In a week in which the England national team manager Fabio Capello resigned and the man who is almost certain to replace him, Harry Redknapp, was cleared of tax evasion it seemed appropriate that going into the Barclay’s Premier League marquee match of the weekend the talk had little to do with tactics, line-ups or even the eventual outcome.
Instead the chatter was about a simple piece of protocol that has become an accepted part of the pre-game ritual – the two teams lining up and shaking hands with each other and the game officials. Or more to the point would Liverpool’s Luis Suarez shake hands with Manchester United’s Patrice Evra and vice versa.
The genesis of the “would-he, won’t he” lay in an incident during a match at Anfield, Liverpool’s home ground, on October 15th last year. The Football Association subsequently charged Suarez with racially abusing Evra during the game and after a detailed investigation the Liverpool forward was found guilty and suspended for eight games and fined around $60,000.
To the chagrin of policing authorities and others, the two teams were drawn to play each other in the FA Cup. However, the game two weeks ago provided to be more of an under-card than the main-event given that Suarez was still serving his suspension.
Liverpool won that game but it was clear that Saturday’s encounter at Old Trafford was going to hit a higher octave given the return of Suarez.
Suarez refused to shake Evra’s hand and second’s later United centre back Rio Ferdinand blanked Suarez. Even with a handshake or two the atmosphere was going to be combustible; no handshakes and the atmosphere was irrevocably poisoned.
Suarez’s refusal offered up the morale high-ground to United although Evra’s embarrassing celebration after the final whistle threatened to undermine that position at one stage.
After the game there was little discussion of Manchester United’s 2-1 win and the spotlight not surprisingly fell again on handshakes (or lack thereof) and Suarez during the media interviews.
Since the first incident in October Liverpool had pursued a poorly thought out communications strategy and so it continued on Saturday. The difference this time was that Liverpool’s words now stretched to the defending the absolutely indefensible.
Liverpool’s position of unconditional support to the player finally ran aground. Throughout the unsavoury incident (or incidents) Liverpool’s manager Kenny Dalglish has either been the victim of very poor advice or he chose to make it up as he went.
Great players are often said to see the game two or moves in advance and Dalglish was undoubtedly a great player. But over the last few weeks it has become readily apparent that Dalglish has been unable to anticipate the wide-ranging implications of his comments beyond the end of his next sentence.
Numerous opportunities have come his way to draw a line under the affair and move on. Each chance has been spurned and instead he opted to fight fire with gasoline rather than water.
When asked in a post-game interview by a Sky Sports TV reporter about Suarez’s refusal to shake hands a belligerent Dalglish apparently decided that if the messenger could be shot it would prove Suarez’s innocence. But Saturday was a petulant (Suarez) and cantankerous (Dalglish) response too many and within 24 hours Liverpool had backtracked.
Whether the club owner John W. Henry (also owner of the Boston Red Sox) stepped in is not yet clear. What is clear is that Suarez apologized, as did Dalglish and the strangely anonymous Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre even chimed in to tell us all that Suarez had in fact misled the club by saying before the game he would shake Evra’s hand.
The ramifications of the Suarez affair have been such that going into Saturday’s game Liverpool’s record of a draw and a win over United this season has not been given the attention it deserved.
Before the match featuring England’s two most successful clubs Liverpool trailed Manchester United by sixteen points. In the first two games played this season Liverpool were better side despite the difference in league position.
But this time Manchester United controlled the game from the start although it did take until early in the second half to show their superiority on the score sheet. Wayne Rooney no stranger to controversy himself scored twice for Manchester United and although Liverpool pulled one back – who else but Luis Suarez – it was far too little far too late.
With other results from the weekend Liverpool fell a little further behind in the race for the fourth and potentially valuable final Champions League spot.
However, the domestic cup competitions do offer Liverpool some hope of silverware. With the two leading Premier League clubs Manchester United and City out of the FA Cup Liverpool are one of four out five teams with a legitimate chance of lifting the trophy come the final in May.
This coming weekend Brighton, a team that plays in the lower tier Championship are Liverpool’s FA Cup opponents, and then a week later another Championship side, Cardiff, provide the opposition in the Carling Cup Final.
Liverpool will be hoping that the contrite apologies stem the media and public onslaught and that they can now get on with the business at hand.
The damage it has done the club’s image around the world is a very different matter.
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