Last-minute winners, Gerrard classics & Spanish recruits – Rafa arrives in Liverpool’s 2004/05 season

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Liverpool went into 2004/05 knowing it was the start of a new era as Rafael Benitez replaced Gerard Houllier as manager—and it proved to be a magical campaign indeed.

Of course, for Reds fans the unforgettable nature of 04/05 largely stemmed from our European exploits, as Rafa took us to Istanbul and a fifth European Cup.

In the Premier League, though, it was something of a learning curve for the boss and the players he brought in, with results and performances accordingly topsy-turvy.

Indeed, it was a rare season when local rivals Everton managed to finish above the Reds, fourth to our fifth, but that’s far from to say they managed to eclipse us as Anfield produced some special nights and saved the best for the Champions League.

Even so, domestic matches provided plenty of their own magic and unforgettable moments, with some of the goals scored that season entering Liverpool folklore.

All told, the Reds racked up 52 league goals with 14 different scorers, while conceding only 15 at Anfield all season.

A total of 13 players made their debuts that season—a mix of young hopefuls and new signings—and though the Reds were never higher than fifth from January onwards, it became increasingly clear as the year went on that attentions were focused elsewhere.

Michael Owen was no more, but the Kop gained new heroes in 04/05, none more so than the man who now sat in the dugout.

 

Spanish flavour

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - WEDNESDAY AUGUST 25th 2004: Liverpool's manager Rafael Benitez poses with his two new Spanish signings Luis Garcia (l) and Xabi Alonso (r) at Anfield. (Photo by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

Rafa arrived from Valencia, and half of LaLiga quickly followed.

Djibril Cisse came in from Auxerre, having already been agreed in Houllier’s final days, but Josemi came in at right-back from Malaga—to a general shrugging of the shoulders in fairness—while Antonio Nunez never stood a chance after being a part-exchange punt included in Owen’s departure.

But the big two, the exciting additions, came in the form of Barcelona’s attacker Luis Garcia and Real Sociedad’s controller-in-chief, Xabi Alonso.

They immediately hit it off with the Anfield crowd, one with flair and a penchant for goals, the other for his set-pieces, inch-perfect passing and obvious all-round quality.

It helped, of course, that they both had early impacts in front of goal: Garcia netted on just his second league appearance for the Reds and scored another against Norwich soon after, while Alonso instigated a brilliant comeback against Fulham, setting up a couple and scoring a tremendous free-kick.

Both quickly became fan favourites, key players and crucial components of our revival under Rafa, while Fernando Morientes and Mauricio Pellegrino were mid-season additions from Spain too.

 

Rafa’s rotation even reached the ‘keepers

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - WEDNESDAY, MAY 25th, 2005: Liverpool's Jerzy Dudek celebrates saving the last penalty to win the European Cup against AC Milan during the UEFA Champions League Final at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Propaganda)

The boss kept everyone guessing as to his lineups, even the players. Form didn’t always dictate who started, with the boss an early proponent of rotating the team to keep players fresh and fit.

That even extended to the goalkeepers: in the Premier League alone we used three “No. 1s”, with Jerzy Dudek playing most, Chris Kirkland getting 10 games and January signing Scott Carson playing four.

In attack, that rotation—plus no shortage of injuries—translated to a group effort in front of goal, rather than having a central source of strikes.

No Liverpool player made double figures for league goals, with Milan Baros notching nine, Luis Garcia eight and Steven Gerrard seven.

Cisse would have scored more no doubt, but scored one on his debut and two on the final day; in between there was just one more goal—a low strike off a free-kick—and a long-term injury.

It kept the opposition guessing who to mark, at least.

 

Comebacks and late winners

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND- SUNDAY NOVEMBER 28th 2004: Liverpool's Neil Mellor celebrates scoring the winning goal in injury time as Arsenal's Patrick Vieira looks on dejected during the Premiership match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Proparganda)

When the goals did come, they were frequently memorable and in several cases, vital late winners.

The most spoken about of the lot was undoubtedly Neil Mellor’s Kop-end effort against Arsenal, a quite brilliant winner of a fantastic match.

But Baros also notched one of his own from the penalty spot, completing a 3-2 win over Crystal Palace and his own hat-trick on the day.

Then there was Igor Biscan’s late winner to see off Bolton, assisted by Djimi Traore—not a combination usually spoken about in terms of match-winning displays—plus the aforementioned come-from-behind win over Fulham.

And we won’t go into European comebacks, all we’d be here all day.

This was the first sign that Rafa was rebuilding a team which could be above all else mentally resilient and stand up to the challenge on any given day, a characteristic he placed much value in during his tenure.

 

Gerrard smashed them in from everywhere

Liverpool's Steven Gerrard fires home his sides equaliser vs Middlesbrough, 2005, Anfield (PA Images)

Yes, we can all name two Gerrard goals in particular from the 04/05 campaign—but it was also the year he scored maybe his most outrageous strike: the bending, swerving, dipping half-volley from absolutely miles out against Middlesbrough.

The skipper scored several other memorable hits, too: smashed free-kicks against West Brom and Everton, plus a fine solo effort and poacher’s strike early in the campaign.

Liverpool’s No. 8 was really pulling the strings in the team by this time and Benitez quickly figured out the best way to release the captain was to play him in more of a free role, be it from the right or higher upfield.

He still played central midfield with regularity in 04/05 too, but the foundations were being prepared for his most explosive seasons ahead.

 

The promise and the profligate

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND- SUNDAY NOVEMBER 28th 2004: Liverpool's Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Arsenal's Fredrik Ljungberg and Patrick Vieira during the Premiership match at Anfield. (Pic by David Rawcliffe/Proparganda)

As can be the case in a manager’s first season, some of the team-building was trial and error; transfers which didn’t work out or trying to make the best of the last boss’s dealings.

That’s reflected in some of the other goals during the campaign: Morientes briefly showing his class but never scoring enough; Florent Sinama-Pongolle chipping in with four league goals, a couple of them very decent indeed, but never taking the next steps to become a first-team regular.

Steve Finnan scored the only Liverpool goal of his career—a brilliant individual effort—Sami Hyypia notched a 20-yard volley and John Arne Riise could have had six in one day against West Brom, but ended with two goals and two assists.

It was a mixed, up-and-down, full of potential campaign overall as far as the league went…but as we all know and will never forget, for five months it was essentiall a proving ground for tactics and an opportunity to rest players, in preparation for the biggest quest of all: becoming champions of Europe once more.

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