In Liverpool’s last Champions League final eleven years ago in Athens, they were playing another ageing side. Unfortunately, they had no pace to hunt them down…
Thanks Tim Ellis for this guest post!
If Istanbul 2005 lives long in the memory of every Liverpool fan who was there and those watching at home in ecstatic disbelief, Athens 2007 is the one that is pushed under the Red carpet and put out to pasture. It was a glorious missed opportunity to beat a side that were almost ready for the retirement home.
The unlikely heroes of 2005 were a hotchpotch of failing parts (Harry Kewell), unreliable leftovers from the Houllier regime (Vladimir Smicer, Milan Baros and Jerzy Dudek) and Dmiji Traore. Two years later, only five of that original team survived as Rafa Benitez upgraded his goalkeeper and installed Javier Mascherano into the midfield alongside Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard. Upfront, Kuyt, Crouch and Bellamy sounded more like a Tribute band than the Fab Three. Their scoring ratios were a leisurely one every four games too.
A solid spine was moulded in the operating theatre. But who was finishing things up with a clinician’s knife?
When Juande Ramos’s Real Madrid were smashed 4-0 in the last 16 nine years ago, the Reds were officially ranked the number one club in Europe. That night, they were purring and could have won by eight.
But in the first half of that epic reign between 2005-9, where two finals and three semis were reached, Liverpool were conditioned to play in a manner that was tactically prescient but hard on the eye. In the blue half of the city, David Moyes described his counterpart’s tactics as “a lot of mechanical, organised, moves and set-ups in their play.” Benitez described Everton as a “small club”. Miaow.
In 2007, it was Liverpool v Chelsea part two as Jose Mourinho and Benitez locked horns again with increasing enmity but even less entertainment on the pitch. Liverpool lost a scratchy first leg at Stamford Bridge to a Joe Cole goal with a brilliant Petr Cech save from Gerrard the only quality Liverpool moment of note. The Reds levelled on aggregate with a solitary Dan Agger strike from a carefully orchestrated set-piece. Given that penalty saving specialist and FA Cup hero Pepe Reina was up their sleeve, there was only going to be one winner in the shootout that followed. Rafa’s Buddha position saw to that.
Those first two semi-finals in ’05 and ’07 against Chelsea only produced three goals in 390 minutes of football. Two, if you believe that Luis Garcia’s effort was a “ghost” goal. It was a fascinating but rather ghoulish watch between two managers who were inherently conservative and would ache control over every situation. Real Madrid legend and Argentine World cup winner Jorge Valdano certainly had no time for Liverpool’s 2007 finalists, and nor did he spare the Special One either.
Valdano, writing in Marca, said: “Chelsea and Liverpool are the clearest, most exaggerated example of the way football is going: very intense, very collective, very tactical, very physical, and very direct,” he added… The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill.”
The Argentinian World Cup winner had a point. The workhorse qualities of Kuyt were loved by the Kop in much the same way as they now adore Roberto Firmino but the skill and cuteness of the Brazilian was nowhere to be seen. Bolo Zenden was functionality personified. The mercurial Jermaine Pennant was the biggest wildcard that Benitez had at his disposal.
So while Rafa was essentially leading the ruling party in Europe, there was still an essential ingredient missing when Liverpool reached the Greek capital for a reunion with opponents who were out to avenge the miracle. This time, the Anfield club were favourites against Carlo Ancelotti’s side. After all, Milan were fielding the oldest starting eleven ever in a Champions League final, with the average age at 31 years, 34 days. Paolo Maldini was in his fortieth year.
With Pennant playing on the wing and Gerrard in an advanced role, Liverpool looked compact, stifling Kaka and Clarence Seedorf in the middle of the park with Alonso and Mascherano’s work-rate. However, despite numerous repeat drills of crosses into the box by Pennant before the final, they simply didn’t threaten enough going forward. The penalty box predator was actually on the other side as 33-year-old Pippo Inzaghi,,“born offside” according to Fergie, sneaked a goal just before half-time.
Only with 12 minutes left did “the Spanish waiter” finally introduce a second striker in Crouch. Shortly afterwards, Inzaghi scored the second. Benitez defiantly went back to defensive default mode when he swapped Steve Finnan for Alvaro Arbeloa on 88 minutes – perhaps the most pointless Champions League final substitution in history at 2-0 down.
In a week where Jurgen Klopp has told his charges that they must be brave in Kiev, that defeat in Greece haunts Gerrard as much as his infamous slip against Chelsea. :“The team selection wasn’t right that night. In my opinion, there wasn’t enough pace in the line-up to hurt Milan.” The hustle of Craig Bellamy didn’t even get a look in. How Mane, Salah and Firmino would have relished the chance to run at the creaking bones of the Rossoneri.
After Fernando Torres was recruited from Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2007 for 20 million under the spurious Hicks and Gillett American dream, suddenly Liverpool had a marksman upfront. The 2008 and 2009 knockout encounters with Chelsea were more of a goalfest, with an aggregate of 19 over the four games – a state of affairs that would be quite natural for Klopp’s risk-taking power surge paratroopers but mind-blowing for the rigorous nature of Benitez’s carefully coordinated war games.
In fact, the last time Liverpool bowed out of the Champions League in glorious failure was that 4-4 second leg quarter-final at Stamford Bridge in 2009. A week later, the score line was repeated against Arsenal when the Reds were going full tilt for the title.
2008/9 was the year of Benitez’s liberation at Liverpool, as they outscored Manchester United, the eventual champions, by nine goals. No longer did they play football which Valdano described as “shit on a stick”. The entertainment in Eastern Europe on Saturday night will probably be a damn sight easier on the eye than that Greek tragedy eleven years ago. Liverpool now have three thrilling marksmen not one. How Stevie G must have wished he was 25 again,….