Despite Gerard Houllier's worrying health problems during the 2001-2002 season, Phil Thompson's diligent work as caretaker manager led to Liverpool finishing second in the premiership, a satisfying place ahead of arch-rivals Manchester United. With successive improvements in league position in the previous years, second was a peak. With astute managerial decisions from Gerard Houllier in the summer of 2002, there was a feeling of anticipation around Merseyside that in the coming season Liverpool could claim a first league title in 13 years.
Unfortunately, the 2002-2003 season yielded mixed success. Liverpool in the League Cup remained a formidable cup side, but the prospects of reaching the premiership pinnacle were drastically impaired by a period of relegation form during the dismal November, December and January period. The initial twelve league matches and the team's form from February onward was undoubtedly Liverpool's most successful period during this sometimes difficult season.
Danny Murphy was player of the season. With his perceptive passing, great vision and tremendous long range shots he created and scored countless Liverpool goals. His work rate and playmaking ability made him a livewire. Murphy's exquisite curling shot in a 2-1 win away at Everton in April was impressive. The three points at Everton were essential given that Everton were vying to finish above Liverpool at that point. Michael Owen, although perhaps facing the beginning of a steady decline in his prowess, was probably the second top performer of the season. Despite being hampered due to the persistent effect of an earlier hamstring injury, he still scored 28 goals and this was despite two fruitless runs in the season where he failed to score in around ten games each. Perhaps he was profligate in his finishing at times and his pace was deteriorating slightly due to injury, but he still displayed enough poise, intelligent touch/running and lethal finishing to make a weaker season by his peerless standards look decent. Highlights of Owen's season aside from the League Cup final ranged from a terrific run and finish at Everton to a dramatic last-minute poacher's effort in a 1-0 win at home to Chelsea in October. Another outstanding Owen performance came when he plundered four goals in a comprehensive 6-0 win away at West Brom in April.
Houllier's public criticism of Steven Gerrard in November seemed apt given that his form escalated as the season carried on. He provided the side with an all-round midfield game due to his tenacity and radar-like through passes/crosses - this resulted in eight assists and seven goals. Apart from the outstanding league cup final, Gerrard's key moment came in the league cup run when against Aston Villa in the quarter final he pulled all the strings in midfield and scored a precise close-range finish.
Other players who did fulfil their potential in the 02-03 season included John Arne Riise and Milan Baros. Riise experienced one of his stronger seasons in Liverpool colours - his sensational long range strikes, determined dribbling and pinpoint delivery from wide areas were significant in the best periods of 02-03. Milan Baros impressed with his tireless running, incisive movement onto through passes and deft finishes scoring a total of twelve goals in his first complete season at Liverpool.
However, too many players were underperforming and there were numerous low points to a difficult season. A major contribution to Liverpool's decline in 2002-03 was the loss of organisation and solidity in defence which served the team so well in the successes of the treble season. A lack of focus and concentration led to detrimental individual errors from the defenders. Traore was the most error-prone defender since the start of the 90s, while Xavier was likewise not Liverpool class and opposition attackers ran rings around him. The former immense Markus Babbel was no longer the same force due to illness when he was played sparingly by Gerard Houllier. Even the defensive greats Hyypia and Carragher made a few mistakes. The most dramatic decline in performance of a defender was Stephane Henchoz - he appeared slow and cumbersome and made numerous errors including an own goal in a 4th round FA Cup defeat at home to Crystal Palace. Though perhaps the squandering of chances from attackers was an even larger factor in this disappointment.
Perhaps what contributed to the crisis in confidence in the defenders was Jerzy Dudek's numerous goalkeeping catastrophes - the nadir of Liverpool's season came in a 2-1 home defeat by Manchester United. Dudek's careless fumble led to a Forlan goal and another goal from the same player came when he failed to save a fairly ordinary shot. These were both goals scored by a weak Premiership performer at the time in Forlan and another blunder which initiated the crisis in confidence came in a 1-0 defeat at Middlesbrough when he clumsily dropped a high ball.
