Liverpool arrived in Japan last Sunday determined to take the FIFA Club World Championship Toyota Cup Japan 2005 trophy back with them to England. Their semi-final win today over Deportivo Saprissa not only moved them one step closer; it also saw them exhibit the kind of form and quality play that could help them win the final on Sunday.
Rafael Benítez's men continue to break new ground. Today, they made another bit of history by establishing a new club record of 11 consecutive games without conceding a goal, and should they manage to make that 12 on Sunday, they could well be bringing back home the only trophy in existence that is missing from their collection. The FIFA Club World Championship and the now-obsolete UEFA European Cup Winners Cup are the only pieces of silverware that have never been paraded at Anfield.
Peter Crouch's early goal set the tone for the game. "Getting a very early goal was the key to the game, and as I always say, you can never score early enough," remarked Liverpool's Spanish coach in the press conference. "We thought it would be easier from that moment on, but we couldn't relax until we got the third."
His Costa Rican counterpart, Hernán Medford, was of the same opinion. "When you concede a goal that early, it's like a shock to the system. It nullifies all the work you've done before the game and forces you to change your system of play.
"However, there are no excuses when you lose 3-0. The opposition were simply better. That's not to say that I'm happy with how my team played, but there is some consolation in losing to a very good opponent who knew how to take their chances," the coach added.
Saprissa goalkeeper Porras was one of the more forlorn figures afterwards having been forced to pick the ball out of the net three times. "As a keeper, it’s always hard when you're beaten three times. You really feel powerless. Their early goal really affected us psychologically," he sighed.
Despite a relatively straightforward win, Benítez had some encouraging words for his rival. "We knew they would be very well organized and that they were capable of hurting us from long balls and anything that came loose. Even so, they still managed to get in behind us a couple of times.
"At 3-0 we left a few spaces, but by then our main objective was to keep a clean sheet and set a new record for the club. Pepe Reina is playing really well, making some superb stops, and the rest of the team are also carrying out their defensive duties admirably. We've made history at this great club," he said proudly.
Finnish defender Sami Hyypia, an integral part of Liverpool's formidable backline, explained that the team put the record to the back of their minds during the match. "It was a difficult game and we weren't thinking about beating records. We always had faith in our keeper, who's on top form right now," he said, congratulating the Spain international custodian.
By far the outstanding player on show was striker Crouch, who scored Liverpool's first and last goals in their 3-0 win. His presence and energy made him a constant thorn in the side of the Costa Rican defensive line. "We've had a very tough match, because their players are physically very strong. It was more difficult than we expected but they've got very good forwards, with people like Crouch, who is incredibly tall. How are you supposed to defend against a player like that?" wondered Saprissa defender Ronald González.
The fair-haired striker was unable to hide his delight following the game at Yokohama International Stadium. The former Aston Villa and Southampton forward put in a first class display, despite having had problems adapting to the change of time zone over the last few days. "I was thrilled to score the two goals, but now we need to focus on the task ahead and win this competition. We've not travelled all the way to Japan to go sightseeing."
His coach, who is usually averse to praising individual performances, could not help but highlight the contribution that Crouch made. "Peter is a key player for us, because he has so much to offer: he can score goals, create chances. He's a great lad, a good footballer and an excellent professional, we're delighted with him."
Plenty to play for
It was a different story for the losers. "All that's left is for us now is to go for third place," was the positive verdict of Saprissa midfielder Walter Centeno ahead of the final match of the competition. "It may not be much, but this is our chance to give our fans something to cheer about," added striker Ronald Gómez.
While Deportivo Saprissa must take on Al Ittihad for third place, Liverpool's thoughts are already focused on the final where once again a European side will face a team from South America.
In Benítez's eyes, the fact that a European and a South American side will once again dispute the final is no reflection on the tournament’s new format. "There have been some very good games which have shown that the differences in world football are no longer so marked. I really enjoyed the game between Al Ittihad and Sao Paulo for example. There have been some very good and very closely-fought games.
"We're going to have to improve certain aspects of our play if we want to win the final because Sao Paulo are a great team with very gifted players," said Benítez, whose sights are firmly set on the grand final, scheduled for Sunday December 18 in the Yokohama International Stadium. All the signs point to a entertaining game as UEFA Champions League winners Liverpool take on Copa Libertadores holders Sao Paulo for the title of the finest club team in the world.