I remember thinking that I couldn’t recall a more dull game, but that I was sure we wouldn’t be that bad next season and that with a few key signings (and hopefully different owners) we could get back to those heady days of the final stages of the Champions League.
Thankfully we got the new owners, but little did I realise that years later we wouldn’t even come close to qualifying again for Europe’s premier competition!
Neither did I suspect that this most unheralded of opponents would put us amongst a match fixing investigation!
With Debrecen’s own stadium only holding 10,200 and not meeting UEFA standards for the Champions League, the Hungarians had moved to the capital city and the concrete behemoth that was the Ferenc Puskas, with a capacity of 56,000. The game itself was very forgettable, even if the occasion and stadium wasn’t. Budapest is a beautiful city, and the Hungarians were warm and welcoming, but I’ve never been to a stadium before where the men so brazenly pissed in stairwells, and to this day it is one of my least favourite stadia in the world.
At the time of this article being written, details of the match fixing allegations were still sketchy. Europol, the European Union’s criminal investigation arm, stated 380 European games were under suspicion of match-fixing but one of which that took place was in England. A Danish newspaper, Ekstra Bladet, has claimed that the game in question was Liverpool’s game against Debrecen at Anfield – also a 1-0 win to the Reds. Europol hadn’t released further details of these allegations but it was clear that Liverpool FC are in no way being investigated.
Indeed, Debrecen have released a statement stating that the issue was resolved some time ago, with their then keeper, Vukasin Poleksic, being the man who had previously admitted he had been approached to throw a match – but claiming he refused the bribe. For not having come forward to the authorities straight away, he was banned by UEFA for two years, a ban that was upheld after appeal.
This may be a storm in a teacup, and there’s certainly no indication that Liverpool FC or its players are culpable in any way.
However, this news did get me to thinking back to that cold night in Budapest where we went out of the Champions League and how our side has progressed since then.
Our team that day, with Torres injured, was:
Johnson Carragher Agger Insua
Kuyt Gerrard Aurelio
Subs: Cavalieri, Kyrgiakos, Skrtle, Benayoun, Aquillani, Dossena, Spearing
At this stage Reina was still at the top of his game, Johnson was still suspect defensively and Lucas still roundly criticised on a regular basis. Ngog was never going to cut it as a Liverpool player and a quick look at the bench (Dossena and Spearing being lowlights, alongside no back-up striker) was an indicator of how weak a team we had.
Even so, we were strong favourites to beat an unheralded Debrecen side so it is difficult to understand exactly how either game, home or away, could’ve been fixed. Given that both games finished a close 1-0, when Liverpool were clearly trying to score more goals with the opposition keeper making key saves in both, it is harder still.
If Debrecen, or their keeper, were trying to throw the game it would have been unlikely to have ended up with such a narrow victory for Liverpool, and it is even harder for a team to fix the exact number of goals scored in a game of football without garnering suspicion (according to Ekstra Bladet, telephone taps indicated the fixers had wanted at least three goals scored in the match at Anfield).
It’s interesting, however, to see how our team has progressed since that day. In the recent strong performance against the Champions Manchester City, our side (with a remarkably similar back five) was:
Johnson Carragher Agger Enrique
Downing Lucas Gerrard Henderson
Subs: Jones, Wisdom, Skrtel, Allen, Sterling, Shelvey, Borini
For me, the side against Man City is actually stronger. Reina isn’t in the form he was previously, but Johnson is a better player and Enrique, despite his weaknesses, is a significant improvement over Insua (who has recently joined Atletico Madrid). Lucas is a far better player than before, even if it is taking him time to return to pre-injury form, while Sturridge and Suarez make for a vastly more potent attack.
While our subs bench is not yet one to strike fear into an opposition manager, it is full of young players who have developed good reputations for their age, even if they are not yet at the level we would expect of them.
It’s hard to argue that we have progressed significantly since that fateful day on 24th November 2009 when we last went out of the Champions League, when we haven’t come close to getting back into it again. However, a look at the comparative sides perhaps indicates that it’s as much the strength of our competitors, particular the rise of Manchester City and a strong Tottenham team, that have kept us out.
If our present side is stronger than that 2009 team, even if you add in a fading Torres to the mix, then what is clear is that other teams are much stronger still than they were then.
Hopefully this match fixing storm will be cleared up sooner rather than later and we can re-consign our games against Debrecen to the history books.
Let’s hope our participation in the Champions League isn’t consigned with it.