If Istanbul 2005 lives long in the memory of every Liverpool fan who was there and those watching at home, 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 was 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 (Vladimír Šmicer, Milan Baroš and Jerzy Dudek) and Dmiji Traoré. Two years later, only five of that original team survived as Rafa Benítez 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.
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 period between 2005 and 2009, where two finals and three semis were reached, Liverpool were conditioned to play in a manner that was tactically prescient but often hard on the eye. In the blue half of the city, David Moyes described his counterpart’s tactics as having “a lot of mechanical, organised, moves and set-ups in their play.” Benítez described Everton as a “small club” in response.
In 2007, it was Liverpool against Chelsea part two as José Mourinho and the Spaniard 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 Čech save from Gerrard the only Liverpool moment of note. The Reds levelled on aggregate thanks to a Daniel 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 2005 and 2007 against Chelsea only produced three goals in 390 minutes of football. Two, if you believe that Luis García’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. Writing for Marca, he 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. The extreme control and seriousness with which both teams played the semi-final neutralised any creative licence, any moments of exquisite skill.”
He had a point. The workhorse qualities of Dirk 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. Jermaine Pennant was the biggest wildcard that Benítez 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 XI ever in a Champions League final, with the average age at 31 years and 34 days. Paolo Maldini was in his 40th year.
With Pennant playing on the wing and Gerrard in an advanced role, Liverpool looked compact, stifling Kaká and Clarence Seedorf in the middle of the park thanks to 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 Sir Alex Ferguson, sneaked a goal just before half-time.
With only 12 minutes left did the Spaniard finally introduce a second striker in Peter Crouch. Shortly afterwards, Inzaghi scored the second. Benítez defiantly went back to defensive default mode when he swapped Steve Finnan for Álvaro Arbeloa on 88 minutes – perhaps the most pointless Champions League final substitution in history at 2-0 down.
Gerrard is still haunted by that final: “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 Bellamy didn’t even get a look in. How Sadio Manè, Mohamed Salah and Firmino would have relished the chance to run at the creaking bones of the Rossoneri.
After Fernando Torres was recruited from Atlético Madrid in the summer of 2007 for £20m 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 goal-fest, 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 Benítez’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 scoreline was repeated against Arsenal when the Reds were going full tilt for the title.
The 2008/09 campaign was the year of Benítez’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”. Liverpool now have three thrilling marksmen, not one. How Steven Gerrard must wish he was 25 again.
By Tim Ellis @Timotei365