With the Champions League final almost upon us, I have decided to write an article logging my personal experiences of perhaps the greatest Champions League final of all time: Istanbul.
Most Liverpool fans will tell you that this night was the greatest moment supporting their club, and I am no different. I still remember everything about the night as if it was yesterday.
In part one, I will be talking about the Road to Istanbul, the qualifiers, and the group stage.
It all started fairly unspectacularly. Rafael Benitez had just taken over from Gerard Houllier, and already there was doom and gloom surrounding the Liverpool set-up.
Michael Owen was widely expected to leave the club in the next few days.
St. Michael had been a hero for us. He had earned his place among the Anfield immortals and will always be remembered as one of the deadliest strikers of his era.
His career, much like that of Robbie Fowler before him, has since hit a slippery downward slope, to the point where he is now, at the time of writing, a Championship footballer at the age of just 29.
The despair surrounding his imminent departure was mixed with the optimism Benitez brought.
His pedigree had been well documented. At Valencia, he had broken the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and with Liverpool lagging behind the Invincibles of Arsenal, the money-bags of Mourinho’s Chelsea, and the ever-dangerous Manchester United, Kopites dared to dream that he could do the same in England.
Europe, however, was merely a source of revenue at that point.
No one expected Liverpool to be anything more than also-rans in the Champions League, a view reinforced by the sale of Owen and the opening games.
With Liverpool finishing fourth in the league, a full 30 points behind champions Arsenal, they were forced to qualify for the group stages.
Little-known AK Graz stood in their way, but were comfortably dispatched in Benitez’s first game in charge. A brace from Steven Gerrard gave them a 2-0 away win to take back to Anfield.
With Liverpool expected to cruise to victory in the return leg, the players may have got complacent. A frustrating match ended in a 1-0 win for Graz.
It looked like it would be another season of mediocrity in Europe.
As the group stages approached, the mood around Anfield was one of optimism, but not expectation. Getting through the group stages was certainly a realistic target, but it wouldn’t be a walk in the park, especially considering Liverpool’s previous European outing.
The opening match against Monaco, runners-up of the previous year’s competition, was promising, however.
New signing Xabi Alonso linked up with Gerrard wonderfully, while Djibril Cisse, another new face at Anfield, showed what he could do.
The level of optimism grew ever so slightly after this 2-0 victory, but was shot down again two weeks later as Liverpool again showed the sort of inconsistency that had plagued them during Benitez’s first months.
A 1-0 loss away to Olympiakos is perhaps excusable given the hostile environment and tough fixture, but the performance wasn’t.
Liverpool didn’t have a single shot on target as Olympiakos played them off the park.
The stuttering group stage results continued when Liverpool met Deportivo La Coruna in the next tie.
The Spanish side frustrated Liverpool and forced a 0-0 draw. Despite the result, the performance was much improved from the Olympiakos game, but Benitez knew he needed wins to progress.
And wins he got.
In the return fixture between Deportivo and Liverpool, a Jorge Andrade own goal gave Liverpool their first away win in Spain since 1984.
All Liverpool needed was a win against Monaco and they had all-but qualified for the next round.
But the inconsistency surfaced again. A dubious goal from Javier Saviola gave Monaco the 1-0 win, leaving it up to the final match against Olympiakos…
Part Two will be out tomorrow and will contain everything from the Olympiakos match to the semifinal!
Quiz Question No. 4 Answer:
Alan Shearer, Andy Cole, Les Ferdinand, and Michael Owen.
Quote No. 4:
"Liverpool have been more consistent in their last 12 games with five wins, three draws, and four defeats." - Sky Sports