En route to winning the UEFA cup in Dortmund in 2001, Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool stopped off at the Stadio Olymipico in Rome.
This was a fourth round tie and the opponents were, of course, Roma.
The Reds had won two European Cups on this ground already. In 1977, they defeated Borussia Monchengladbach to lift their first and, in 1984, they triumphed over Roma on penalties, to clinch their fourth.
On each occasion the locals had given the Liverpool supporters a torrid time and this night would be no different.
Nevertheless the Reds took a healthy contingent to the Italian capital. Thousands of Reds filled the bars and cafes around the stadium before kickoff. The Eternal City was awash with banners and the streets echoed to Scouse song:
“When Robbie Fowler scores a goal
You can stick your Totti up yer hole
And we’ll all get blind drunk
When Liverpool win the cup”
In truth, most Liverpool supporters would have been nervous prior to the game. The Reds were a team in development and although they’d win the first of their three trophies that year in just a few weeks, on paper at least they were no match for the Italians. Fortunately football is played on grass, not on paper.
Roma were running away with Serie A. They were six points clear, and they also boasted the likes of Cafu, Gabriel Batistuta and Francesco Totti. However, Batistuta would start on the bench and Totti didn’t figure in the squad at all, a fact that must have given Liverpool a lift prior to kickoff.
A tense first half ended goalless, with Roma going closest with a wayward header from club captain Marco Delvecchio. It was a case of so far, so good for Liverpool, who would have happily taken a 0-0 draw back to Anfield. However, they do much better than that.
With the second half just two minutes old, Michael Owen cut out a poor pass from Alessandro Rinaldi and thumped the ball past goalkeeper Francesco Antonioli. The home support were stunned into silence.
The Italians flickered briefly into life after that, testing Westerweld with a shot from sub Marcos Assuncao. Then they introduced Batistuta, which must have sent ripples of anxiety through the away support.
But no sooner had the Argentine entered the fray had Owen doubled Liverpool’s lead, with a header.
Liverpool saw the game out for a famous win and almost added a third through Nicky Barmby in the 89th minute. However, his shot was saved. Gerard Houllier was beaming after the game and with good cause:
“The whole team was superb,” he grinned. “I was worried because we had players missing through injury and others cup tied, while there were several playing who were only just back from injury. But Michael’s goals gave us confidence and the defence was outstanding.”
All that remained was for the Liverpool supporters to negotiate the chaos outside the ground, as they made their way home.
Little did they know, they were on the brink of one of the most memorable seasons in the club’s history.