In this five-part series, we discuss the journey to Liverpool’s famous Champions League triumph in Istanbul. In Part One, we relived how the side was built. Now, we move into part two:
The disappointment of the end of 1999/2000 meant Liverpool were UEFA Cup-bound. Although they were pipped to the Champions League by Leeds United, the promising signs of recovery were there. Gerard Houllier set about turning his young, hungry squad into winners by adding experienced campaigners all over the pitch.
The summer saw the arrival of proven winners across the board. French World Cup-winning winger Bernard Diomede came from Auxerre to add flair out wide. German pair Christian Ziege and Markus Babbel arrived from Middlesbrough and Bayern Munich to replace the unwanted Dominic Matteo, Stig Inge Bjornebye, and Phil Babb. Everton were raided for Nick Barmby on a Bosman while the 36-year-old Gary McAllister would add a wise head in midfield.
There was little room for sentimentality either. David Thompson may have been an academy boy but the arrivals of Diomede, Barmby, and McAllister pushed him further down the pecking order and Houllier coldly sold him on to Coventry. The Frenchman offloaded Titi Camara, now a cult figure at Anfield from the previous season, to West Ham at the first chance. Fringe players Brad Friedel, Steve Staunton, Erik Meijer and Rigobert Song were culled too. Houllier had seen enough the previous season to know that the players he was bringing in were better.
Little did Liverpool fans know at that time that the Frenchman was right.
What followed was a uniquely special season for anyone who followed Liverpool at that time. An end-of-season run of 19 points in 21 saw them pip Leeds to a third-place finish and Champions League football. That league position also included doubles over Manchester United and Everton and a 4-0 shellacking of Arsenal at Anfield. Liverpool were by no means the finished product in the Premier League but nobody wanted to face them.
Memorable cup runs
The cups were a different story.
The League Cup run was bafflingly memorable. From an eight-goal mauling of Stoke famous for a Pegguy Arphexad mistake then open goal miss that had Jamie Carragher, in his words, “pissing himself”, to Crystal Palace striker Clinton Morrison mocking Michael Owen, to First Division Birmingham taking the Reds to penalties. In no small part, Sander Westerveld’s penalty saves and an absolute wonder goal from a more marginalised Robbie Fowler in the final won the Cup against Birmingham at the Millennium Stadium.
The FA Cup run was far quieter though with the Reds cruising to a meeting with Arsenal in Cardiff. Arsenal were Manchester United’s closest challengers at the time and, each summer grew more and more fearsome. Pires, Henry, Ljungberg, Adams, Seaman, Vieira: their team for that Cup final was a who’s who of Gunners legends. They played like it too, outclassing Liverpool for the entire 90 minutes.
What they didn’t count on was Michael Owen.
The lightning speed of Owen had been Liverpool’s deadliest weapon all season and it proved the difference in Cardiff. Two identical long balls were sent in behind Adams and Dixon for Owen to chase. Chase he did and he buried both on his weaker left foot to literally steal the Cup from Arsenal.
The UEFA Cup saw Liverpool travel to historic arenas and upset the apple cart. In Rome, Michael Owen stuck it to a side that were on their way to the Scudetto under Fabio Capello. This was prime Roma too; the era of Totti and Batistuta no less. The semi-finals saw Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona appear with Rivaldo up top, Guardiola in the middle and some young goalkeeper named Pepe Reina between the sticks. McAllister’s penalty saw Liverpool to a final against Alaves in Dortmund which set a precedent for Istanbul.
Liverpool took the lead countless times but, for whatever reason, lost their defensive solidity. Jamie Carragher has since quipped that he played so poorly at left back that he single-handedly got Alaves right back Cosmin Contra a move to AC Milan. A golden goal own goal would settle the game 5-4 in the end to complete Liverpool’s remarkable treble.
Highs and lows of a heady season
The positives were obvious to see. The back four of Babbel, Hyypia, Henchoz and Carragher had developed a fierce reputation for solidity; the addition of McAllister had helped smooth the rough edges of young Steven Gerrard’s game and the partnership of Heskey and Owen was firing on all cylinders. Another young Englishman, Danny Murphy, had also established himself as an important member of the Liverpool squad ahead of the anonymous Diomede and the experienced Barmby.
Houllier’s mid-season signings of Croatian Igor Biscan and Finn Jari Litmanen helped as the Reds progressed deeper into the cups with Litmanen impressing. The former Ajax man added a finesse that was lacking at times with Owen and Heskey.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. Silly results in the league had prevented Liverpool from again getting closer to United and Arsenal with defeats at Ipswich and Middlesbrough particularly jarring. Club captain Jamie Redknapp missed the entirety of the season with a knee injury, meaning Sami Hyypia would often deputise. Robbie Fowler had to be happy as a backup option. It also began to eat away at the club legend and he would not remain at Anfield long under Houllier. That, though, is a story for another day.
Hopes were high for the upcoming season. Many felt Liverpool were on their way up and could be within touching distance of the Premier League’s top two. They said 2001/02 would be a defining season.
It was. For good and for bad.