Robbie Fowler scored a breathtaking goal to open the scoring in Bergen when the Reds played Brann in the quarter-final and he should have had a penalty after the Norwegians had equalised. But a score-draw was a satisfactory result, especially as Tore Andre Flo (linked at the time with Liverpool but who subsequently moved to Chelsea) had missed a glorious chance in the first minute. Two more goals from Fowler at Anfield plus one from Stan Collymore ensured a comfortable passage through to the semi-final to face the holders from Paris Saint-Germain. Expectation was high but on the night it was a miserable defensive performance and one of David James' worst games in a Liverpool shirt. The French won 3-0 and although a big crowd roared Liverpool on a fortnight later, it was just too much to make up. Fowler's early goal gave hope and when Mark Wright outjumped Lama to head in a corner with time running out, there was just the faint chance of a sensational comeback. But it was not to be and frankly if a team plays as poorly as the Liverpool side which took to the field in Paris, then it can neither expect nor deserve to go any further in the competition.
Returning to the UEFA cup for the 1997-98 season, the last thing Liverpool wanted was to be paired with British opposition in the very first round but that was what happened when Liverpool and Celtic were drawn together. In an eventful match at Parkhead, Michael Owen's pace took him clear early on to give the Reds the lead but by midway through the second half the hosts were leading 2-1. With the home crowd whistling for full-time Steve McManaman scored an extraordinary goal, collecting the ball right by the touchline in his own half and embarking on a run which ended with him curling the ball in off a post for a sensational last-minute equaliser. Although he was never properly challenged during that run, it was still a fabulous goal. Back at Anfield having secured two away goals Liverpool seemed content to sit back and defend a lot of the time but would they have been able to recover if they had conceded a goal? As things turned out, the home leg finished 0-0 but it been another very nervous and hardly convincing 90 minutes. But another French debacle was only weeks ago. An awful performance in Strasbourg brought the same heavy defeat that the team had experienced in Paris earlier in the year. Once again the home leg was won 2-0 but it was too little too late. The performances in some of the away ties were giving cause for concern. The great Liverpool teams of the past knew how to slow the game down and quieten the crowd but as the joint-partnership between Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier came to a close leaving the Frenchman in sole charge of first-team affairs, it was clear that there needed to be some hard thinking about why the team was being beaten so often on their travels, especially as the 'four foreigners' rule had been rescinded and left managers much more freedom to pick their teams. Another awful defensive performance at Celta Vigo effectively ended the club's European interest in the 1998-99 UEFA cup. This was particularly frustrating because it came only weeks after a marvellous achievement in beating Valencia on away goals after seeming to have handed the Spaniards an advantage by only drawing 0-0 at Anfield. Despite going behind in Spain, terrific goals from McManaman & Berger put Liverpool ahead on the night and only a second Valencia goal deep into stoppage-time deprived the club of a famous victory.
Gerard Houllier brought numerous new players to the club. Most were effective but this especially applied to the defence with the astute purchases of Stephane Henchoz and Sami Hyypia. The Frenchman was extremely knowledgeable about European football and European players and many of his signings, if not entirely unknown, were certainly not familiar figures to the British football-loving public. Narrowingly missing out on lucrative Champions' League football by losing the last League match of the 2000-01 season at Bradford City, Houllier prepared for another campaign in the UEFA cup instead. It was a campaign which against the hopes and expectations of most of the supporters took Liverpool right through to the final itself. Considering that after the early rounds they had to compete against strong clubs which had 'come down' from the Champions’ League, it was a quite remarkable achievement but it was on based on something that had been lacking during the previous few years, a sound defence which was the main reason why they progressed to the final without losing a single one of the six away matches they faced during that run. Maybe the draw was kind to Liverpool in the early rounds? But it certainly got a lot tougher after that. Michael Owen's brilliant run set up Nick Barmby for the only goal in Bucharest against Rapid and both players found the net in the next away tie at Liberec. The home matches against both the Rumanians and the team from the Czech Republic were pretty awful to watch but the performances in the away legs ensured progress in the competition. A last-minute goal deprived Liverpool of a famous victory in Athens against Olympiakos, but the game should have been settled long before then as so many good chances were wasted in the second half after Steven Gerrard's goal had quickly restored the lead on the night. At Anfield, the Greeks were beaten without too much fuss, Barmby again being one of the scorers.
In the fourth round Liverpool faced a mouth-watering clash with the Italian league-leaders, AS Roma. It was an eagerly anticipated clash against the club Liverpool had famously defeated on penalties in the 1984 European cup final. The Italians talked of revenge but I suspect there was also respect for what Liverpool were achieving under their new French coach. Sadly, the supporters who travelled to Italy were severely provoked and appallingly 'protected', just as they had been in the previous round in Greece. But what happened on the pitch soon took away any animosity they felt at the way they had been treated inside and outside the stadium. Sound defensively but also able to counter-attack effectively, this was one of the club's greatest-ever performances. They restricted Roma to just one decent chance in the first period and then Michael Owen took over with two terrific goals in the second half to silence the home crowd. But for all the conviction of this wonderful away victory, there was always the worry that Liverpool would approach the second game in a more defensive frame of mind. They did have the upper hand but knew that the Italians still possessed enough players of quality to give them problems at Anfield.
