Physical game , lots of running, looking for mistakes, strong defense. Liverpool finally managed to score:

Dalglish used an opportunity in the 64th minute. Nobody was able to score another goal to the end of the match and Liverpool won their second consecutive European Champions Cup.

Triumphal and may be a bit lucky Liverpool making their round with the coveted Cup.

Final, Wembley Stadium, London, 10 May 1978, att 92000

Liverpool (0) 1 Club Brugge KV (0) 0

64' 1-0 L: Dalglish

Liverpool (trainer Paisley)

Clemence; Neal, Thompson, Hansen, Hughes; McDermott, Kennedy, Souness;

Case (Heighway), Fairclough, Dalglish

Club Brugge KV (trainer Happel)

Jensen; Bastijns, Krieger, Leekens, Maes (Volders); Cools, Decubber,

Vandereycken, Kü (Sanders); Simeon, Sörensen

Referee: Corver (Netherlands)

For a 'lesser club', well done indeed. Clube Brugge KV continued their strong performance, becoming really one of the two top Belgian clubs in the 1970s. Talented squad, although the players are not very famous. Happel knew what he was doing – himself constantly rising, he made an excellent team. Belgians rules about the number of imports also helped – foreigners helped, for small Belgium never had huge number of strong players. Sadly, Brugge was unable to win anything. On the other hand, it was normal – good as they were, they were not a super-squad and the club had no financial way to build one. To a point, Brugge even overperformed – but with Happel at the helm, it was to be expected. Still, a bit sad they were not able to really upset the status quo.

So much is written about Liverpool, there is no way of escaping redundancy. Better say little.

May be Liverpool reached its peak in 1978 – not in playing sense, or the futile arguing about best ever squad, but in terms of international recognition: with this second cup, Liverpool was firmly recognized as a super-club. To a point, it escaped great attention because of the quite climbing to the top. Never flashy, never erupting with a bang, Liverpool was steadily rising since the mid-1960s. A title here, a cup there, always among the best English teams, getting step by step higher. Sound transfer policy, consistency, and wise managerial decisions. Other great clubs struggled or entirely faded after their players got old (Bayern), or sold their key star (Ajax), but Liverpool never experienced decline. Keegan, arguably the best European player, was sold – but the team did not suffer. Measured, small additions and replacements – Keegan gone, Dalglish in; Toshack gone – Souness in. Every new player seemingly increased the power of the team – really, a great club is one able to go smoothly through the process of changing players, aging, transfers, adaptation of newcomers. In 1978 Liverpool proved just that and therefore got much deserved recognition. As every great club, it had fantastic squad – minus already gone Toshack, 13 players played for various British national teams. A team full of stars. No other English club managed to establish itself as constant European powerhouse and in 1978 Liverpool was really at par with legendary clubs as Real Madrid, Inter Milano, Milan, Bayern, Ajax. And because of the exceptional longevity, it is impossible to decide was it this vintage the best squad ever.

The question about best squad is perhaps entirely pointless – in 1978 what counted was the trophy.

And Kenny Dalglish went to bed with the Cup. Sometimes there are things better than sex.