Over the past few months’ expectation has reached an all time high on the red half of Merseyside, Liverpool fans expect success in every competition this season after last season’s escapades. While the run to the Champions League final was unexpected and ultimately ended in disappointment, it also sent older supporters on a nostalgia trip back to the days where Liverpool were competing for European Cups on a yearly basis.
After the Heysel stadium disaster in 1985, Liverpool didn’t compete in the European Cup/Champions League for 16 years, when they returned to Europe’s elite competition they reached the quarter finals under Gerard Houllier’s stewardship
While Liverpool enjoyed great success under Houllier, he could never bring them the Premier League or Champions League success they so desperately craved.
However, Houllier’s final match in charge of Liverpool secured Champions League qualification for the man who would go on to make some of the greatest European memories for Liverpool fans.
The arrival of Rafa leads to a miracle in Turkey
When Rafael Benitez became Liverpool manager in June 2004, he immediately made his presence known, bringing in seasoned La Liga players Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia, while selling on stalwarts Michael Owen and Danny Murphy.
Thanks to his predecessor and the goals of the man he sold on the cheap, Rafa had Champions League football in his first season, but before Liverpool could even think about the group stage of the competition they had to get through the final qualifying round.
After scraping through the final qualifying round, Liverpool found themselves in tough group alongside Deportivo La Coruña, Olympiacos and Monaco.
In a rather stop-start campaign Liverpool were on the verge of qualification all they would have to do is beat Olympiacos at Anfield to progress to the knockout stages.
One nil down at half time, Liverpool would have to score three to progress, thanks to goals from Sinama Pongolle, Mellor and a legendary volley from Gerrard, Liverpool progressed to the last 16 of the Champions League by the skin of their teeth.
After easily dispatching Leverkusen 6-2 over the two legs Liverpool’s confidence was growing and they would face off against Juventus in the quarter finals, and, after a hard fought battle at Anfield, Liverpool were leading 2-1 going into the second leg in Turin.
A defensive masterclass allowed Liverpool to progress to their first Champions League semi-final in 20 years.
In their way were Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, league champions and on their way to becoming the most dominant team in England. After a tight first leg at Stamford Bridge, the tie burst into life early in the second leg when Luis Garcia bundled in a chance, that seemed to be cleared off the line by William Gallas. The goal stood, Jose was incensed and Liverpool clung on and were through to the Champions League final.
Facing Liverpool in the final were AC Milan, who at this time probably had the finest starting XI in world football. Far be it from me to try and describe arguably the most famous match in European Cup/Champions League history, but lets give it a go.
Three-nil down at half time, it looked like this was just one step too far for Rafa and his men, what happened in that dressing room at half time will be talked about until the end of time, whatever was said kicked Liverpool back into life and in a six minute spell they came sprinting back into the final, scoring three times.
Then with the game level again, it took a couple of miracle saves from Jersey Dudek to take the game to penalties, where the Pole would pull off two saves in the shootout taking a bit of inspiration from Liverpool legend Bruce Grobbelaar with the spaghetti legs.
Liverpool were champions of Europe and only one year into the job, Rafa Benitez had already become a club legend.
Qualification red tape
Liverpool’s fifth European title threw up lots of problems for UEFA, as no spot in the tournament was given for the title holders to defend their trophy.
With the FA unwilling to budge in giving Liverpool the fourth qualification spot, which had been secured by Merseyside rivals Everton, as it stood in early June 2005 Liverpool would not be able to defend their trophy. Due to the public reaction to this solution Liverpool would be given a special dispensation and they would enter the Champions League in the first qualifying round.
So a little over six weeks after winning the Champions League, Liverpool were back playing Champions League football once again.
Liverpool breezed through the qualification rounds, seeing off TNS from Wales, FBK Kaunas from Lithuania and CSKA Sofia from Bulgaria, securing their place in the Champions League group stage.
Liverpool were drawn in the same group as Chelsea, however, both games did not have the same intensity as the previous seasons semi-finals and were dull affairs and ultimately both teams progressed to the last 16 without really breaking a sweat.
