Everyone knows how utterly mental the 2005 Champions League campaign was.
Not just the final, but the whole campaign. How Rafa Benitez took that squad to European glory is something no-one will ever fully be able to explain.
So much has been said about Istanbul. Arguably the greatest game in Liverpool’s illustrious history and something we may never see again. Yes, we’ve had similarly stunning comebacks against Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona since then, but this was a final with a David v Goliath disparity between the two sides involved. Still can’t apply any logic to it.
Steven Gerrard’s display on 25 May 2005 is highlighted by many as his finest game in a Red shirt. No arguments here.
But for one pure moment of what he meant to Liverpool and the incredible things of which he was capable, we need go further back in the same campaign.
The Reds were drawn into Group A alongside Monaco, Deportivo La Coruna and Olympiacos.
On paper, a very kind outcome: Monaco had reached the final the previous season but had then lost key attacking talents Ludovic Giuly, Dado Prso and Fernando Morientes (remember him?), while Deportivo’s decline was evident as they picked up just two points over the six games.
That left Olympiacos. Following a mixed set of results, with impressive victories over Monaco and Depor combined with lethargic defeats in Greece and France, Benitez’s men went into the final game at Anfield knowing that a victory, either by a 1-0 scoreline or any margin of two goals, would be enough to secure progression to the knockout stages.
The Liverpool side that night read as follows:
Kirkland, Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore, Nunez, Alonso, Gerrard, Riise, Kewell, Baros.
Substitutes: Dudek, Henchoz, Josemi, Diao, Warnock, Sinama-Pongolle, Mellor.
Benitez was still trying to find his best XI and was short on senior attacking options, with summer signings Djibril Cisse and Luis Garcia ruled out through injury. Milan Baros was only just back from a spell on the sidelines himself, and Harry Kewell’s form had dropped dramatically from a promising debut campaign in 2003-04.
It wasn’t a good start.
Olympiacos didn’t boast many household names but their biggest talent, Brazilian icon Rivaldo, fired them ahead with a free-kick that flew frustratingly through a poor defensive wall. It was a shock lead – indeed, that goal was the first the Greeks had ever scored away to an English club.
As things stood at half-time, the Reds needed three goals without reply. Up until this point, we’d scored only three in the first five-and-a-half group games. It was time to roll the dice.
Florent Sinama-Pongolle was introduced from the bench. And then the madness began.
Just two minutes after the restart, the enigmatic young Frenchman timed his run perfectly to get on the end of Kewell’s low cross and tap in to equalise.
Hope had been restored and the hosts began to pepper the Olympiacos goal with efforts. Gerrard’s strike was disallowed for a very harsh foul before Kewell headed straight at the goalkeeper when completely unmarked. With 78 minutes played and the score still 1-1, qualification was fading away.
Another gamble, as Neil Mellor replaced Baros, and another immediate impact. After Antonio Nunez’s header was parried, the latest sub reacted quickest to smash in the rebound.
Nine minutes of normal time remaining and just one more goal required.
Then, Steven went pure Gerrard: “Mellor… lovely cushioned header, for GERRARD!!! OH YOU BEAUTY! WHAT A HIT SON! WHAT. A. HIT!”
Anfield erupted as the skipper crashed in the kind of goal synonymous with his Liverpool career.
It was so purely typical of him: a thunderous strike, in front of the Kop, to rescue his side when needed the most.
Martin Tyler and Andy Gray’s commentary took it to another level. Yes, he’d later go on to inspire that phenomenal comeback against AC Milan, and there are countless other times where he dragged the Reds to victory by the scruff of the neck, but this was the archetypal Steven Gerrard moment.
Obviously we didn’t know it at the time, but it was the perfect microcosm of our Champions League campaign, with our captain leading us to an unexpected and unforgettable comeback.
Nothing about European run had been remarkable up until this point, but that game and that goal set the tone. It showed we can fight when the chips are down, that we wouldn’t be giving in any time soon. And it showed everything that Steven Gerrard was about.
It was the spark that lit the touch paper on the most insane run to glory this club has ever witnessed.