When Liverpool's manager, Rafa Benitez, talks of his philosophy he uses one word in summary. For the Spaniard, team is more important than anything else. It is thanks to that belief that Liverpool can look forward to at least two more games in this season's Champions League competition. Juventus for all their individual brilliance could not break down the collective might of Liverpool.
The absent list was once again large, with Gerrard the most notable absentee. There were no surprises in the players recalled. Dudek was deemed fit enough to return for Scott Carson, the young keeper despite the odd slip has made a positive impression in his short run in the side. Hyypia resumed alongside Carragher, Baros replaced Morientes but the most noticeable recall was in midfield. At the turn of the year, with Liverpool holding their own against league leaders Chelsea, Xabi Alonso was cut down by Frank Lampard, a foul that resulted in the breaking of the Spaniard's ankle. The tackle was the kind seen regularly in the Premiership and there was no intent on the Chelsea player's behalf. It was scant consolation to Alonso or his club, with Liverpool struggling during his three month absence. With just 45 minutes of reserve team action under his belt as his recovery neared completion, Benitez had little option but to throw him into the heart of the Liverpool side.
Whilst Alonso's recover was incredible, the recall of Djibril Cisse to the bench was near miraculous. The striker's season appeared to be over after a compound fracture of his leg. In fact at one stage it was feared that his career might be over. Suddenly the injury problems that have followed Liverpool around like a cartoon rain cloud appear to be clearing.
The game itself was a throw back to Italia '90. It was a game that would be lost on American sports administrators. A tight, hard fought draw with no goals and few clear chances surely can't be exciting. Yet it added to the tension. With just one chance, one goal needed to change the whole complexion of the tie the mind started to play tricks. This was the magic of Italia '90 - it was tease rather than full on adultery, and it worked it's wonders here. A Hyypia slip, a misplaced tackle from Carragher, a howler from Traore, the throught of what might happen next drove this game on.
Yet it is a credit to Liverpool, to Benitez and to the players that those fears were rarely allowed to be realised. Jerzy Dudek will rarely have a quieter game in goal. Juventus huffed and puffed but they couldn't blow down the door. Hyypia and Carragher were immense, Traore and Finnan worked hard to give little space down the flanks. It was the same across the field as each player played his part. It seems wrong given Benitez's view to single out individuals, but the performance of Alonso deserves special recognition. Lasting the full 90 minutes is one thing, excelling is another. Alonso's reputation is growing by the game. Already well thought of in his opening months at the club, his stock continued to rise during his absence. None of that can live up to his showing against Juventus though. Liverpool needed calm heads, and Alonso was the calmest. Filling the space the attacking talents of Del Piero and Nedved were hoping to exploit he rarely allowed Juventus to build an attack, whilst his use of possession was supremely assured. Alongside him Biscan, without the grace of Alonso, went about doing everything he could to assist his midfield partner. Biscan's future at Anfield seemed destined to end in the summer, but slowly his standing is moving from cult to main stream - talk of a new contract suggests Benitez might just be joining Igor's fan club.
The Old Lady did have their chances. The best came in the first half when Nedved, so dangerous in the first leg, found a rare moment alone on the left flank and delivered a wicked cross. Ibrahimovic ghosted in and connected with the ball on the edge of the six yard, leaning back though he saw the ball fly well over Dudek's goal. It was the best chance of the first half, in fact it was the only chance. Whilst the first half had been low key, the second half saw Juventus attempting to turn up the pressure. Yet for all their effort, Liverpool kept a close guard throughout.
Liverpool had a chance to seal the tie in the second half. Alonso broke up yet another Juventus attack, and with opposition players caught ahead of the ball, he spat a pass towards Baros who had moved towards the edge of the box. Left of goal, Baros both created and wasted the chance within three touches. His first was superb, placing the ball between the legs of Cannavaro, putting him into a shooting position, his next touch carried the ball forward into a shooting position but then, under pressure from Thuram, his third play of the ball, a left footed prod, saw the ball roll wide of the upright.
Baros, criticised for missed chances during the Merseyside derby had once again seen a gilt edged opportuity pass by. So clinical infront of goal before Christmas, the Czech striker appears able to do anything but score since the festive period. For a short moment it appeared he would be punished for the miss. DelPiero conjured up one moment of quick footed trickery down the Liverpool right and having deceived the defence, Finnan was forced to foul just outside the box. The free kick was curled in towards the far edge of the six yard box. As Cannavaro rose to challenge Traore, echoing his leap for the goal in the earlier game, it seemed the Liverpool player had the advantage. However, Traore, failing to read the script, suffered a momentary lapse in concentration, missing his header and allowing Cannavaro the touch. Thankfully the header was not clean and the ball hit the upright rather than the back of the net. Bouncing back into play, Dudek and his defence scrambled the ball off the goal line and out for a corner as over optimistic shouts for a goal came from a couple of Juve players.
With the exception of a header from distance that Dudek safely claimed and a bobbling shot from the brilliant Zambrotta that was also held, Juventus failed to muster the chance needed. As the seconds ticked by, each one slower than the last, the belief that this was Liverpool's night grew. As stoppage time was reached, Liverpool suddenly found enough resolve to retain possession and see out the closing minutes. As the final whistle blew all involved with Liverpool celebrated a special performance.
The result demonstrates the magic of the competition. It is a credit to UEFA that they challenged the clubs and removed the second league stage. With it, Liverpool probably wouldn't be where they are now. Some will argue that Liverpool's participation in the semi-finals devalues the competition, the same people would probably be those who celebrate the magic of the FA cup after a giant killing performance in that competition. The truth is, Liverpool are worthy of their place. Having entertained through to this stage with stunning away victories, attacking football and last minute dramas, the victory over Juventus added credibility to the list. This was no mid-table German side or a side from one of the lesser European leagues. This was Juventus, well beaten at Anfield, carefully controlled in Turin. A Juventus side containing some of the most celebrated players in World football were made to look no better than a heavily depleted Liverpool side.
And so to Chelsea. The Blues from West London will talk of three wins in three games this season against Liverpool. Yet, only the most blinkered of their supporters would believe this tells the full story. The sub-plot tells as much as the headlines, three clear penalties denied, the injuring of Liverpool's key midfielder it all adds up to suggest that the battle of the Premiership will be close. Chelsea have been outstanding in this season's competition and will rightly go in as favourites. Yet Liverpool's record stands up for comparison, whilst the ever increasing good news from the Anfield medical room will provide Benitez with the kind of options he might have been forgiven for wondering if he'd ever enjoy. The dream lives on...
© Anthony Jones 2005