Thanks to a combination of injuries and fatigue and with the magic from last season gone, Liverpool limped out of the competition losing three nil on aggregate to Benfica.
Revenge in Athens
Liverpool returned to the Champions League the following season after finishing third in the league, yet again they were not expected to go far in the competition, however, Rafa seemed to be making a bit of a habit in going on memorable cup runs.
After coming through the third qualifying round, Liverpool made easy work of their opponents in the group stage, securing top spot in the group with a game to spare, next up was a match against the defending champions Barcelona.
The build up to the first leg was overshadowed by a fight between Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise, however, it didn’t stop both players scoring in a 2-1 Liverpool victory at the Nou Camp.
Barcelona won the return leg one-nil, which wasn’t enough to send them through and Liverpool progressed on the away goals rule.
Next up in the quarter finals Liverpool brushed aside group stage opponents PSV four-nil on aggregate and would now face Jose Mourinho and Chelsea once again.
This incredibly tense tie went all the way to penalties after Daniel Agger cancelled out Joe Cole’s strike from the first leg. With a cross legged Rafa looking on from the sidelines, Pepe Reina became a Liverpool legend saving two penalties and secured Liverpool their second Champions League final in three years.
Facing Liverpool in the final were their opponents from two years previous AC Milan. It was a tight affair with only seven shots on target between the two sides, just before half time Filippo Inzaghi deflected a free kick past Pepe Reina and Milan lead.
In the second half Kaka played a through ball into the path of Inzaghi who rounded Pepe Reina and put Milan two nil up. Try as they might Liverpool could not get back into the game and it wasn’t until the 89th minute when they finally replied with Dirk Kuyt getting one back.
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough and Milan ran out deserved winners and gaining revenge for what happened in Istanbul two years prior.
Third time’s the charm for Chelsea
Yet another European run was on the cards for Liverpool in the 2007/08 season, after easily dispatching Toulouse in the final qualifying round, Liverpool struggled in the early rounds of the group stage, however, they obliterated every team in the return fixtures and secured second spot in the group.
After an impressive performance over Inter Milan in the last 16, Liverpool faced off against Arsenal in a memorable quarter final second leg at Anfield.
Arsenal were going through on the away goals rule with five minutes left, a Steven Gerrard penalty and a Ryan Babel strike tipped the tie in Liverpool’s favour who would go through to meet old rivals Chelsea in the semi-final once again.
After losing in two semi-finals to Liverpool, Chelsea now without Jose had a lot to prove.
While in the two previous semi-finals all the luck went to Liverpool, this time around those fortunes were reversed.
An own goal by John Arne Riise in the first leg gave Chelsea a crucial away goal. After a tight 90 minutes, the tie went to extra time, Chelsea seemed to have everything going for them in extra time and ultimately came out 4-3 on top.
During Rafa’s time in charge of Liverpool, they had enjoyed much success in cup competitions, however, success in the Premier League is what Liverpool fans really wanted and Liverpool were running away with the league and also progressing nicely along in the Champions League, topping their group and disposing of Real Madrid 5-0 in the last 16.
Yet again Liverpool and Chelsea would face off in the knockout stages of the Champions League, with one eye on the Premier League title chase Liverpool lost 3-1 at Anfield and then drew 4-4 at Stamford Bridge, losing 7-5 on aggregate and the Champions League journey was over for another year.
End of an era
Liverpool were expected to push on and become mainstays at the top of the Premier League and continue their impressive Champions League form, unfortunately the opposite happened on both fronts.
In the Premier League Liverpool were way off the pace and their regular journey to the knockout stages of the Champions League ended, as they failed to get out of the group stage for the first time under Benitez, a run to the semi-finals of the Europa League wasn’t good enough and after six years in charge Rafa was sacked.
While Jurgen Klopp may be about to return Liverpool to former glories once again, many Liverpool fans will never forget those remarkable few years where Liverpool were the top dogs of European football once more and they have Rafa to thank for it.