JÜRGEN Klopp’s decision to take Liverpool on a mid-season training camp to La Manga last week conjured up memories of past winter breaks abroad.
Leicester have given the Spanish resort an air of notoriety for all the wrong reasons, once when Stan Collymore let off a fire extinguisher in the team hotel in 2000, and in 2004 when three players were charged with sexual assault only for those to be dropped after the club were relegated.
Liverpool’s trip to Iberia this time appears to have passed without any acrimony, but that was not the case when Rafa Benitez took his squad away to the Algarve in 2007.
Once again it was a premature FA Cup exit that saw Liverpool jet off for sunnier climes. The Reds had an 11-day break in between a 2-1 defeat at Newcastle and a trip to European champions Barcelona in the first leg of their last 16 Champions League tie.
A break designed to re-energise the squad and recharge the batteries unravelled on the final night at the Vale de Lobo resort as Benitez handed his players the evening off.
What happened next has become etched into Liverpool folklore, a story that requires little explanation — what is it about Liverpool players and karaoke?
The incident was quickly splashed across the national news, with initial reports angled on the antics of Jermaine Pennant, Robbie Fowler and Jerzy Dudek — who spent a night behind bars. The image of a bemused Benitez bailing out the boisterous Pole is one you can’t escape.
But it was Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise who grabbed the limelight, and both would start at the Camp Nou on that night 10 years ago today. As fate would have it, they played an instrumental part in one of the club’s greatest ever results.
Despite topping a group ahead of PSV, Bordeaux and Galatasaray, Barcelona were the opposition having finished second behind Chelsea in Group A.
Frank Rijkaard had moulded an imperious side, who had deservedly triumphed over Arsenal in Paris the previous year. They boasted a young Lionel Messi, whose prodigal talents had already wowed England when Barca turned over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge the year before, and the best player on the planet at the time.
Often overlooked now, but peerless for a few short years, Ronaldinho was in a world of his own 10 years ago. Though the decline was swift, it takes nothing away from a man who transformed Barcelona into the global behemoth it is today.
In the face of Europe’s best, Benitez pulled off a selection surprise, handing the unheralded Alvaro Arbeloa his debut, in the unfamiliar position of left-back.
As the Spaniard highlighted in his book, Champions League Dreams, it proved to be a masterstroke…
“When we played Barcelona in 2007, it was not simply a matter of doing anything we could to stop Lionel Messi. We were just as concerned with how to cope with Ronaldinho. The Brazilian played on the left wing, nominally, but would drift inside, occupying space between the lines.
“That would create a problem for Steve Finnan, our right-back. If he tracked Ronaldinho, he would leave space for Barcelona’s left-back, Gianluca Zambrotta, to exploit. The threat of Barcelona’s No 10, though, was more important. I instructed Finnan to follow his man, to push him, not to allow him a moment to play the sort of penetrating pass which could cut a defence apart.
“On the opposite side, we would play Alvaro Arbeloa, signed as recently as January from Deportivo La Coruna, against Messi. It would be Arbeloa’s first start for Liverpool. His opponent was just a teenager, not yet talked of as one of the finest players in history, but it was still one of the more intimidating debuts in world football.
“Arbeloa is not the sort of player to get scared, though, and he was confident he could do what was being asked of him. Besides, a manager does not simply come up with an idea and then tell his players about it an hour or so before the game. In Portugal, and upon our return to Melwood, we worked extensively on what we hoped Arbeloa would do.
“The principle was relatively simple. Messi, playing wide on the right, favoured cutting inside on his left foot. By playing Arbeloa, naturally right-footed, at left-back, we would be able to prevent him embarking on those dangerous, slaloming runs. Arbeloa would have to stick close to his man, too, not allowing him to breathe. If Messi has time to turn, he can inflict substantial damage. We had to be on top of him all the time.
“We drilled our new, makeshift left-back extensively in the days before the game. We prepared DVDs for him so he knew Messi’s movements. In training, we played him at left-back, against a left-footed player, to get him used to the job he would have to do in Barcelona.
