Liverpool in the Premier League Era: Part 12
By TTT Subscriber Anthony Stanley.
How does one top arguably the greatest night in the history of the club? The answer was twofold for many Liverpool fans: keep Steven Gerrard and mount another genuine title challenge. The former would be ultimately successful; although it looked for a spell as if it would end with the captain jumping ship to Chelsea, Gerrard’s genuine love for the club overcame his demons of self-doubt. The latter – attempting to wrest the Premier League from the Londoners and Manchester United – would be infinitely more challenging and it would take a few years of tweaking and consolidation before a genuine title tilt would become a reality.
Rafa Benitez knew the faults in his squad: comprehensive defeats at the likes of Bolton, Birmingham City and Southampton in the 04/05 campaign had convinced the Liverpool manager that pace, power, consistency of performance and a genuine target man were prerequisites to succeed in the physically demanding English Premier League. Pepe Reina arrived for the sometimes slipshod Dudek who, fresh from his Istanbul heroics, would have to make do as a reserve before he departed to warm the bench in Madrid. A month after resurrecting the ghost of Rome’s Bruce Grobbelaar, the Pole’s career as a first choice elite goalkeeper was effectively over. Indeed, the miraculous nature of the Champions League final and the improbable nature of the feat were graphically displayed with the fact that three stalwarts of that campaign, Baros, Smicer and Biscan, also departed, while Hamann and Traore would now only play a bit-part role. Peter Crouch – after terrorising Liverpool’s rearguard for Southampton the previous January – arrived for £7 million. The striker was seen as the clichéd ‘big man with a good touch’, who could keep the ball in the opposition’s danger zones and bring others into play; a role he performed laudably well in his time with the Reds. Momo Sissoko was signed from Valencia, under the noses of Everton, to add some steel and nous. Sometimes looking like a world beater, the Malian ultimately lacked the technical ability to really make an impact (although injury would also play a part in his Anfield career not being what Rafa hoped it would be). Finally, in January, the Liverpool manager added Daniel Agger – the stylish Danish centre back – to the ranks and, to the delight of Liverpool fans everywhere, reunited them with one of their favourite sons. Robbie Fowler was back in a Liverpool shirt.
The 05/06 season was a curious one that started in mid-July, thanks to UEFA caught out by the unlikely event of a Champions League winner finishing outside the top four. The Welsh part timers, TNS and the Lithuanian side, FBK Kaunas, were comprehensively dispatched before autumn set in; the Reds finally took their place in the group stages of Europe’s flagship competition with 3-2 aggregate win over CSKA Sofia that included a 1-0 home defeat. Rafa’s problems with trying to build and juggle his squad were evidently far from over.
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