The early years of the Rafalution were the best,
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This review is from: Liverpool FC: End Of Season Review 2004/2005 [DVD] (DVD)
At the end of 2003-2004 Gerard Houllier was sacked. Despite finishing fourth - which was easier then - Houllier's managerial ability was clearly on the wane as he made numerous poor transfer dealings, tactical blunders and failed to get the best out of the squad. Rafa Benitez - fresh from securing two La Liga titles and a UEFA cup in the previous three seasons at Valencia - arrived at Anfield. Although his first season in the Anfield hot seat was inconsistent fortunately the cream of the performances were saved for the best club competition in world football as Liverpool secured an unprecedented European Cup triumph. It was the first time Liverpool had won it in its Champions League format and the trophy was retained permanently as it was won an English record fifth time (as of 2012)!
The DVD is well worth buying as it provides a comprehensive memory of a happier and more successful time for Liverpool given 2009-2012's decline to mid-table. Although results in the domestic campaign were inconsistent with it being a particularly gruelling effort away from Anfield, the first thing you notice is that compared to Houllier's final two seasons the football is much more attractive. Rafa and his assistant manager Pako Ayesteran to some extent transferred the skilful, flowing football from their Valencia side to Liverpool. The previous playmaker Danny Murphy was sold and replaced with the superior Xabi Alonso who would orchestrate and dictate tempo of the team's passing with his classy touch and telepathic range. On the highlights shown on the DVD you can witness his amazing long range and short range passes that would either indirectly or directly create a goal. As captain Steven Gerrard states on the DVD, clearly Liverpool's increasingly erratic form in the second half of the premier league season can be attributed to his absence during January to early March after being injured on New Years' Day. Without his ability to dominate and retain possession Liverpool failed to secure the three extra points required to reach fourth.
However, clearly there were other factors involved in the team's league failings. The team were not compact enough in their defensive duties and Josemi, Mauricio Pellegrino and Djimi Traore were the error-prone weak links. Josemi and Pellegrino were two of Rafa's less successful La Liga imports as they were too slow and clumsy for the premier division. Traore on the other hand had a history of defensive gaffes but you can totally forgive him due to his superb defending in the European campaign that helped secure the Champions League. Anyway goalkeepers Jerzy Dudek and Chris Kirkland were similarly culpable in the team conceding too many goals. Similarly to Traore, you can make great allowances for Dudek's blunders in the league as his brilliant shot stopping and penalty saving heroics were a major factor in the European Cup win.
The other problem in Liverpool's domestic performance was at the attacking end. On the eve of the beginning of the Premier League season Michael Owen departed for Real Madrid and he was not adequately replaced. Apart from Milan Baros' form in the first half of the season, all the club's strikers failed to hit the net often enough. Milan Baros and Djibril Cisse's both missing a close range chance at the same time at home to AK Graz exemplifies that they were both not genuine natural goal scorers. Milan Baros was top scorer with a paltry nine league goals which was simply not enough for a forward at a top club. However, it is a shame that he failed to continue his excellent goal scoring form of the first half of the season and if he had he would probably have been at the club longer. His deft and energetic dribbling was often a threat to the opposition (e.g. Bayer Leverkusen away). Cisse spent most of 2004-2005 on the sidelines with a dreadful broken leg but when he played although blessed with lightning pace, he was similarly guilty of profligate finishing and a cumbersome touch. On the other hand, he showed great resolve to return early towards the end of the season in fine style converting his spot kick in Istanbul. But still if Liverpool in 2004-05 had a poacher type of striker like Robbie Fowler or Owen who could have scored twenty goals a season then maybe the club would have found the extra three points to finish above Everton? Also as previously stated, defensive shortcomings were another particular problem.