Despite the tenseness of the occasion, if Owen had put away the penalty-kick Liverpool were awarded in the second-half, this tie would surely have been settled there and then. But his poor kick was saved and instead of being 3-0 up on aggregate it was soon 2-1. Liverpool were hanging on now to the two precious goals they had scored in Rome but when the Spanish referee pointed to the spot after Markus Babbel had inadvertently handled a cross, it looked as if extra-time and/or penalties would be needed to decide the outcome. Amazingly, the referee then pointed to the corner-flag instead, a decision which incensed the Italians but which came as a great relief to the Liverpool players and supporters. Somehow, the home team held out without any further scares but it had been a mighty close thing. The Italians half-heartedly appealed against the result but there was never any doubt of UEFA reversing the decision that one of their officials had made. European ties are won over TWO legs and although there had been many uncomfortable moments at Anfield after Roma scored, there is no doubt that this tie was won in Rome.
Liverpool were criticised for their negative approach against Porto and Barcelona. But seen in the context of a two-legged affair, these were great results based on disciplined defending even if they weren't great attacking performances. Other English clubs Chelsea & Leeds had been demolished in the Nou Camp in the last year. Why should Liverpool go there and 'invite' the same thing to happen to them? After drawing 0-0 in Portugal, most fans expected a home win and so it proved with first-half goals from Murphy and Owen. The 0-0 in Barcelona might not have been pretty to watch but it was certainly effective. The Spaniards added spice to the Anfield return by allegedly making some uncomplimentary comments about the way Liverpool had performed in the first leg. But everyone knew this tie wasn't over; Barca's side was littered with some of football's biggest names and they were quite capable of getting the score-draw they needed or even winning the game outright.
Liverpool approached the game in exactly the right manner. They knew they would have to score but they didn't take many risks and even though they were now at home they knew that being strong and disciplined at the back could be crucial because if they were patient the chances ought to come at the other end of the pitch. When the goal did come, it was something of a surprise as Kluivert needlessly handled a corner just before the interval and Gary McAllister stepped up with confidence to convert the spot-kick. Barcelona played well as they tried to even things up but Liverpool's defence held firm. The tension in the last few minutes was almost unbearable but finally the referee's whistle sounded to signal the end of the game and Liverpool were through to their first European final for 16 years, where they would face the unknowns of Alaves from Vitoria, the capital of the Spanish Basque region and a club that was remarkably playing in a European competition for the first time in its history and yet which had reached the final on merit with some great performances, particularly away at Rosenborg, Inter-Milan and Kaiserslautern. Liverpool would be firm favourites to lift the UEFA trophy for a third time but they would certainly not underestimate their opponents, whose players included Jordi Cruyff (son of the famous ex-Ajax and Barcelona legend who started to make unkind comments about Liverpool's method of play as soon as the finalists were known) and Dan Eggen, whose header had ended Liverpool's hopes in the same competition when he was a Brondby player.
May 16th 2001 in Dortmund was the day when Liverpool's European destiny would be decided, just four days after they had beaten Arsenal in the F.A. cup final at Cardiff. It turned out to be one of the most remarkable club finals played anywhere in the world. Liverpool can look at the goals they conceded, that having been so defensively sound earlier in the tournament they should not have let slip their 2-0 and 3-1 leads. But it takes two teams to make a great match and Alaves certainly played their part. The dream start everyone craved came true with Babbel's early header from McAllister's immaculate cross and when Gerrard powered through to take Owen's pass in his stride it looked as if the Reds would go on to win comfortably. The two goals Moreno scored early in the second period that levelled the score at 3-3 were hard to take but Robbie Fowler came off the bench to regain the lead only for Jordi Cruyff's header to tie things up again and take the final into extra-time.
With the 'Golden Goal' rule coming into effect in a European club final for the first time, there was no margin for error. Both sides had chances and disallowed goals before Spanish indiscipline cost them their dream only minutes before a penalty shoot-out would have settled the outcome. Man of the Match McAllister's cross from the free-kick which followed the second dismissal of an Alaves player skimmed off the head of a defender and into the far corner of the goal to bring extraordinary scenes of relief and jubilation on and off the field. The watching world saw Robbie Fowler and Sami Hyypia step proudly forward to receive the UEFA cup. After 16 long years, Liverpool were finally in possession of another European trophy, their seventh. The incredible journey which had started in Bucharest several months before was over and Liverpool could once more claim their place amongst the continent's elite with great pride in their achievement. The players who had worked so hard to reach the final no longer had to live in the shadow of their illustrious predecessors. They had made history of their own. Whether this would be the start of a new golden era for the club in Europe nobody could say. In the dark days which followed Heysel and in the subsequent turbulent years of the 1990's when success was so limited domestically never mind abroad this sort of triumph would have been unthinkable. Gerard Houllier's knowledge of the European game and his tactical awareness had helped mould a team-spirit and self-belief which were crucial when the going got tough against teams with much more experience of the continental game. His men had to grow up quickly and learn fast and they did! In Dortmund they got their reward and with it the hope and expectation that it could be the start of another glorious chapter in the club’s history.
Copyright - Chris Wood