I shouldn’t need to tell you what this article is about, it’s your duty as a Red to know exactly where we are going with this. Even now, thirteen years later, as I watch the game back I still get goosebumps. Even now, as the Paolo Maldini fires Milan ahead, I still feel my blood run cold. Some people will say that this is a just a football game but it meant more than that. It meant more then and it means the same now. The Champions League final in 2005 was a turning point not just in my career as a football fan or for the football club in general, it was also a turning point in many peoples’, including mine, lives.
We were always the outsiders in every game we played in Europe that season. We had qualified the previous season after a race between ourselves and Newcastle for fourth place. The Magpies draw to Southampton in the penultimate game of the season meant that our end of season showdown meant little for anything but pride. Shola Ameobi gave te lead but Michael Owen equalised, meaning his and Gerard Houllier’s last collective act for the club was to guarantee a fourth placed finish for 2003/04.
The summer was one of almighty change at Anfield. Gerard Houllier was shown the door a week after the end of the season and Rafa Benitez was brought in after a long courtship, in which Liverpool also looked at Gordon Strachan and Martin O’Neill. Michael Owen also left for Real Madrid in an insulting £8 million deal with Antonio Nunez thrown in as a sweetener. There was some good news though. We had managed to fend off the attentions of Chelsea to get Steven Gerrard to commit to the club and Benitez also signed some quality players, in the form of Luis Garcia (£5 million from Barcelona) and Xabi Alonso (£10 million from Real Sociedad).
A 2-0 win in Austria over Graz AK in the first leg of the qualifiers meant we looked pretty safe, although Rene Aufhauser’s rasper in the return leg at Anfield made for a nervy night for all. The draw for the group stages pulled out three tricky sides; Monaco, Deportivo La Coruna and Olympiakos. On paper they were easy games but we were by far and away the weakest of the English sides in the competition that year. Arsenal were coming off the back of an unbeaten season, Chelsea had just appointed Jose Mourinho and were flexing their financial muscles, and Manchester United were, well, Manchester United unfortunately. We had a point to prove – we knew it, the players it and Benitez knew it.
After thrashing Monaco at Anfield 3-0 we were disappointingly beaten 1-0 in Greece by Olympiakos. We would then play Deportivo in back-to-back games and needed three points from one of those games. We played out a goalless draw with them at Anfield but a semi-rejuvenated Igor Biscan went on a mazy run before setting up an own goal for Jorge Andrade. A win in Monaco would probably seal our progression to the knockout phase, but Javier Saviola’s goal saw to it that we’d have to wait. Replays showed he controlled the ball with his arm before finishing but Chris Kirkland’s appeals fell on deaf ears. Olympiakos’ win over Depor meant we needed to beat them by two clear goals at Anfield in our final group game to progress. We were in deep trouble.
That game, though only a group game, had a big game feel about it. Even around the ground and the city it felt like a massive European night. Being a thirteen year old I had not experienced many of them in my short life, the UEFA Cup semi-final against Barcelona in 2001 probably being the closest I had seen to the fabled European nights of old at that point. But I was getting a taste of here, on Wednesday 8th December 2004.
Liverpool dominated from the first minute and the task seemed clear in everyone’s minds. The Greeks came back into it though and a Rivaldo free-kick sailed through a disintegrated Liverpool wall to give them the lead. We needed to score three to save this game and our Champions League campaign. Steven Gerrard had said prior that he didn’t want to wake up on Thursday morning in the UEFA Cup and I remember thinking, “you bastard, you’re looking for any way out of this club.” He didn’t have to worry though.
Rafa made changes that immediately paid dividend. Harry Kewell was having a poor season for injuries and form, but the width he provided changed the game. On forty seven minutes he chipped into the area and another sub, Florent Sinama-Pongolle, bundled the ball home. Time began to run out though as Liverpool searched for another. It was his cross again which Nunez headed at goal for Antonis Nikopolodis to parry back into the path of Neil Mellor, who smashed in the rebound. The Kop began to sense something. On eighty six minutes, Jamie Carragher came forward down the right from centre half. What was he doing up there? He played a ball into the head of Mellor, that lovely cushioned header, which fell to Gerrrrraaaaaaaarrrrrrd. OH YOU BEAUTYYYYYY!! WHAT A HIT SON. WHAT. A. HIT!
So Liverpool marched into the round of 16 to face Bayer Leverkusen. Again, like the Olympiakos game and the likelihood of us escaping the group, nobody gave us a chance. Goals from Garcia, John Arne Riise and Dietmar Hamann gave us a convincing lead, but Franca’s late consolation planted the seed of doubt in Liverpool fans’ minds going to Germany. There was no need though. Milan Baros and a Garcia brace ruled Jan Krzynowek’s late drive nothing more than gloss on the aggregate scoreline for Leverkusen, and we marched into the semi-finals. Things were getting serious though and, when we drew Juventus, it looked like we were at the end of the road. It had been fun but Juventus were serious contenders to win the whole thing. Maybe this was as good as it got for us.
