LIVERPOOL 2-1 ARSENAL (Alonso 37, Mellor 90+2; Vieira 57)
“MELLOR… My goodness. Where did that come from? The right foot of Neil Mellor… it’s probably the last kick of the game.”
Scarcely believable as it is but the footage of a fresh faced Neil Mellor unleashing an improbable 25-yard last-minute winner against the former Invincibles in front of the Kop is 10 years old today. Mellor’s career may not have hit such stratospheric heights again, though this winning goal was followed by the second against Olympiakos only 10 days later, a golden period in the early days of his Liverpool career.
For manager Rafa Benitez though, this was the first fruits of his Anfield vision, the Rafalution as some were prone to calling it a decade ago. It had been a difficult start for the Spaniard; six wins and five defeats in his first 13 league games had stalled the progress that was being made in transforming the Reds’ style from the prosaic final days of Gerard Houllier’s reign. The signings of Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia had injected positivity into the new era, whilst injuries to Steven Gerrard and Djibril Cisse had disrupted its fluency.
Champions Arsenal arrived at Anfield as overwhelming favourites on the day. A month had passed since the end of their unbeaten run at Old Trafford, and though they sat five points behind leaders Chelsea, Jose Mourinho’s side remained a somewhat unknown quantity, and expectation that Arsene Wenger’s team would supplant them still prevailed to a degree.
They had crashed in 38 goals in their opening 14 league games, but since defeat to Manchester United on October 24 they had drawn three of their next four fixtures and one in eight in all competitions. The aura around Arsenal remained though, an aura totally unrecognisable 10 years on; they stood tall, and they knew it, capable of playing breathtakingly beautiful football, or dogging out the result when needed.
Kirkland; Finnan, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise; Gerrard, Alonso, Hamann, Kewell; Mellor, Sinama-Pongolle
Lehmann; Lauren, Toure, Campbell, Cole, Ljungberg, Vieira, Fabregas, Pires, Reyes, Henry
The performance of that Liverpool XI was perhaps indicative of Benitez’s ability to get his side playing as more than the sum of its parts. The Reds were in the faces of their more illustrious opponents, no hint of shrinking at the occasion, instead it was full throttle. It was a high quality game, defined by its three goals, each of them stunning and well crafted in their own right, although it is the Mellor sledgehammer that has lived on.
Kevin McCarra wrote in the Guardian, “This was the type of display to nurture trust that Rafael Benítez will eventually put the club back among the elite. All three goals were riveting in their different ways but there was also a shrewd strategy at work. Lacking all of his proven strikers through injury, Benítez turned that obstacle into an opportunity. His five midfielders were set out in two banks and Arsenal generally lost their way while trying to slalom through them.”
The opening strike from Xabi Alonso is one of the few Liverpool goals to have elicited a celebration from Benitez; his muted thumbs up celebration, akin to a Jose Mourinho knee slide. It comes from Arsenal looking to break at speed, yet stopped in their tracks by the indomitable Didi Hamann, before Steve Finnan sprays a cross field ball out to Harry Kewell on the left-hand side.
With Patrick Vieira caught up the field from the Arsenal counter-attack that never was, space has opened up inside their half. Kewell cushions a header into the path of an unmarked Steven Gerrard. The captain rests on the ball, delays his next action, with only Neil Mellor ahead of him. The young forward pulls Sol Campbell out of position with a run towards Gerrard, who delicately lays the ball right, to the edge of the 18-yard box and the onrushing Alonso.
The Spaniard meets it first time, and caresses it side footed into the top corner beyond Jens Lehmann. The champions are caught with their trousers down; the best team goal yet of Benitez’s time in charge.
Arsenal were being outplayed and swarmed off the ball every time. Yet you can’t keep a good team out so easily. The eventual equaliser was exquisite in its simplicity, stunning in its craft. Vieira picks up the ball centrally, just beyond the edge of the centre-circle. His first touch is heavy, but the Liverpool midfield are tiring and the pressure is not forthcoming.
The captain plays it to Thierry Henry on the edge of the Liverpool box and continues his run; not a single red shirt tracks it. Henry with a sideways pass to Robert Pires, who picks out Vieira’s slalom into the penalty area. Suddenly out of nothing Vieira is one-on-one with Chris Kirkland, and deliciously dinks the ball over him and into the far bottom corner. A simple goal, born of intricate passing, supreme skill and confidence.
The Gunners could perhaps have expected to win from this point, pre-Old Trafford perhaps they would have done. They enjoyed more of the ball and the better of the play as Liverpool tired, but the Reds summoned up supreme levels of strength and endeavour – not for the last time that season – and held the opposition at bay.
The reward came deep into added time, with both sides staring the draw in the face. Kirkland lumps a free kick from deep inside his own half upfield, and Arsenal, hinting at new vulnerabilities in the post-Invincibles era, switch off. Vieira leaves the header and lets the ball bounce beyond him. The centre-back pairing of Kolo Toure and Campbell, so sure of themselves and each other for so long, go for the same header.
The ball bounces off the Englishman and drops invitingly for Mellor, who strains every sinew left in his creaking, aching body to have one final shot on goal. The connection is sweet, the timing perfect. A speculative effort, but one where all the right ingredients come together at once. The ball arrows its way into the bottom corner, past the despairing dive of Lehmann. Mellor’s first Premier League goal. His finest. His purest. His best moment in a red shirt was still to come, 10 days later, with “a lovely cushioned header”.
The camera pans to Campbell and Vieira trudging away with their hands on their hips, beaten and in disbelief. For Benitez, vindication. Irrevocable proof that his first-season pains were taking Liverpool in the right direction, and moulding a style of football that would bring results. More significantly though was the fighting spirit on display, which had not always been apparent until that point, as defeats to Bolton, Birmingham and Middlesbrough had shown. The Alonso-inspired comeback from 2-0 down at Fulham had been an anomaly up to this point.
The way Benitez’s side fought tooth and nail for the victory here, against great physical and technical opponents, sowed the seeds for bigger, more monumental triumphs that year, and in years to come. This was his blueprint; as much a victory for the eleven players on the pitch as the manager on the touchline.
The comeback against Olympiakos doesn’t happen without this. Holding out against Juventus and Chelsea doesn’t happen without this. Believing against AC Milan, not only at 3-0 down but in extra-time too, doesn’t happen without this. This was the beginning of it all for Rafa’s Reds, and Neil Mellor had everything to do with it.
Pic: David Rawcliffe