2 Sept 2011

What might have been: No 4 - Houllier robs Liverpool fans of the game of the century

On the 9th April 2002, a particularly catastrophic tactical decision by Gerard Houllier robbed Liverpool FC of the chance to participate in what would undoubtedly have been the game of the century.

On the night in question, Liverpool faced Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League quarter-final second leg. Awaiting the winners was a mouth-watering, once in a lifetime semi-final tie against…Manchester United.

Liverpool-United in a CL semi? It’s the stuff of dreams, especially since both teams have never before crossed swords in European competition.

At the time, I (and every other LFC fan!) was massively excited at the prospect; I had no doubt Liverpool would beat Leverkusen, especially with a 1-0 aggregate advantage from the first leg at Anfield.

And given the club’s record v United that season – A 3-1 win at Anfield and a 1-0 win at Old Trafford – I was 100% confident that we would beat United and reach the final.

Gerard Houllier sent out a strong team that included the likes of Steven Gerrard, Sami Hyypia, Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher, but within 15 minutes, Leverkusen had taken the lead with a Michael Ballack special.

With the aggregate score at 1-1, things were tense. Michael Owen squandered chance after chance and Emile Heskey limped off injured and was replaced with Finnish maestro Jari Litmanen.

Then, just before the interval, Abel Xavier headed-in a precious away goal from a Danny Murphy cross. 2-1 on aggregate with the advantage of an away goal. Job done, right?


In the 61st minute, Houllier made a decision that to this day I cannot understand.

He replaced Dietmar Hamann with Vladimir Smicer.

Before this substitution, Liverpool was keeping Leverkusen at bay, thanks mostly to Hamann’s outstanding defensive work. The team was 2-1 up on aggregate with the advantage of an away goal and would only go out if Leverkusen scored two goals.

Clearly, the right move here was to protect the lead and preserve the prospect of dream date with Man United in the semi-final. That possibility was, however, destroyed as soon as Smicer set foot on the pitch.

Within two minutes of the substitution, Michael Ballack scored again to bring the tie level on aggregate. A brilliant solo goal by the Jari Litmanen swung the game back in Liverpool’s favour, but by this time, Leverkusen were growing in confidence, sensing a weakness in midfield, which they exploited to the full.

Without Hamann’s physical presence, positioning and organisation, Leverkusen poured forward, completely bypassing Liverpool’s now non-existent (and lightweight) midfield and scored a further two goals, giving them a 4-3 aggregate victory.

The dream was dead. Liverpool were out of the competition and the fans were cruelly robbed of the game of the century.

Having watched the game many times, it is crystal clear that the turning point was the substitution. Indeed, I have absolutely no doubt that if Hamann had stayed on the pitch, Liverpool would’ve beaten Leverkusen.

This contention is supported by the other evidence, namely Hamann’s impact in the 2005 CL final against Milan. Liverpool’s midfield was ripped apart in the first half and it took the introduction of Hamann to really swing the game in Liverpool’s favour.

What was Houllier thinking?! What possible tactical advantage was gained by removing one of Liverpool’s most effective players and replacing him with one of the club’s most inconsistent, lightweight performers?

Houllier’s disastrous decision not only cost us the sublime satisfaction of knocking United out of the European Cup, it arguably cost us another European trophy. With Zinedine Zidane in his prime, Real Madrid would’ve been a tough prospect in the final, but they were definitely beatable.

Due to Houllier’s gargantuan blunder, it was sadly not to be. The players picked themselves up and went on to finish second in the league that year, but for me, the Leverkusen disappointment but a dampener on the whole season.

Opportunities to face United in a CL semi-final (or Final for that matter) don’t come around that often. Indeed, in the previous 47 years of the competition, it didn’t happen once.

Hopefully, Liverpool fans won’t have to wait another 47 years before we get to experience the pleasure of knocking Man United out of the Champions League.

Jaimie Kanwar


  1. This is a simply remarkable moment Mr K. I agree with your analysis and sentiments....completely. Maybe this comment will remain unedited?!

  2. what about the cl semi final vs chelsea? rafa decided to take off torres which ultimately cost us the game and a FINAL against united!

