Following the club’s thrilling victory in Turkey, there was much debate about whether Liverpool would be allowed to defend their title because they had finished the League season in 5th position, one place behind their city neighbours Everton. The previous season’s winners nearly always finish in one of the Champions’ League places, although there was a case only a few years earlier when Real Madrid, despite winning the European cup, did not qualify for the next season’s competition due to a low league finishing position. On that occasion the Spanish Football Association ruled in Madrid’s favour with Zaragoza being the club to drop down into the UEFA cup instead. However, the English football authorities had made it plain even before the Istanbul final that the club finishing 4th in the Premier League would take its place in the Champions’ League even if Liverpool won the competition. After Liverpool’s victory they would not change their decision and in the end it was UEFA who decided that Liverpool would get an opportunity to defend their trophy but that they would have to go through all the qualifying rounds if they wanted to participate in the group stage of the tournament.
So it was that just 48 days after returning from Istanbul, a Liverpool team started a competitive season as early as the 13th of July against the Welsh minnows of T.N.S. Captain Steven Gerrard, about whom there had again been intense speculation of a summer transfer to Chelsea, scored a hat-trick in front of a capacity crowd at Anfield and added two more goals in the second leg staged at Wrexham’s Racecourse stadium to help ease his club through to the second qualifying round, where waiting for them was another club nobody knew anything much about … FBK Kaunas of Lithuania. Kaunas shocked the defending champions by taking the lead but by half-time ‘normal service’ had been resumed with goals from Cisse and Carragher, his first since January, 1999! Another goal from Gerrard, this time from the penalty-spot, ensured a comfortable victory to take back to England. Another close-to-capacity Anfield crowd had to wait until the closing stages before goals from Gerrard and Cisse eased Liverpool through to the 3rd and final qualifying round.
CSKA Sofia stood between Liverpool and the group stage. Once again there was a comfortable away victory (3-1), but as with the year before against Graz this was followed by a most disappointing home performance and a 1-0 defeat that still couldn’t prevent an aggregate victory. Immediately after this game, Liverpool flew to Monaco to participate in the annual match for the European Super cup between the winners of the Champions’ League and the UEFA cup, CSKA Moscow. Liverpool conceded the first goal but a double from Man of the Match Djibril Cisse, who also made a third for Luis Garcia, ensured that the club won the Super cup for a third time, paving the way for Liverpool fans to celebrate in Monaco.
The draw for the group stage of the Champions’ League was also made in Monaco. Liverpool were the seeded team in a group that included Chelsea and Anderlecht but the opening match took Rafa Benitez back to his homeland to face Real Betis in the southern city of Seville. First-half goals from Pongolle and Garcia ensured that the team made the best possible start to the group phase. A home goal-less draw with Chelsea followed before the Reds beat Anderlecht home and away. The final two matches were also without goals but the second of those draws, at Stamford Bridge, ensured that Liverpool topped their group, meaning that they would play the second leg of their knockout match on Merseyside.
The draw paired Liverpool with old adversaries Benfica, a club they had previously knocked out of Europe on three occasions in the 1970’s and 1980’s. But there was to be no quadruple success. The Portuguese scored late in Lisbon to win by the only goal of the first leg and then survived fairly comfortably at Anfield by scoring a goal in each half to knock the holders out. It was a huge disappointment for the Anfield faithful who had again turned out in numbers to support their team, all 7 of Liverpool’s home games in the competition including the qualifiers attracting crowds in excess of 42,000.
In 2006-07 for the third season running Liverpool again had to qualify for the right to play in the group stage of the Champions’ League; also for the third season running they had problems winning the home game and it was only with time running out that Mark Gonzalez scored the goal that beat their Israeli opponents from Haifa. However, Maccabi had scored an important away goal on Merseyside, something Peter Crouch emulated when the two clubs met again in Kiev nearly two weeks later. Crouch’s goal was enough to send Liverpool through 3-2 on aggregate.
Crouch didn’t play when Liverpool started their group campaign with a tame 0-0 draw in Eindhoven against PSV. He did however start the next match, at home to Galatasaray, and responded with two fine goals, the second a sensational overhead kick, to help see off the Turks at Anfield. Bordeaux were then beaten twice before the team ensured qualification for the knockout stage with a comfortable home win over PSV. The final group match saw a return to the Ataturk stadium in Istanbul but even two Robbie Fowler goals could not prevent Liverpool slipping to a narrow defeat by three goals to two.
