Rafael Benitez must have walked into Melwood and wondered what absolute rubbish he was being left with. For the high-quality core of that Liverpool squad, there were some terrible players within that squad that Benitez had to make use of. This was a far cry from the Valencia side he’d left behind which had taught Liverpool a footballing lesson less than two years earlier.
He did have funds to play with did the Spaniard and he set about starting a mini Spanish revolution. In came full back Josemi, Barcelona attacker Luis Garcia and classy midfielder Xabi Alonso. They were joined by Houllier’s parting gift to Liverpool, record signing Djibril Cisse from Auxerre.
The departures though were far more surprising. While Markus Babbel’s departure was not a shock, the sale of Danny Murphy to Charlton was. While it makes sense in hindsight with the arrival of Alonso, fans were not happy with that one. Then, Liverpool’s only real goalscorer in Michael Owen was sold to Real Madrid for £8 million and, unfortunately, Antonio Nunez. There was concern beginning to develop.
Liverpool struggled through the 2004/05 season. The signings of Garcia and Alonso were excellent but the remnants of Houllier’s reign remained and they were strong. Benitez was forced to turn to the likes of Diao, Biscan and Traore with an unnerving frequency. Still, Benitez was paid to coach and get the best out of them and he did his best with some great results at times.
He would use Biscan as a centre-half during the group stage of the Champions League when the Reds were struggling with injuries and he did a serviceable job. Diao was used enough to get a job done. Traore was comically bad at times but Benitez was able to get the best out of him when it mattered. Anthony Le Tallec barely featured but had a career-defining performance in the quarter-final of the Champions League against Juventus. Florent Sinama-Pongolle only managed four goals all season but they were important goals.
The men Houllier brought in and were much-maligned served a purpose under Benitez when he needed them. Houllier plonked them in the team and hoped. Benitez had a plan for them.
Goals were a problem though with the departure of Owen and Emile Heskey as Milan Baros tried hard but proved frustrating. He managed just 13 in all competitions, the same number as Gerrard and Garcia. His backups were Neil Mellor who got five and Sinama-Pongolle with four. The January arrival of Fernando Morientes was meant to harken goals but he got just three. Poor Djibril Cisse managed just five as his season was decimated by a horrific broken leg.
League form was patchy as the Reds would finish fifth in the league behind city rivals, Everton. The FA Cup would see a comedy Traore own goal send the Reds crashing out at Burnley in the Third Round while the League Cup final was reached but a Mourinho-led Chelsea would win out in the end.
It would be the Champions League where Liverpool’s rag-tag bunch of players would earn their stripes. After squeezing past Graz AK in the qualifier, Liverpool would need a late wonder goal from Gerrard to get out of the group with Monaco, Deportivo and Olympiacos. Bayer Leverkusen were brushed aside followed by a heroic win over Juventus. Garcia’s ‘ghost goal’ would settle the semi-final against Chelsea before the final against Milan.
The core of that side in Istanbul was a Gerard Houllier creation. He nurtured Gerrard from prodigy to captain. He signed Hyypia, Hamann, Dudek, Baros, Finnan, Traore. Sure, he struggled to get the best from them towards the end of his tenure in charge but that squad and that run to the final has Houllier’s fingerprints all over it.
Vladimir Smicer was one of Houllier’s first signings in sole charge. Cisse was Houllier’s final gift to Liverpool. This was Houllier’s raw materials being put together by a master craftsman in Benitez.
While many of the names from 25 May 2005 would never wear a red shirt again or be gone soon after, there is no forgetting them.
Rafa Benitez may have led them to the Champions League but the journey to it has its roots and its genesis in Houllier’s reign.