It’s 10 years since goals from Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise gave Liverpool (another) famous victory in the Nou Camp. How can the Reds get back to that elite level in Europe?
The Reds have not enjoyed many better away victories in Europe than that memorable night in Barcelona in February 2007.
Rafa Benitez’s side were not fancied by the masses as they turned up for their Champions League last-16 first-leg clash, with Barca’s starting lineup one to make any manager jealous.
Victor Valdes, Rafael Marquez, Carles Puyol and Gianluca Zambrotta were part of a stellar back-line, Xavi and Deco were producing art in the middle of the park and all-time great Ronaldinho was just about at his peak.
There was also a diminutive 19-year-old called Lionel Messi on the pitch, by the way, but nobody quite knows what happened to him. He had such potential.
Deco’s first-half header may have seen weaker-minded teams buckle, but Benitez’s Liverpool were made of much sterner stuff during the pinnacle of his time at the club.
Craig Bellamy’s header was comically carried over his own goal-line by Valdes just before half-time, and John Arne Riise’s right-footed strike sealed a memorable victory for the visitors.
Liverpool eventually squeezed through the tie, despite a 1-0 defeat back at Anfield, before two-legged wins over PSV Eindhoven and Chelsea saw them reach a second Champions League final in three attempts under Benitez.
AC Milan may have avenged their 2005 defeat in the showcase event in Athens, but one thing was clear: this was a Reds side genuinely feared throughout Europe.
With Jurgen Klopp’s current outfit hoping to be dining at Europe’s most expensive table next season and beyond, there is so much they can take from that mid 2000s team.
Lessons To Learn
In many ways, the Liverpool of then and now could not be much different.
If Benitez’s philosophy was very much built around being superbly-drilled and measured all over the pitch, Klopp’s ideology is a swashbuckling, attack-minded one capable of destroying an opponent.
Both managers are brilliant in their own way, but you could argue that if this current side wants to make a mark in Europe, they must adopt some of the former team’s strengths, and add much more quality throughout the squad.
Between 2005 and 2009, Liverpool were as well respected as anyone in the Champions League – they weren’t necessarily the best team, but nobody wanted to be drawn against them, and there were leaders and winners everywhere you looked.
Using that 2006/07 crop as an example, it is easy to see why they gained a reputation as one of the continent’s finest.
Right through the spine of the team there were people you would go into battle with, including Pepe Reina, Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso, Steven Gerrard and Dirk Kuyt.
Javier Mascherano had also just moved to Anfield – a player magnificent in both ability and snideness, and someone Liverpool could do with more than most right now.
Fernando Torres was signed the following summer, which highlighted the kind of ambition the club was showing around that time. This is exactly what must happen this year, if Liverpool are to reach the next level. Assuming a top-four finish is achieved, there is no reason why this shouldn’t be a summer to remember.
That Benitez-era side though knew how to grind out games and win ugly, which is one of the things deservedly pinpointed as a real weakness under Klopp. It is impossible to reach the latter stages of the Champions League if you don’t possess that attribute.
Four cleansheets were kept in the group stages alone in 2006/07, and the 3-2 defeat to Galatasaray was a dead rubber that saw Benitez rest many key players.
The semi-final second-leg against Chelsea at Anfield was a masterful defensive display, just as it had been two years earlier against the Blues. To go 120 minutes without conceding against such a top side, when you are trailing from the first-leg, summed up that team to perfection.
Benitez built his Reds teams from the foundations of a strong defence, with a world-class goalkeeper in Reina, solid full-backs in Steve Finnan, Alvaro Arbeloa and Fabio Aurelio, and the likes of Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel a strong selection of centre-backs.
Klopp is a very different manager to Benitez, but while many of his qualities are superior to the Spaniard, defensive nous and masterminding hard-fought wins are not (yet) among them.
That’s not to say he is gung-ho in the way Brendan Rodgers was, but his style of play naturally risks leaking goals on the counter-attack. It is fantastic to watch, but not always the way to win a football match.
He did reach the 2013 Champions League final at the end of the day, though, so this isn’t a manager who doesn’t know how to conquer some of the giants of European football.
More often than not, it is his personnel who are letting him down rather than his tactics, and he must strengthen significantly in the summer, both in terms of his starting lineup and back-up options.
Defensively, they are well short of being a top Champions League side.
Liverpool’s Next European Heroes?
Failure to reach next season’s competition would be an almighty blow, and while the battle for a top-four finish will be fierce in the coming months, Liverpool should have enough to get over the line.
There is plenty of rest between matches, key men are back to their fittest, and when both of those factors worked in the Reds’ favour earlier in the campaign, we saw what Klopp’s men were capable of.
After the damp squib of 2014/15, in which Liverpool may as well have boycotted the Champions League under Rodgers, the Reds must get back in Europe’s elite club competition.
The class of 2016/17 is an extremely exciting one that should only improve, and in terms of natural talent, it has the edge on its predecessor that triumphed at Camp Nou a decade ago.
To match their feats and consistently reach the latter stages of the Champions League, however, they must strengthen in defence, learn how to dig deep in the toughest moments and pick up wins when they don’t deserve it.
Too many current stars go missing in times of adversity, which couldn’t be much different to when Carragher, Gerrard, Alonso, Kuyt and many others would come to the fore.
“It’s probably easier to go through to the next round from the group stage of the Champions League than it is to qualify in the first place in England,” commented Klopp last week and he’s pretty accurate there.
Hopefully next year we’re sat here looking ahead to a Champions League last-16 tie, rather than reminiscing about ones that were a decade ago.