There was much anticipation about the draw for the first knockout round, which sensationally saw the competition’s two previous winners (Liverpool and Barcelona) drawn against each other. Despite falling behind to Deco’s early header in the Nou Camp, the visitors recovered to draw level through Craig Bellamy and then take the lead through John Arne Riise, the two scorers having already made the headlines for the wrong reasons after a training-ground bust-up in the build-up to the game. Anfield was rocking when the Catalans came to Anfield a fortnight later. Riise hit the woodwork and then Sissoko hit the top of the crossbar after a goalkeeping error. Clear chances were few but Ronaldinho should have done better than hit the post early in the second half. The host’s defence held firm until it was finally breached by Gudjohnsen but there were no further goals and the final whistle was greeted with relief by the home fans as much as anything else.
Liverpool had to travel to Eindhoven again when the quarter-final draw was made and found out at the same time that the winners would face either Valencia or Chelsea in the semi-final. After the 0-0 draw in the group stage, Benitez picked a strong side to win the game in Holland … and that they did comfortably enough by 3-0 whereas a lone Peter Crouch goal was enough to beat the Dutch on Merseyside 8 days later.
So Fate had decreed that there would be a repeat of the momentous 2005 semi-final between Liverpool and Chelsea, with the first game again taking place in London. But Drogba’s goal meant Liverpool had it all to do in their own stadium. Parity was restored in the 22nd minute with a goal beautifully created by Gerrard and finished by Agger. Reina coped competently with everything Chelsea threw at him but the home side came close to extending its lead when Kuyt’s header came back off the crossbar midway through the second period. The match went into extra-time. Kuyt thought he had put his team ahead when he reacted quickly after Alonso’s shot had been parried by Cech. It was a very tight decision but the goal was ruled out for offside.
After that there was a certain inevitability about the penalty shoot-out that followed shortly after 22.15 local time. Zenden coolly scored but then Reina parried Robben’s attempt. Alonso, Lampard and Gerrard then scored to give Liverpool a 3-1 advantage before Geremi stepped up in front of a cacophony of sound and saw his kick saved by Reina. This meant that if Dirk Kuyt scored, Liverpool would be heading for the final in Athens. A firm, right-footed shot squeezed past Cech, Kuyt ran across and jumped into Reina’s arms before both striker and goalkeeper were engulfed by celebrating team-mates.
24 hours later in the other semi-final, AC Milan comfortably overturned a 2-3 deficit to knock Manchester United out. So the final would also be a re-match of 2005.
There were three weeks between semi-final and final. Liverpool’s preparations are disrupted by almighty rows over the suitability of the stadium in Athens to hold such an important and prestigious event … and the miserly ticket allocation given to each of the two finalists, especially when it becomes known how many tickets are going to ‘the UEFA family’. Inevitably, thousands of Liverpool supporters travel to Greece without tickets, many of them angry about the way their club has chosen to distribute its allocation.
It is Liverpool’s 7th European cup final and Milan’s 11th. Milan are seeking revenge for what happened in Istanbul; Liverpool are seeking to equal Milan’s six titles. The manager picks a team that most Liverpool supporters are happy with, although many would prefer Crouch to Kuyt. There are few chances in an even first half. Pennant forces a save from Dida after 10 minutes and Alonso shoots wide from distance as the half-hour approaches. Then a minute before the interval Alonso trips Kaka in a dangerous position just outside Liverpool’s penalty-box. Pirlo takes the kick, the ball strikes Inzaghi fortuitously and deflects past Reina, who hasn’t got time to change direction and make the save.
The second period follows the pattern of the first. Gerrard breaks through just after the hour but shoots weakly and Dida makes a comfortable save. Benitez makes his changes … Kewell for Zenden and Crouch for Mascherano. But less than five minutes after Crouch’s arrival, the final is lost as Kaka slips the ball through to Inzaghi who slots it past Reina. Mascherano had kept Kaka fairly quiet but the Italian had more freedom once Mascherano was substituted.
Liverpool press looking for an Istanbul-style recovery. Dida tips Crouch’s fierce volley over the bar for a corner. From another corner with time running out, Agger flicks the ball on and Kuyt nods it into the net. There are three minutes added time but Liverpool don’t get close to the Milan goal again. The final whistle goes and the dream is over.
The players look shattered in defeat but they had a wonderful run, knocking out the defending champions and then beating Chelsea for the third successive season in a major semi-final. You can enjoy victory but you have to be dignified and gracious in defeat too. Liverpool are that despite the pain of losing. The European campaign has ended in great disappointment but the final league position has once again ensured qualification for the following season in Europe’s most prestigious club competition. Two finals in three seasons is a remarkable achievement. Even if one of them was lost, there is always the hope that it can happen again and during the summer the manager will be busy making his plans and preparation for another campaign that might end in Moscow in May, 2008.
Copyright - Chris Wood for LFChistory.net