Jari's game: How did Litmanen fade away?

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Coaches and fans see players differently.

Watching Jari Litmanen, now 38, give the definitive performance as a midfield general against Wales at the weekend, it was hard not to wonder what - eight years ago - Gerard Houllier failed to see in a player the Finns call Kuningas (The King).

Against Wales, Litmanen was perpetually able to find space, circumvented the opposing defence with imaginative, precise passes (one of which led to Jonatan Johansson’s goal, scored slightly against the run of play) and only made three mistakes in the whole 90 minutes.

The riposte may come that this was against a Wales team that has lost its mojo, but you can only beat what’s in front of you. Litmanen may find he has less time and space against, say, Germany but he will still have the same impeccable technique, coolness and vision.

Watching the way he timed and placed his passes was exhilarating but saddening. Here is a player whose goals won the Eredivisie and the UEFA Champions League for Ajax by the time he was 24. (It helped that Edgar Davids would dole out retribution to any opponent who tried to clatter the Finn.)

Litmanen nets in the 1996 Champions League final 

But in the last 10 years, since Litmanen left Ajax, a horrendous run of injuries and a lack of faith from coaches like Houllier have condemned him to a nomadic career on the fringes of the European game.

At Ajax, where the fans sang “Litmanen ooh ooh” to the tune of Volare, he is rated alongside Cruyff and Van Basten.

In Finland, he is a god. 10,000 fans turned up in hope of seeing him play for FC Lahti in 2004, and he is the most capped Finnish international and all-time record goalscorer (30 in 121 games – not bad for a country that peaked at 33 in the FIFA rankings and for a player who has often played in the hole behind strikers like Johansson).

But to most of Europe, he remains an enigma, an enormous What Might Have Been. His big move from Ajax to Barcelona didn't work out. Liverpool fans still talk about his solo goal that almost put them through to the Champions League semi-final in 2002 and wonder why he was twice benched after scoring in two games in a row for them.

Litmanen had idolised Liverpool as a kid, irritating Ajax players with his constant references to the Merseyside club. But the dream move became a nightmare and he slipped away back to Ajax.

Signing for Liverpool from Barcelona in January 2001 

When Roy Hodgson took a gamble on Litmanen at Fulham last season, the coach was ridiculed. It didn’t help that the Finn was sidelined by injuries, heart palpitations and a bizarre training ground accident in which the reserve goalkeeper accidentally blasted the ball into the back of Litmanen’s head from just four yards.

Hodgson ruefully noted: “Litmanen must be the unluckiest fellow in football. When I first went to the Finnish FA, he was standing next to the sporting director of Malmo who opened a can of Coke and the ring popped into Jari’s eye.”

Through all these vicissitudes, Litmanen has remained imperturbable, apparently harbouring fewer regrets than Edith Piaf. But his career has not been worthy of his talent.

Frank Rijkaard said once: “Dennis Berkgamp was brilliant for Ajax but the best No.10 we ever had was Jari.”

The best we can hope for now is that, for Finland at least, he has many more glorious games left in him.

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