It was 25 May 2005 and the setting was the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul. Liverpool Football Club found themselves 3-0 down to the mighty AC Milan at the interval of the UEFA Champions League final.
All hopes of the Reds earning that fifth European crown appeared to be dashed, that was until a huge twist in the plot. Goals from skipper, Steven Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and a spot kick by Xabi Alonso brought Liverpool back from the depths of despair.
This, coupled with possibly Jerzy Dudek’s best ever game in his career, was enough to create one of the biggest fairy tales of the 21st century to date.
Liverpool were champions of Europe again, and this one was for keeps.
However, nearly ten years on from that historic night, Liverpool revisited the Ataturk on Thursday evening to take on Besiktas in the second leg of the Europa League last 32 tie. This time around, things weren’t so glamorous.
A slender one nil lead from the first leg at Anfield proved to be insufficient as the Turkish giants dumped the Kopites out of Europe once and for all, following a dire Dejan Lovren penalty, which is probably still in flight as we speak.
All in all, Liverpool’s season in Europe proved to be quite a stinker. From a dismal first Champions League campaign in five years to a sub par display over two legs in Europe’s B competition, the Europa League, the reds truly have had a season to forget in the continent.
The question is, how can Liverpool improve in European play?
With the race for top four hotting up in the Premier League, there is no guarantee that the reds will be featuring in either the Champions League or the Europa League next season, but the following are a few things the Merseyside club will have to look into if they are to succeed in Europe in the next time of asking.
Firstly, Brendan Rodgers must lose all nativity on the European stage. The Northern Irishman’s inexperience when it comes to managing at continental level was clearly on display throughout the campaign.
He appeared to be unable to figure out a way to perfectly balance his team. Players were playing three times in the space of seven days at times and it just wasn’t going to work.
At times, the team had a pretty tired look about them when playing the midweek European fixtures. Also, playing Steven Gerrard in the Premier League on the weekend, followed by the Champions League on Tuesday or Wednesday is just not wise.
There was a time when the skipper was capable of doing that, but those days are gone. Gerrard has suffered many injury setbacks since entering his thirties and his games have to be carefully managed if the best is to be squeezed out of him.
Weakened line ups is another major factor that cost Rodgers dearly. When Liverpool were beaten 3-0 at Anfield by reigning European champions, Real Madrid, Rodgers thought it would be a better idea to wave the white flag in surrender by fielding a second string side at the Bernabeau.
Some will argue that Liverpool had a big game with Chelsea that weekend but that is not the point. The reds still had everything to play for in that game. Even a point would have done them the world of good in a tight battle for the second qualification spot.
Funny enough, the so called second string side fared better than the strong 11 did in the first game against the Spanish giants.
Rodgers’ substitutions have been quite odd at times. A prime example was there for everyone to see in the Besiktas second leg game. It was extra time and the odds of the game being decided through a dreaded penalty shoot out are rapidly increasing, what do you do? You certainly don’t take off possibly one of the best penalty takers on the planet in Mario Balotelli. We all know how poor Balotelli has been in his début season at Anfield but his spot kick conversion record speaks for itself.
In his post match interview, Rodgers said that Liverpool could win the Europa League if they were still in it. Fair enough, but that is stating the obvious. That’s like saying Ireland could win the World Cup if only they could qualify for it.
Brendan Rodgers has had his introduction to European football, it is now time to show maturity the next time he is there.
However, Rodgers is not the only man in the Liverpool camp that lacks the expertise of European football. The vast majority of the playing staff are still green when it comes to trading blows with the continent’s elite.
The only players that have concrete experience in Europe on their C.V’s are Steven Gerrard and Kolo Toure. Gerrard is a past winner and runner up, as well as a multiple time participant in the Champions League. Toure is a past finalist with Arsenal and has also featured in the tournament with Manchester City.
Sure, Martin Skrtel and Lucas Leiva played in two Champions League campaigns under Rafa Benitez and Mario Balotelli has been there with City and AC Milan, but none of these three are any you would reach out to for advice on the matter.
There was an awful lot of Champions League and Europa League débutantes in the squad. Jordan Henderson captained the side against Besiktas despite only having a handful of European appearances to his name.
Jordan Ibe’s recent good spell in league action earned him a place in the starting team and even he realised continental football contrasts massively with domestic football. Starlet, Raheem Sterling had a pretty quiet time in Europe compared to back home in England.
Liverpool have a very young team and to many the whole journey was a new experience. In order to improve, the reds should recruit some new players with Champions League credentials. Also, the onus is on the current crop of players to learn from this season’s experience and become stronger because of it.
Like Rodgers, the youngsters in the squad have now experienced their first crack of the whip on the big stage. They will be expected to have better awareness the next time.
The last of the minor tweaks Liverpool need to perform is to improve some of the depth they have waiting in the wings. The starting eleven and a portion of the fringe players are strong, but there are some just not up to the challenge and are simply not European material.
Barcelona can take off Neymar and bring on Pedro. Chelsea can take off Diego Costa and bring on Didier Drogba. Real Madrid can substitute Karim Benzema for James Rodriguez.
What can Liverpool do? Bring on Rickie Lambert for Daniel Sturridge. That switch is one that immediately weakens the side.
Lambert came on at half time of extra time against Besiktas and its fair to say he looked more knackered than the players that had been out there from the first whistle. Lambert is a slow, lumbering big man he looks as if he really struggles to get around the pitch. The Englishman does not fit into Liverpool’s style of play.
Real Madrid have players like Luka Modric, Barcelona have Andres Iniesta and Bayern Munich have Mario Gotze. Who do Liverpool have? Joe Allen.
The Welshman just has no impact on the game whatsoever. He is too predictable. It is almost as if he is afraid to go froward with the ball so he feels the need to pass it backwards whenever he is in possession, sometimes putting his defence under pressure as a result.
Yes, he has a great pass completion percentage but what use that statistic if it is not resulting in killer passes and assists for the team? Absolutely none.
Liverpool have got a decent young squad put together but there is no taking away from the fact that there is waste there that could do with replacing. If the reds just had a few stronger stars waiting in the wings for their opportunity to come, they may just perform better.
Strength in depth is the key to success in Europe. Liverpool have it in some areas but they lack it in others. This is what separates Liverpool from the top dogs in Europe.
Liverpool are on a great run of form in the league and the above issues don’t seem to come into play in domestic competitions, perhaps because they are coming up against weaker opposition than themselves most weeks.
However, if the Reds are to improve their fortunes in Europe, these are some minor problems that will have to be fixed or worked on. The foundations are there, they just need to be built on.