Liverpool had entered the crucial part of a club on the rise’s development. They were now Champions League-bound with a weight of expectation on their shoulders. Did Houllier gamble and spend big on the hope they can go all the way? Did he stick with what he had?
In truth, Liverpool’s squad at that time didn’t need a whole lot adding to it for it to improve. The squad was a mix of hungry young talent on the cusp of bigger things (Gerrard, Owen) mixed with senior pros with lots of experience (McAllister, Babbel) mixed with highly rated younger players looking to breakthrough (Djimi Traore, Gregory Vignal, Igor Biscan).
Houllier kept faith with what he had for 2001/02 barring one notable exception. Left-back Christian Ziege had struggled to impress at Anfield, quickly being dropped in favour of an out of position Jamie Carragher. Carra’s struggles in the UEFA Cup final would prompt Houllier to look for a specialist in that position. He’d raid France again for a red-headed Norwegian named John Arne Riise who was impressing at Monaco. Ziege would be sold to Tottenham post-haste.
Transfers were then only made for areas Houllier needed replacements in. A young Czech striker named Milan Baros was too tempting to pass up though and he would join Liverpool to add more firepower up top. Sander Westerveld became the first high-profile victim of 01/02, his huge errors in the first couple of games of the season seeing Houllier move swiftly to sign Pole Jerzy Dudek and young Englishman Chris Kirkland on the same day. Westerveld would never play for Liverpool past August and was gone to Real Sociedad by December.
The joy of the treble win soon became a logistical nightmare for the club. As well as having to play the Premier League games, Liverpool had to play the European Super Cup and Community Shield in August (which they both won) as well as a two-legged qualifier for the Champions League against Finnish side FC Haka. It looked like the busy schedule was already showing as the Reds fell at the first hurdle in the League Cup at home to Grimsby Town and, by the time Leeds arrived at Anfield on October 13, the Reds had played 14 games in two months with just six of those being league games.
Something had to give.
That something, sadly, was Gerard Houllier’s health. During the 1-1 draw with Leeds at Anfield, Houllier felt ill before being rushed to the hospital where he had to have emergency heart surgery. It was frightening news for both players and fans. Houllier had, to that point, been a strong figurehead in the Anfield dugout making big decisions because he felt it was right. Now, he was in a hospital fighting a battle bigger than football.
This wasn’t the first health issue to affect Liverpool in 2001/02 either. Defender Markus Babbel, so strong and dependable, played just seven games before he fell ill. He would never be seen in a Liverpool shirt again though as he was out for almost a year after contracting Guillain-Barre syndrome, a debilitating condition which wreaks havoc with a person’s nervous system and left Babbel looking frail.
The football didn’t stop and neither could the team. Assistant Phil Thompson was placed in charge and he did a very commendable job in the circumstance. He would guide Liverpool through the Champions League opening group stage and to the top of the league by the end of November.
Thompson did not get it easy though. A training ground bust-up between Thommo and now bit-part ‘God’ Robbie Fowler proved to be Fowler’s final act in a Liverpool shirt to that point. He would be sold to Leeds United for £11 million. He would be replaced by the loan signing of ‘Le Sulk’ Nicolas Anelka from PSG just before Christmas.
Anelka had a reputation that preceded him just four years into his professional career. Having thrown a strop to leave Arsenal for Real Madrid, his attitude caused him to become a pariah in the Bernabeu dressing room and he was sold for huge money to PSG in 2000 where he lasted all of 18 months before returning to England with Liverpool.
For all the attitude problems, Anelka was so unbelievably talented. A fearsome blend of pace, power and clinical finishing; he took to Anfield like a duck to water with players at the time reporting that he was nothing but a joy to be around. Anelka became beloved by fans and players alike during his loan spell at the club and he was key as Liverpool pushed forward with a hopeful title challenge.
The problem for Liverpool was the number of games they had. The FA Cup only lasted until round four when they were knocked out in an ill-tempered rematch from 2001’s final against Arsenal. That game saw Jamie Carragher get sent off for tossing a coin back at the crowd in a moment so ridiculous I can’t believe I’m actually typing it.
The second group stage of the Champions League didn’t help either. Six more games against top quality opponents were tough going and only the return of Houllier to Anfield in a must-win game against Roma in March saw Liverpool through to the quarterfinals. They were knocked out by the odd goal in seven by eventual finalists Bayer Leverkusen.
With Houllier back in the dugout, Liverpool were hopeful of a title challenge but Arsenal were far too good. The Reds would eventually finish a turbulent season second in the league, amassing 80 points but still seven behind an Arsenal side who were still two years from becoming invincible. Liverpool did finish three points clear of United who were third which was a nice consolation.
However, the season had taken a lot out of Liverpool. McAllister and Litmanen were beginning to show their age, Robbie Fowler had gone, Jamie Redknapp had made a few cameos on his return from long-term injury but was allowed to leave for Tottenham in April and there was a decision to be made on Anelka.
2001/02 had been a season of progress but the cost of that would reverberate through Anfield next season.