Liverpool headed into the 2005/06 season as the champions of Europe and secured a further two pieces of silverware, whilst top-flight action returned a third-place finish.
Rafa Benitez’s Reds were the hunted as the new campaign started following their incredible comeback in Istanbul.
The squad had outperformed all expectation in 2004/05 and there was an obvious lack in depth of quality, and while the cheque book remained conservative the spine of the side was vitally reinforced.
What followed domestically was a record points haul for a third-place team in the Premier League, while an FA Cup and a UEFA Super Cup were added to the trophy cabinet – and the youth side added the club’s second FA Youth Cup.
Benitez, in his second season at the helm, oversaw his chargers net 57 goals in the Premier League with 12 players etching their name onto the scoresheet over the course of the season.
Rotations in and out of the squad were a common sight throughout the off-season, with eight arrivals and 13 departures, which included members of the Champions League-winning squad in Vladimir Smicer, Igor Biscan and Milan Baros.
After the highs of Istanbul, the 2005/06 season was one of progress for the Reds – although it did not exactly feel like that in the summer.
Gerrard blinks first in Chelsea transfer tussle
On Tuesday, July 5 2005, Gerrard handed in a transfer request at the club he had joined at eight years of age, having only captained his side to the European Cup six weeks earlier.
It sent shockwaves through Reds around the world, with an intense wave of emotion flooding all those who could bear to think about Liverpool without their inspirational captain.
The pursuit of success which had not felt within consistent reach at Anfield led to Gerrard’s temptation to make the move to Stamford Bridge – in addition to that of a feeling that Liverpool were not showing as much love as they ought to have.
It was messy for all parties involved and as the ticking time bomb moved closer to zero, Gerrard blinked first and at the eleventh hour made the decision to sign a new contract with the Reds as the realisation that the pleasure from just one trophy with Liverpool would outweigh a handful elsewhere made itself known.
The weight was off everyone’s shoulders and Gerrard pushed on as though nothing had ever happened.
He scored 10 league goals and 23 across all competitions to end the season as top goalscorer, with his volleyed effort against Chelsea and a classic drive through Newcastle’s defence topping the bunch in the top-flight.
But there is no doubt that his stunning long-range effort in the FA Cup final took the crown as his best in 2005/06.
A new spine emerges
With Gerrard still very much an integral member of the side, Liverpool looked to address their soft underbelly in the transfer market.
There was a clear vision in mind as Pepe Reina, Momo Sissoko and Peter Crouch were added in the summer, with Liverpool’s limited budget restricting the speed at which Benitez was able to see it come to fruition.
The aforementioned trio set the Reds back just £18.6 million, where the arrival of Daniel Agger in the winter window for £5.8m bolstered the team’s spine and made Liverpool tougher to beat.
With Hyypia, Finnan, Carra, Riise, Gerrard, Garcia and Alonso also on the books Benitez was starting to make his mark on the team, and Reina’s addition was an inspired one, as he went on to cement himself into the top echelon of ‘keepers to play between the sticks at Anfield.
Overall, the side now had the resilience and confidence to string together consistent performances which ensured, even at their worst, that they would not easily fall to the will of the opposition.
Exemplified by a run of eight successive clean sheets between October and December which played a vital role in the 10-game winning streak.
But a slow start cuts their legs out from under them
When the Premier League was ushered into matchday 10, Liverpool were languishing in 12th position after picking up just three wins in their nine opening games.
Of the other six, four were draws and two were defeats – three of which were to sides who would finish the season in 12th, 14th and 18th – a start not kind to any team looking to be in and amongst a title race come the final weeks of the campaign.
It left the Reds off the pace from the get-go with eventual champions Chelsea having accumulated 27 points as opposed to Liverpool’s 13 at the same stage of the season.
Their powers of recovery would lift them to third-place at the conclusion of the season, finishing nine points behind the Blues, if only their start to the season had been smoother.
On the other side of the coin, however, while Liverpool’s slow start put them at a disadvantage early in the piece, what became apparent over time was their ability to find a way avoid defeat.
The team became adept at finding a way to leave the field with points in the bag, a feat which was boosted by Reina taking charge at the back.
Liverpool won 10 games with a 1-0 scoreline and conceded just 25 in 38 games, a tally second behind only Chelsea (22) and recorded two impressive winning streaks: the aforementioned 10 games which was then followed by nine consecutive victories to finish the season.
The team now had a backbone and fans finally felt as though progress was being made to take the club back where it belonged.
The God returns
Speaking of being back where one belongs, Fowler made a shock return to Anfield five years after he left for Leeds United in 2001.
He arrived in the January window on a free transfer, a risk-free move for the club and Fowler, but he was not the only one who had harboured wishes of life back on Merseyside.
Michael Owen, who had left for Real Madrid prior to the Champions League-winning campaign, was itching for a move back during the summer but with the Reds not willing to meet their demands, it was destination Newcastle instead.
But only Fowler would make his return to add competition to the forward line with Peter Crouch, Fernando Morientes and Djibril Cisse not firing on all cylinders.
Fowler was rotated in and out of the side, making 14 appearances in the league and finding the net five times – the first of which came from a headed effort against Fulham in front of a euphoric Anfield faithful – which was enough to earn him a one-year contract extension.
Liverpool were on an upward trajectory and did not let the momentum of their fifth European Cup dissipate as Benitez continued to build towards the future both domestically and on the continent.