Part 10: Miracle in Istanbul
By TTT Subscriber Anthony Stanley.
Rafa Benitez’s first season in English football will never be forgotten. It was the unlikeliest of stories and the most miraculous of campaigns. The surreal nature – the sheer insanity – of Liverpool’s European escapades was given a semblance of reality, a dose of verisimilitude, by the Reds consistently struggling in the league; Rafa had to learn the unique idiosyncrasies of the English domestic game but he was already a master in the continental arena, having secured the UEFA Cup with Valencia.
It began with hope; not that we would etch our name on ‘Oul Big Ears’ again – that could not have been further from our minds – but hope that, after stagnation, things were moving in the right direction. The Spanish manager Rafa Benitez, usurper of the La Liga duopoly of Real Madrid and Barcelona, took over from a floundering Houllier, and Kopites greeted his appointment with huge optimism; we remembered his monolithic Valencia wiping the floor with us in recent seasons and we theoretically juxtaposed his achievements in Spain with what he could do to the heavy hitters of our league.
But before a ball was kicked, the Spaniard was under pressure. Our two English stars, Michael Owen and Steven Gerrard, were picturing greener pastures over the horizon. After some flirtation, Stevie eventually said no (or at least delayed a definitive rejection) to Russian millions and the wooing of a preening Mourinho. Owen, however, with his contract running down, upped sticks to Real Madrid for a paltry £8.5 million, with Antonio Nunez arriving as a lightweight makeweight. He would not quicken Anfield pulses. Far more electric was the capture of Xabi Alonso (still this scribbler’s favourite Liverpool player) from Real Sociedad for £10.7 million. From the off, the midfielder showed himself to be an uber-controller of the tempo on a football field, a matador of the hurly burly with a divine touch and an even better brain. He was very much the general of Rafa’s team and would go onto be part of possibly Liverpool’s best ever modern midfield. Benitez also looked to his native country in signing Luis Garcia and Josemi. The former would write himself into Red folklore with some stunning contributions to cup winning campaigns. Though he could frustrate, the little former Barcelona attacker had a heart (and a smile) as big as his diminutive frame and his name is still sung on the Kop. Josemi, after a decent start, faded rapidly.
A lot was expected from the other signing, a parting gift from Gerrard Houllier. Djibril Cisse had been making waves in the French league for Auxerre (he had been recommended to Benitez while at Valencia and had apparently been told that securing the striker’s acquisition would win him the league). Cisse would prove to be underwhelming but started the campaign very promisingly before a horrific leg break at Blackburn curtailed his inaugural English season. A player of immense physical gifts, the then record signing unfortunately could not marry his athleticism with brain waves.
Besides Michael Owen departing the ranks, there were three other stalwarts of the treble season departing. Markus Babbel could not recapture his form or fitness following his battle with illness and was moved on to VFB Stuttgart on a free. Danny Murphy, perhaps prematurely, was told by Benitez that they had accepted a £2.5 million offer from Charlton Athletic and he was free to go. Finally, a fading Stephane Henchoz left for Celtic, also on a free transfer. It really did feel like a changing of the guard.
Early season form.
‘Stopping and then starting, taking off and landing’ – Let Down, Radiohead.
It’s fair to say that it took Rafa a while to get used to English football. The autumn months of the season – particularly domestically – were a depressing kaleidoscope of disappointment punctuated by moments when it looked like things may be about to click. Or at least that’s what I remember. In reality the results weren’t that bad – at least not from a truly modern perspective – but it was the manner and pattern of defeats that irked. For example, in the space of five days the Reds suffered 1-0 reverses against the might of Grazer AK at Anfield (though the first leg had been a relatively comfortable 2-0 victory) and Bolton Wanderers. Then, following some encouraging displays, Liverpool endured a nightmare two weeks at the end of September: in the space of four games, the Reds suffered defeat to Manchester United, Olympiacos and Chelsea. By the time the Blues beat us at Stamford Bridge on 3rd October, Rafa’s new team was in 11th place, 12 points behind the league leaders, Arsenal. It looked like it was about to get worse too; the Reds went to Craven Cottage just after this depressing run of defeats and were 2-0 down by half time. But Liverpool gave an early indication of what would be the defining spirit of the campaign – refusal to lie down. They scored four times without reply in a thrilling second half, the introduction of Alonso serving as a catalyst as the maestro provided the impetus and nous to jolt Liverpool from their torpor. It was fitting that the Spaniard scored the game’s best goal, a superb free kick to give the Reds a 79th minute lead.
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