Nevertheless, clearly in a season in which Liverpool played and won their most important game in twenty one years there are plenty of positives. In some of the performances domestically and in the whole Champions League run Liverpool were fantastic. Jamie Carragher was converted permanently from a full back to a centre back role performing sensationally in virtually all the games of the season. His steely determination and precisely timed interceptions, blocks and tackles ensured that he became one of Liverpool's best defenders of all time. Sami Hyypia continued to be a Liverpool legend scoring a vital first goal at home to Juventus in the Champions League quarter final while Steve Finnan became Liverpool's best right back of the 2000s with his steady defending and delivery from wide areas.
In fact in the Champions League run, all of Liverpool's squad made a crucial contribution. Midfield was a particularly strong era for Liverpool in 2004-05. Luis Garcia was another of Rafa's La Liga signings and had an uncanny ability to score vital goals in Europe including the pivotal "ghost" goal in the second half of the Champions League final to Chelsea! John Arne Riise was back to his best scoring and a creating a number of flamboyant goals. Dietmar Hamann showed why he was one of the greatest shielding midfielders of all time, changing the Champions League final by stopping the threat of Kaka after he was introduced at half-time. Even players who were not guaranteed first team starters made telling contributions to the Champions League success. Back-up strikers Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama Ponogolle transformed the final group game versus Olympiakos by scoring a goal each and assisting two of the three goals. While Harry Kewell's injury problems were disappointing even he played a role in the Champions League success by setting up Sinama-Pongolle's first against Olympiakos with following a fine dribble and precise low cross - if Liverpool had failed that night back in 2004 to win by two goals they would never have even made the knockout stages of the tournament never mind the final. Anthony Le Tallec also made a rare but vital contribution in the quarter final at home to Juventus setting up Luis Garcia's stunning volley. The inconsistent Vladimir Smicer in his emotional final appearance for the club scored the second goal against AC Milan and converted in the penalty shootout with his last ever kick for the club. Kopites will recall him kissing the badge after his successful spot kick and he will always be remembered as a legend. Meanwhile, Igor Biscan became a cult Liverpool hero with his Gerrard-esque performances in the Champions League setting up some of the goals in the run to the final.
Clearly, the main man for Liverpool in the Champions League win and best moments of 2004-05 was Steven Gerrard. He had become from 2004 onwards a complete midfielder who could dynamically drive virtually every game from attacking midfield. Granted he made a mistake by scoring an own goal in the other main low point of the season in which adversaries Chelsea beat Liverpool in the Carling Cup final but again it almost did not matter at all as he performed so exceptionally well in all the other games of the season. The moment in which he scored that breath taking third goal versus Olympiakos which was enough to get the club out of the group stage and into the Champions League knockout rounds will always be regarded as iconic. Gerrard was such a constant in all of Liverpool's best moment of 2004-05 that it is impossible to list all of them. His ability to inspire the whole team, assist goals with his intuitive range of passing and convert chances with his devastating shot were all vital in Liverpool's 2004-05 success as was his ability to break up opposition attacks with his combative tackling.
Although the treble season (2000-2001) was the most successful overall season in my fifteen years supporting the club, I prefer this season as this holds the greatest individual triumph - the club's fifth European Cup for keeps. The final still to this day remains the most dramatic and scintillating match of all time. It is a shame that chiefly due to both defensive frailties and the lack of a natural goal scorer to replace Michael Owen that the club were beaten to fourth position humiliatingly by arch-rivals Everton. It was also a tiny bit disappointing that the club failed to make it a double trophy win as the Carling Cup was snatched at the death by Chelsea due to a mistake by the otherwise immense Steven Gerrard. However, in winning the Champions League ultimately Liverpool outshone and stole a march on all their rivals where it mattered most. True, the DVD shows how Liverpool needed a helping of fortune on the way (e.g. how did Eidur Gudjohnsen miss that chance?), but the team made its own luck with its passion and determination to fight against all odds. In the next few years until 2009 Rafa Benitez's Liverpool enhanced their league performances significantly as the manager understood better the pace and physicality of the English game. However, the fact that the Premiership was never secured always will mean that this first stage of the Rafalution was undoubtedly Rafa at the peak of his tactical nous and judgement.