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25th May 2018

“The Champions League has reinvigorated people’s belief in football” – Martin Keown on Liverpool and England’s World Cup hopes

"Football is a bit Roy of the Rovers. Mo Salah can be that player"

Kyle Picknell

Arsenal and England legend Martin Keown sat down with JOE in the Old Blue Last, Shoreditch to discuss Liverpool’s chances in the biggest game in football and England’s own ambitions going into the World Cup this summer.

A three time Premier League and FA Cup champion, Martin Keown knows a thing or two about important games. Heading into the mouthwatering Liverpool versus Real Madrid clash this Saturday, he has a feeling that whilst Real Madrid have the ‘been there, done that’ t-shirt of two-time champions, a moment of Mo Salah magic could be the difference in deciding where the iconic trophy ends up.

“You have to respect to Real Madrid and the number of finals they’ve been in. The nerves, the preparation…”

There’s a process, according to Keown, and the key is coping with the inevitable distractions.

“I remember the first final I ever played in. There’s so many things going on, you might get a phone call from your mum the night before the game saying ‘I don’t know where my tickets are’. All of a sudden you’ve got to handle all these issues. ”

According to him, you’ve just got to concentrate on getting yourself ready for the most important thing, which is to play football.

He believes the electric semi-final clashes between Roma and Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have restored the fans’ belief in the tournament and the beautiful game.

“The Champions League has reinvigorated people’s belief in football, people have come up to me in the street and said ‘I’d turned off football, but now I’m back on again’. There were 20 goals in the semi-finals.”

Wondering whether the final, so often a tentative, cagey affair, can live up to the final four, he states that he wants to see Bale in the Madrid starting XI and acknowledges that a moment of brilliance from Liverpool tyro Mo Salah could be enough.

“I call him ‘Crazy Klopp’… he might just do that and Liverpool pull off the result of all results. But they definitely go in as underdogs. They’ll feel privileged, once the cup final is done. You’re a part of a special group, in a game that could change your life forever. For these Liverpool players it’s just about treating it like another game and trusting your teammates to do their jobs.”

The Liverpool attack are perfectly suited to taking the game to Madrid, particularly the space usually vacated by the marauding mop-haired fullback Marcelo. Not only that but the much-lauded triumvirate of Salah, Mane and Firmino are as brilliant as they are selfless, and that could prove decisive.

“Football can be a bit Roy of the Rovers, and they have to find enough. They have to have that inspirational moment somewhere, to win a game. Liverpool usually find it. Maybe Salah can be that player, maybe it’s another player, Mane, Firmino. The goals have been shared out well for Liverpool in the Champions League. That’s why they’ve done so well in Europe. They’re a collective, that arrow-head attack. They’ve been too much for European teams to deal with.”

“Their [Real Madrid’s] philosophy is to attack. They can be a little bit loose and they do rely on the individual brilliance of him. On the left-hand side we know that’s where the game is going to be won and lost, Salah up against Marcelo. He’s not really that bothered about defending. Towards that side Ramos will have a lot of territory to govern. He’s key to everything they do there. He just keeps going and he’ll just keep winning things. Their desire is never ending.”

Sergio Ramos, in particular, is a serial winner and could become the only player other than Franz Beckenbauer to win three European Cups in a row as captain.

“They enjoy being top dogs. Whether it be him playing for Spain or him playing for Madrid. The level of success he has had, he’s won a World Cup, a European Championship, the European Cup and so it goes on. They’ll be hurting a little bit, they didn’t win La Liga. They’re going to need to win the Champions League.”

Whilst you are cheering on England to (hopefully) achieve similar feats in Russia, you could be helping your local pub win ten grand. Official sponsor of the 2018 World Cup Budweiser are launching King of Pubs, a competition in search of the very best atmosphere in the UK to watch the football. Ten pubs and their punters will go up against one another during the tournament to see who can make the most noise and take home the title as the best pub, and win the £10,000 Pub Futures grant in the process.

In terms of the Three Lions, Martin believes that a quarter-final appearance is a realistic goal for the team, where the England squad could then potentially face Germany or Brazil. However, even before then, he knows they are know easy games.

“I’ve had a look at Tunisia and they’re solid, quite good technically. They’ll come with lots of confidence and none of these games should be written off. They’re all going to be difficult games. Belgium have got quite a remarkable squad of players to choose from, so when we come to that game, surely the pressure is on them.”

“Do we want to win the group? I don’t know. Depending where we are we could play Poland or Colombia, and then Germany or Brazil. Would you rather play Brazil or would you rather play Germany? Germany always do exceptionally well in tournaments but Brazil look favourites at the moment. If we did go out to one of those teams in the quarter-finals, they we could be quite happy with that achievement. Especially considering the last World Cup when we didn’t even get out of the group.”

Potentially painful memories were brought up when I asked Martin about the 2002 squad, perhaps England’s best chance to win an international trophy in recent years, and he, quite honestly and openly, agreed that they underachieved.

“The squad was certainly good enough to do better than it did. We were starting to get a good balance in the midfield. Gerrard went, Beckham, Owen Hargreaves had started coming into the mix. I thought he was underrated actually, in that midfield.”

“We got done by a goal from Ronaldinho against Brazil, it’s funny because the day before we played we trained on the pitch and it was really quite cold. It turned into a blisteringly hot day the next day and I took a look at the weather and thought ‘the Brazilians are going to fancy this today’.”

“Michael Owen played upfront and was struggling throughout the tournament with a hamstring injury. He scored the opening goal and I felt he should have come off at that point. He was being brave and wanting to stay on, and they came back into the game. We underachieved as we have done in many tournaments.”

Whatever happens in Russia this summer, Keown believes his former England teammate Gareth Southgate is well-equipped to exceed expectations.

“He’s qualified very comfortably and now he’s starting to implement his beliefs and the system that he wants to play. He’ll be doing his due diligence on all the opposition we’re going to play and he seems to have a closeness with the players and the respect of the players, it’s very grown up in that way.

“He’s been to enough tournaments himself, he knows what the players need on the pitch and off the pitch.  He needs to remain strong going into the World Cup. The nerves can’t transfer from him to the players. I think he’ll be very good at that, I think he’s well prepared.”

England performances are key to Budweiser’s Futures Grant as the pub that accumulates the most decibels over the course of the month wins. It’s that simple.

The grant follows a ground-breaking FA Club Futures initiative, which offers lower league football clubs significant investment in its future. Both grants are part of Budweiser’s ambition to support the future of grassroot facilities in England. 

Keown sees it as absolutely crucial to the England fan experience, especially considering the increased costs in tickets and travel that the modern football fan faces.

“It’s part of the community spirit, you know. The local pub, it’s important. It’s about bonding with the other people in the community that ‘we’ll just go down to the local’. We can’t be in Russia, but we can be in the local watching England and making all our noise heard.”