There was a lot of bad blood going into this game from the Juventus fans. This year was of course the twentieth anniversary of the Heysel disaster and the Italians hadn’t forgot what happened in Belgium that day, when thirty nine of their fans died after a wall collapsed on them following trouble from so-called Liverpool ‘fans’. The club erected a club on the Centenary stand reading “en memoria e amicizia” – in memory and friendship – as well as holding a minutes silence before the game. Some of the away support appreciated it and clapped, some couldn’t even bare to look and turned their backs.
They were, of course, heavy favourites for this game. They had the likes of Pavel Nedved, Alessandro Del Piero and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up against Liverpool’s Anthony Le Tallec, Djimi Traore and Scott Carson. It didn’t seem like a contest when you looked at the team-sheets. However, for whatever reason, they couldn’t live with us. We were too quick and too intense for them. We pressured them everywhere and team on their way to another Serie A triumph were like a rabbit in the headlights. Sami Hyypia volleyed us in front before Luis Garcia scored a wonderful dipping effort past Gianluigi Buffon to double the lead. Scott Carson, only 19-years-old at the time and making his debut after signing from Leeds United in January, had been flawless all game – that was until he fumbled Fabio Cannavaro’s header in the sixty third minute and gifted Juve a way back into the tie. A single goal in Turin would see them through.
What followed was, at that point in my life, one of the most agonising ninety minutes I had ever endured. Juventus seemed to pour forward. Ibrahimovic blazed an effort over the bar from about three yards, which nearly gave me a heart attack, before Del Piero had one blocked on the line by what looked like the hand of Traore. Thirteen years later I’m happy to admit it was handball, although at the time I’d have caused harm to anyone who did the same. We managed to withstand the barrage and knock out the mighty Juventus. We were into the semi-finals and, after beating a time like that, anything was possible. I still don’t remember many people talking about the unthinkable though. Well, not until a familiar name was pulled out of the hat.
Chelsea. The Capital One Cup final in February had been a bad tempered affair and had lit the flame of a rivalry that would persists to this day. Mourinho didn’t like Liverpool and we hadn’t lost much love for him, but the needle between the managers was beginning to show. Mourinho loved to provoke reaction and Rafa couldn’t help himself. A goalless draw at Stamford Bridge saw us have the best chance when Petr Cech pulled off a sublime save to deny Milan Baros’ header. We would lose Xabi Alonso for the second leg though after he picked up a third yellow card of the tournament for a foul on Eidur Gudjohnsen. It was a big blow to Liverpool as Alonso had quickly become central to our creative play in midfield. We managed to escape Stamford Bridge unscathed though. We hadn’t claimed a crucial away goal but we hadn’t conceded either. For most pundits that was massive for this tie and set up a another great night at Anfield.
Going into the second leg Chelsea were on a massive high. They had claimed their first league title in fifty years that weekend after beating Bolton Wanderers 2-0 at the Reebok stadium. They had a clear message that they actually stuck to the front windscreen of their coach – “one down, one to go”. They obviously fancied themselves and so did the pundits. We were made underdogs and rightly so given Chelsea’s form that season. Everyone seemed to forget that we played best as underdogs though, we thrived when we had something to prove. That night was no different.
People still say to this day that they haven’t had a night like that Anfield before or since. Liverpool took the lead inside four minutes and the goal is still debated now. Steven Gerrard sliced a lovely ball over the top of Ricardo Carvalho for Milan Baros to run onto. The Czech managed to lift the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper but was brought down by his countryman. It was a definite red card and penalty, but the referee let play go. Luis Garcia ran onto the loose ball and got a toe on it. It nudged off the back of John Terry before William Gallas cleared. Garcia ran away in delight, Chelsea tried to play on. Was it over the line? The referee said yes. Goal. Liverpool had the lead in the cup tie.
Chelsea forged ahead looking for the equaliser. Lampard had a low free kick saved by Dudek and Didier Drogba fired one over the bar. Everytime a Chelsea man had the ball they were booed relentlessly. In the third minute of six added on, Arjen Robben flashed a cross through the penalty area. It evaded everyone but fell to Gudjohnsen on the back post. He had an open goal to aim for and time to steady himself. He lashed his right foot at the ball and a mass of red and white socks flung the legs out in different directions to influence the direction of it. Thankfully nobody managed to do just that as the ball flew millimetres past the post.
The seconds were now dragging. The nerves were palpable through the TV screen in my bedroom. The ball went out for a Chelsea throw in and Gallas threw the ball to Cech. He wouldn’t have time to clear upfield though. The referee had blown his whistle, Liverpool had done it. In the words of Clive Tyldsley on the ITV commentary that night, “it is time once again for Liverpool to grace a European Cup final.”