Another unhappy moment in the season came when Liverpool failed to progress from the first group stage of the Champions League. As well as the loss of solidity in the team's defending, perhaps what also showed that Gerard Houllier's time as Liverpool manager was nearing an end was his handling of the press. He claimed that the team were unfortunate to depart the Champions League and failed to recognise the defensive weaknesses against Basel and the superiority of Spanish champions Valencia. The team was unlucky against Basel at home when Riise hit the woodwork twice but it was a considerable mixture of the other factors also. However, the admirable three goal comeback away at Basel predated Istanbul by two and a half years and perhaps if Dudek had palmed a Basel shot around the post rather than towards one of their players then Liverpool might have won 3-2 and stayed in.
Other factors that were the beginning of the end for Gerard Houllier's reign at Anfield were his judgement when he signed players at the start of the season. Cheyrou was too unimposing to be the "next Zidane" and was left out of the team for large periods of the season while Diao despite a couple of goals and a handful of satisfactory performance was too weak to be the "next Vieira." Other players, namely Vladimir Smicer and Emile Heskey, both failed to continue their impressive form from the treble season. Smicer was jinxed by injury but was also inconsistent while Heskey failed to score enough goals and contribute sufficiently to the team's attacking prowess. The lack of a vintage performance from these midfield/attacking players as well as the crisis of confidence in defence led to the November to January eleven league game stretch without a victory - where far too many goals were shipped and too few were scored. Though also another issue was the team failed to convert enough chances - with Heskey and Owen culpable. Another new signing, Diouf on the other hand likewise underachieved for Liverpool FC and was a controversial figure but he did perform in some games.
However, this is why this 2002-03 season review is essential for a Liverpool fan because of the Worthington Cup/League Cup final performance and result (a bonus disk includes the entire ninety minutes). Diouf could have strong games and this game was one in which Diouf offered width and penetration. The team reverted to the impregnable defence of the treble season and counter attacking "smash and grab" mentality in attack and achieved a magnificent 2-0 victory over their north-west rivals, Manchester United. On the bonus DVD it is possible to witness the organisation and graft in the defending that was absent from many other games of 2002-03. Henchoz had his best game of the season and even managed to clear off the line again (though this time legitimately, unlike Cardiff 2001) when Dudek made a sole mistake. Hyypia and Carragher were impeccable and imperious while Riise also contributed to nullifying David Beckham. Manchester United players David Beckham and Juan Sebastian Veron were passengers while even Roy Keane struggled. When the United attack did penetrate, Dudek put in a man of the match shift to bring his season full circle - after the traumatic gaffes against United at home in the league, he was now making spectacular saves that denied United. In attack Liverpool provided enough threat on the counter to deserve a 2-0 victory. Murphy was cultured while Hamann was immense in protecting his back four through astute tackles and blocks - he even assisted Owen's second with his energetic run and eye for a pass. Gerrard scored a marvellous pile driver which from a Liverpool perspective deflected by good luck off United icon Beckham and had a combative overall performance. Owen was fantastic up front in converting the goal that sealed the victory - an exciting forage into the penalty area and devastating close-range finish. Perhaps Smicer should have scored a third goal when he saw a chance go underneath his legs. It was a fantastic day for Kopites and a remarkable win against the old rivals in a difficult season and the full ninety minutes justifies the purchase of this DVD.
In addition to the cup win, the 02-03 season review is also worth buying due to Danny Murphy becoming an integral performer and playmaker in the side. Perhaps though it is possible to see why he was sold by Rafa Benitez a couple of years later - although he was a playmaker and excellent at creating chances, you can see how in the Worthington Cup final he failed to orchestrate all the play, unlike Xabi Alonso who always dominated possession. Additionally, in the bad winter run he failed to contribute any assists and goals - not consistent enough form for the team's playmaker. Owen's plethora of goals and Steven Gerrard edging further towards becoming the world class player who inspired the Champions League win two years later in Istanbul likewise make this important viewing. Baros's impressive first full season make this significant - if Baros could have avoided injury and extended his influence further in future seasons then he could have been a key player for Liverpool. Perhaps what detracts from the cup heroics, however, were the early exit from the Champions League and inconsistent league form. If the team had not stuttered midway through the season, then Champions League qualification would have been achieved well before the disappointing defeats in the final two games. This season review marks the start of the end of the Houllier era - his excuses, inappropriate player signings and loss of defensive strength shows that his managerial ability was on the wane. Perhaps his health problems affected his judgement. But in winning a sixth and final piece of silverware it showed that he could still achieve when and where it mattered.