“And we prepared the rest of the team, particularly our defenders, not to use Arbeloa too much when we had possession. The danger of playing a right-footed full-back at left-back is that he has to turn his body inside to play the ball, which cuts off his options and slows down counter-attacks. It was crucial we did not give him too much of the ball.”
Benitez was meticulous as ever in his preparation, an approach that underpinned all of Liverpool’s European success in his six years at the club.
Along with parachuting Arbeloa onto the pitch, there was a place for a new face on the bench; Javier Mascherano, just a day after his protracted move to Liverpool from West Ham had become official, despite FIFA approving the deal on January 31.
The Argentine had played just once in the previous four months — a six minute cameo during a 2-0 defeat at Everton — and was an unused substitute on the night, but he went on to prove his worth almost immediately.
On the pitch, Barcelona began in rampant style. As Benitez predicted, Ronaldinho was drifting inside with ease and running the show, skipping into space and slipping balls through for the nippy Javier Saviola, deputising for Samuel Eto’o.
The Reds looked undercooked and overawed, not dissimilar to the start they had made in Istanbul two years earlier.
When Deco opened the scoring with a header in the 14th minute it had been coming, and threatened to open the floodgates. But Liverpool regrouped, shut down Barca’s passing angles and grew into the game.
Bellamy spurned an excellent chance to equalise by planting a free header at the back post into the side netting, but the moment that spawned the iconic image of the night arrived in somewhat comical circumstances.
As Steve Finnan crossed from the right-hand side, the Welshman peeled off his marker again, but Victor Valdes — rooted behind his line — somehow allowed his weak header to cross the line. A moment of madness from the Spaniard promoted Bellamy to re-enact his own from the Algarve in celebration.
After Dirk Kuyt wasted a glorious header at the back post, Barca should perhaps have taken the lead when Pepe Reina came out brilliantly to smother Saviola’s effort after a sinking run into the Liverpool area. It was then left to Arbeloa to deny Messi what would become a trademark goal of his as he hung onto the ball for an age inside the box, working the angle to get a shot away.
With Liverpool defending heroically at one end, it fell to Barcelona’s own ineptitude at the other to settle the game. Kuyt’s heavy touch when through on goal allowed Valdes to intercept the ball, as it came back down Rafael Marquez inexplicably headed it in the direction of Bellamy, who teed up his buddy Riise to drive into the top corner. With his right foot.
A goal built in the Algarve, a performance fostered in the south of Portugal.
Liverpool were the only English team to have ever won at the Camp Nou thanks to a John Toshack winner in 1976. Thirty-one years later they did it again, and no other English club has come close to repeating it in the 10 years since.
Of Benitez’s great European nights, this should rank as the highest — Istanbul aside. The champions of Europe, undressed in front of 88,000 of their own fans. Rijkaard’s side never truly flourished again, though the style remained true, the drive and ambition faltered, only to return manifold under his successor — Pep Guardiola.
Benitez achieved three landmark results in three citadels of Europe — the Camp Nou, the San Siro and the Bernabeu. But it was the night 10 years ago that outstripped them.
An Inter side on the wane under Roberto Mancini in 2008 had already been swept aside at Anfield, and the Real Madrid of 2009 were a ramshackle bunch, in desperate need of an overhaul that the second age of the Galacticos ushered in that summer.
It was vintage Benitez, taking an inferior side in a one-off contest and making it more than the sum of its parts. As Klopp once said: “You have to bring teams to your level and then you can kill them.”
Benitez was a master of the art.
Barcelona: Valdes; Belletti, Marquez, Puyol, Zambrotta; Xavi (Giuly 65), Motta (Iniesta 54), Deco; Messi, Saviola (Gudjohnsen 82), Ronaldinho
Subs not used: Jorquera, van Bronckhorst, Thuram, Oleguer
Booked: Belletti, Zambrotta
Goalscorers: Deco 14
Liverpool: Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Arbeloa; Gerrard, Sissoko (Zenden 84), Alonso, Riise; Bellamy (Pennant 80), Kuyt (Crouch 90)
Subs not used: Dudek, Hyypia, Gonzalez, Mascherano
Booked: Agger, Kuyt, Sissoko, Bellamy
Goalscorers: Bellamy 43, Riise 74