WITHIN a football club as decorated as Liverpool, some minor achievements will inevitably get overlooked. It is strange, though, how many people have forgotten the last time Liverpool got to a European semi final. It wasn’t that long ago.
It is such a forgotten tie that I mentioned to Neil Atkinson last week that I wanted to write about it and he said “great idea”, and then proceeded to immediately forget about it when recording the preview show for the first leg against Villarreal. It’s that forgotten.
As you can hear, everyone in the room failed to mention that Liverpool got to the Europa League semi final in 2010, where they were beaten by eventual champions Atletico Madrid. These lads, who dare to charge you £5 a month to hear their knowledge of football, failed to even vaguely recall the match. So why is that?
Well there was, of course, a lot going on at the time. It was a season of disappointment on the pitch and growing protests off it. After a title challenge in 2008-09, Liverpool went into the first leg against Atletico in sixth place in the Premier League, a fair way short of the Champions League places they had become accustomed too. This meant growing pressure on a manager who had antagonised owners and directors and, strangely, never completely won over certain sections of the crowd.
Rafa wasn’t the only ones antagonising the owners. Two months earlier Spirit of Shankly had launched a billboard campaign across Merseyside calling for the removal of Hicks and Gillet. It was a period where supporters tried to mobile, but so often it just led to arguments. Many supporters refused to engage with anything that was happening outside eleven players on a football pitch, whilst others preferred to blame the manager for the club’s problems. Tom Hicks Jr, then a director of the company, emailed one supporter with the line “blow me, fuck face. Go to hell, i’m sick of you.”
So it’s fair to say there were distractions. It was also the case that the Europa League wasn’t exactly held in the highest regard, even by today’s standards. We’d only gone into the tournament after exiting the Champions League in the group stages, after which Managing Director Christian Purslow decided to put himself on TV telling everyone it was all fine.
Liverpool fans largely disagreed. They just couldn’t get any appetite for the competition. Going into a competition because you have been rubbish in another one always feels like a bit of a joke. But truth is, we were spoilt. We were used to Champions League semi finals, not Europa ones. It was only three years since Athens, five after Istanbul. If we hadn’t seen such riches, we could live with being poor…..
But the two ties were eventful enough to deserve a greater part of our memory. For a start we nearly couldn’t get to Madrid. A volcano erupted in Iceland and the resulting ash cloud meant all flights were cancelled out of the UK. Therefore the Liverpool team had to embark on a journey reminiscent of the ones Mick Clarke tries to book me on to a European Away to try and save £30. In total the journey took 24 hours, including six coaches, three trains and, eventually, a flight, in what seems like less than ideal preparation for a big game.
Liverpool lost the first leg 1-0 thanks to an astonishingly messy goal from Diego Forlan, which includes the worst attempted header of all time. Seriously, how has everyone forgotten this?
Liverpool’s side that night showed how quickly the squad had deteriorated in quality. Up front on his own was David N’gog, who was playing for Bolton Wanderers a year or so later. At centre half was Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who Benitez had signed in desperation after a “break down in communication” meant he suddenly only had £1.5m to buy a defender. The substitutes included Philipp Degen, Daniel Ayala, Nabil El Zhar and Daniel Pacheco.
It’s a list of players that suggests Liverpool were lucky to be there in the first place. After the game they were probably lucky to still be in the tie, with Pepe Reina making many good saves to keep Liverpool in it. However Yossi Benayoun also had a goal incorrectly ruled out for offside, for what should have been a vital away goal.
And so to Anfield, the stage of so many dramatic turn arounds for Liverpool. But something on the night was missing, despite Liverpool forcing the game to extra time through a goal from Alberto Aquilani just before half time. In the office we mentioned that the atmosphere was strange, with many seemingly not too bothered about going through and others, more unforgivably, preferring if we didn’t. Gareth Roberts said he was in the Main Stand for the game and many were openly hostile towards the manager, with abuse bordering on racist.
I’d forgotten myself that Liverpool actually went ahead in the tie for seven minutes, Benayoun scoring past a young David De Gea. However, Diego Forlan fired in to win the game. After which Liverpool didn’t have the energy, or certainly the bench, to come back. In truth Liverpool had looked second best overall. Out they went and the calls for a change in manager increased.
A quick look at a BBC message board after the game demonstrates some of the strength of feeling.
Liverpool went on to finish seventh that season and Benitez lost his job. With so much drama, anger, excitement and concern during that period, it is perhaps unsurprising that it has become the forgotten semi-final for Liverpool. However it can also be seen as a warning for Klopp. He has less to deal with in terms of distractions and recent success, but for Liverpool seasons and periods are defined by winning things, not coming close. And cup runs can only hide league form while they are still going on.
Here is hoping for a better atmosphere, performance and, ultimately, result on Thursday.