When Liverpool FC step out for the UEFA Super Cup in Monaco against PFC CSKA Moskva tonight, they will be drawing a line under one of the most remarkable and unlikely chapters in the club's illustrious history.
Almost a year ago today, manager Rafael Benítez's first home game in charge after joining from Valencia CF ended in a 1-0 defeat by Grazer AK in a UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie. Liverpool's first-leg lead may have taken them through, but few supporters had any realistic hopes of European success.
That was no surprise. Benítez had barely had time to put his feet under the table at the club's Melwood training ground before main striker Michael Owen departed to Real Madrid CF. Captain Steven Gerrard had already come perilously close to joining Chelsea FC, while Benítez's squad rebuilding was stymied by a lack of available funds with Liverpool financing a possible new stadium.
The 2004/05 season was therefore accepted as one of transition, with the prime objective to improve their Premiership standing after finishing 30 points adrift of champions Arsenal FC in the previous campaign. A decent run in Europe could help facilitate future transfers. Anything more would be a bonus.
We all know what happened next. And in many respects that lack of expectancy is what sets the success against AC Milan apart from Liverpool's four other European Champion Clubs' Cup triumphs - it was a victory against the odds. "The big difference for me was that Liverpool were underdogs all the way this time, whereas we were favourites," says Mark Lawrenson, a European Cup winner with the club in 1984. "We had to live with that expectation from the very first minute."
Even Gerrard had initially refused to entertain the idea of Liverpool winning the Champions League last season, and with the team toiling in the Premiership Benítez's efforts were continually undermined by a succession of serious injuries to key personnel, including the captain.
The Champions League soon became a refuge from domestic disgruntlement, although it would take a special Anfield night to kick-start Liverpool's European campaign. Defeat at this evening's venue against AS Monaco FC had left Benítez's side needing to beat Olympiacos CFP to progress from the group stage. A Rivaldo free-kick meant Liverpool had to score three second-half goals, but when Gerrard volleyed home memorably in front of the Kop with four minutes remaining an improbable comeback was complete.
Some may point to that goal or the subsequent routing of Bayer 04 Leverkusen in the last 16 as the turning point in Liverpool's run, but in truth it was only after the backs-to-the-wall performance that kept Juventus FC goalless in the second leg of the quarter-final that both players and supporters started to believe.
It was the first time since the horrors of Heysel 20 years earlier that the clubs had met. "In Memoria e Amicizia" - in memory and friendship - was the message from the home support in the first leg at Anfield, where on an emotional night Liverpool raised their level to produce their best football in years during a magnificent first half to seal an ultimately decisive 2-1 win.
Another defensive masterclass at Chelsea in the semi-final led to one of Anfield's truly great occasions. No one present will ever forget the passion of the home support as they willed their team to a victory earned by Luis García's disputed strike. The final whistle was met with an outpouring of emotion not seen since the stadium's previous most famous European night when AS Saint-Etienne visited in 1977.
Benítez's European expertise and his players' aptitude, team spirit and refusal to give in proved the bedrock of Liverpool's eventual success, but one cannot discount the difference the fervent backing of their supporters made in Turkey. To them, after spending much of the competition scared to even dare dream of Champions League glory, the European Cup seemed now destined to return for keeps. "
Last season it was those nights at Anfield that saw Liverpool through," agrees Lawrenson. "The fans were magnificent and they showed that too in the final."
Istanbul made instant heroes of the players, but another poor Premiership showing led Benítez to break up that victorious squad. Vladimir Šmicer, Milan Baroš and Igor Bišcan are among those to have departed as the manager, having ended Liverpool's 21-year wait for Europe's top prize, seeks to bring the domestic championship back to Anfield for the first time since 1990.
In Monaco this evening, Benítez and Liverpool will take pride in further recognition of their remarkable Champions League victory. But with expectations having risen following that night in May, the hard work is only just beginning.
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