We’ve been here before. This is not the first time that we’ve looked ahead to see what might appear to be a mountain to climb, but we’ve overcome bigger challenges in the past, and we’ve managed to make those mountains into molehills.
There’s always been something about Liverpool FC where we just don’t seem to enjoy ourselves unless we make things difficult ‘“ and especially in Europe. If we had it too easy it would be nothing to talk about, but large parts of our history are filled with stories like the late winner against St. Etienne on the way to our first ever European Cup in ‘˜77. Then there was the 3-0 second leg win over Auxerre in ‘˜91 after being down 2-0 from the first leg shortly after our return to European competition. More than ten years later on there was the need for a 2-0 win over AS Roma to progress to the quarter finals of the Champions League in ‘˜02, and of course there were many others where we needed to win to survive.
As if that’s not enough, there’s a whole other class of matches where we refused to be beaten, no matter how impossible it might have seemed. Even on a few memorable occasions when we’ve needed three goals in only half a game, we’ve somehow managed to do it. One classic encounter saw us 3-0 down at half time and looking for all the world like we were well and truly defeated. But accepting defeat is just not in our nature, and so in the second half we came out flying, worked hard, and managed to snatch a goal to get back into the game. Then a shot from Smicer found its way into the net only two minutes later, and suddenly it was game on.
The drama soon rose to a climax when a penalty was awarded, which surely would be the turning point in the match ‘“ score from here and it’s all even at 3-3, but miss it and you might as well hand it to the opposition. As the Red section of the crowd held their breath, the kick was taken only to be stopped by the ‘˜keeper, but then the follow up was fired into the net for the equaliser. That was not enough though, and a single point was sufficient for FC Basel to progress to the second stage in ’03, while we dropped down to the UEFA Cup. Only two years later we were down 1-0 to Olympiakos at Anfield, where we needed to win by two clear goals. That meant we again needed three in the second half which turned out to be yet another classic. It was in fact those matches that came to mind when we were equally thought to be down and out at half-time in Istanbul, but as I always say, ‘œwe’ve been here before’. With the eerie similarities to that earlier match in Switzerland, it’s not an exaggeration to say that!
It’s not just in Europe either that we seem to make life difficult for ourselves. Our 2006 FA Cup run began with a come-from-behind win after somehow going 3-1 down to Luton in the 3rd round. We more or less cruised from there, but if the final was thought to be a walk going in against West Ham we soon learned otherwise. An own goal and a sloppy error put us 2-0 behind mid way through the first half, but we battled back twice to end up at 3-3 and then go on to win on penalties. Some of the players at that match were also on the field against Arsenal in 2001 when we were thought to have lost the cup with a goal conceded with less than twenty minutes remaining. Somehow we fought back and won 2-1 with less than two minutes to go. If that’s not enough excitement, what about the 1986 FA Cup Final where we had to come back against Everton for a 3-1 win to give us ‘œThe Double’ and show the world who really rules Merseyside (incidentally, we won the League that year with a win at Chelsea).
What we have now is just another test of character as we travel to Stamford Bridge, to face Chelsea yet again in another Champions League semi-final. We should be used to this by now as it’s our third time in four years under Rafa, not to mention facing them in the FA Cup semi-final two years ago. Somehow, in spite of all the money that they have behind them, and the impressive form that they have shown, they have yet to beat us when it comes down to these nerve-racking semi-finals. The difference this year is that we go into the second leg at 1-1 with an away goal conceded. That last minute own-goal was a heart-stopping moment, as we were so close to taking a 1-0 lead with us to Stamford Bridge, after clearly outplaying them over the 90 minutes. But instead it’s 1-1, and supposedly advantage Chelsea. But is it really such an advantage?
Our most recent big match in Europe was only a few weeks ago when we faced Arsenal at home in the second leg. We managed a 1-1 draw away in the first leg, which was supposedly a huge advantage to us. It wasn’t so much after only a few minutes into the match when Arsenal scored, negating the away goal with one of their own, and taking a 2-1 aggregate lead. This was once again where the character of the team as a whole had to come through, and instead of having it easy we were suddenly facing another uphill struggle. It was only a few minutes later when we were level, and not too long into the second half when we took the lead. That should have wrapped it up with our 3-2 aggregate lead, but Arsenal somehow scored again which would have been enough to put them through on away goals. The worst part, besides conceding again, was that we only had six minutes left to do anything about it. We did though, and we went through with a penalty and a later strike to put it beyond doubt.
Funnily enough, it’s Arsenal who come to mind in the situation that we now face going down to Stamford Bridge. Way back in 1989, we were faced with the easiest possible task for winning the League on the very last day of the season. Arsenal should have wrapped up the title in the weeks before but stumbled once too often and handed the advantage over to us. We took first place after our penultimate match by thrashing West Ham 5-1. All we had to do was to go out and play our last match of the season at Anfield, and even if Arsenal won by a goal we’d be fine since they needed to win by at least two. It was that ultimately false sense of security that led to us giving the match ‘“ and the title ‘“ away. Peter Beardsley summed up his thoughts on the disappointment in his 1990 autobiography:
‘œPerhaps our biggest mistake was in beating West Ham so convincingly on the Tuesday. That gave us the cushion of goal difference advantage, which meant we could afford to lose and still be champions. With so much at stake it allowed for negative thoughts to creep in, whereas if we had needed to win we might have approached the game in a more positive style.’
All that the blues have to do is hold us off the score sheet and they will be on their way to Moscow. Most of the experts have already decided that we might as well not show up as we have yet to score at The Bridge under Rafa, and have at best only drawn 0-0 there – twice in Champions League (’05) and once in the Premier League (this season). That would make them firm favourites on paper, but that doesn’t do them any favours as we thrive on being the underdogs. Who would have given us any chance of winning the trophy in 2005 when we were down 1-0 against Olympiakos? We were the underdog in every match through to the final, and that suited us just fine. It was Juventus, Chelsea, and AC Milan who were under pressure to perform, and we managed to use that each time to overcome the odds.
We’ve had to win the second leg each time against Chelsea, and so this time is really no different. The blues will be nervous knowing that a single goal from us will change everything and so will most likely depend on their defensive home record to see them through. What they might not realise though is that we have players who like to come to the fore on the big occasions, which will no doubt cause a few moments of doubt to creep in. We also have what no other team – and especially Chelsea – can match. That’s something called character, which in turn has given us our pedigree in Europe. We’ve shown that character so many times before, and this is just one more chance to demonstrate why the rest of Europe fears us. It will take more than a fluke own-goal in the first leg, not to mention a few thousand plastic flags at Stamford Bridge, to stop us from going to Moscow next month. Like I said, ‘œWe’ve been here before.’