  3. <p><span>In October 2001, Gerard Houllier almost died on the touchline whilst trying to do the best for our club. As it was, he underwent open heart surgery to save his life and eventually returned to the dugout five months later. People who undergo such operations regularly suffer from short-term memory loss in the following months. There is evidence it happened to both Houllier and Graeme Souness. To have a go at a man over nine years later for a tactical decision that was a probable result of a medical condition is at best bizarre. We’re talking about a man’s life here. We were all disappointed at the time but it’s only a game. As a Liverpool fan you should know this better than most. Please think next time.</span><span></span></p>

  4. Get over yourself already.  

  5. I agree, and I may add that as an entry to the series further down the line.

  6. What about Smicers goal in the CL 2005 without that we would have lost FACT.

  7. Lightweight? Regularly played out of position! Smicer also helped turned the final with his goal and link play.

  8. I can still remember that decision to this day and wondering what was going on, I assumed Hamman was injured or something but don't think was the case - anyhow McAllister was on the bench so surely he was a ready made replacement.

    I'll forgive Houllier his mistake (we all make them) as he's a top bloke and did win us the treble the previous season!

  9. <p><span> </span>
    </p><p><span><span>You may feel that sarcasm is a suitable response – it’s probably your only available option. We were top of the table when Houllier was taken ill – there’s a fair chance we would have gone on to win the league in 2001-2. Whilst I believe Houllier should have not come back to management – for his own sake – and recognise he made many subsequent mistakes, I don’t blame him for trying. And nor should you – especially not nine years later. It’s a low shot mate </span></span></p>

  10. That's your view.  I disagree, so we'll have to agree to disagree.  If this kind of article offends you then I suggest going elsewhere because there will be more in this series focusing on some of Houllier's decisions.  

  11. Don't get me wrong, I have lots of time GH - I've met him a couple of times and he's a top man.

  12. Yes, I agree - Smicer played a major role in the CL semi, and without his goal I doubt LFC would've gone on to win.  However, this is three years earlier, and a totally different situation.

  13. There is always ifs and buts, say if smicer had scored b4 ballack second we'd call it a master stroke but defo share ur disappointment about not getting to play manure in champions league semi final , think we would have had a better chance beaten them in2008

  14. only may add jk i would think it would be a defo add given how you like to bash RAFA !!!!!

  15. Think its fair to say that as awful as houlliers illness was, if at the time of that game his judgements where impaired then he shouldnt have been able to make such defining decisions. however Thommo your post regarding his illness does clear up why he signed such awful players like Cheyrou, Diow and Diouff that summer was defing for the next 5 years for the club a waste of millions we would have been better off without them.

  16. For once i agree, it was a mind boggling decision. Said it at the time and still think it to this day. Still, it is offset for Ged with the number of 'what might not have beens' that did happen in his stewardship.
    Additionally, Rafa made mistakes in the Champs Lge - not playing Crouch isn 2007 final is certainly one of them, however taking an injured Torres off at Stamford Bridge and replacing him with a sub, Babel, who scored - can't be considered one.

  17. Not sure about that in 2008 mate. in 2002, we had beaten them 5 times on the bounce and really had their measure. The next game was in Dec 02 and Anfield and Dudek gifted them it. In 2008, we were beated relatively comfortably home and away by the mancs - the momentum in head to heads was in their favour. Admittedly though, the very next game we played them, we beat them but that was sans Ronaldo in Sep 2008. Arguing myself all over the place here but definitely, in my own personal opinion, would have fancied them more over 2 legs in 2002.

  18. Tactical mistake, or is it possible he was paid or his life/family member's life was threatened if he didn't throw the game? Lol it is possible, you never know...

  19. Which is why when people knock Benitez and say he won the Champions League with Houllier's team..................

    Luckily not with some of Houillier's decision making, particularly in Europe, where Benitez is better than Ferguson, Wenger and many others and the equal of Mourinho.

    The more Benitez gets slated on here, the more I think he had a point about a lot of things. Amazed that his popularity on here is around 50/50 with Hodgson!

  20. It's a fair comment but IMO reckon we were a better team than them in 2008 not so sure in 2002 even if we were beating them more regularly. And the way we were playing and beaten europes best from 05 to 09 barring a few games it wouldn't be unrealistic to have won at least one more european cup

  21. I'm amazed too Gab

    The man put his heart and soul into Liverpool and because of some questionable signings and one poor season he gets non-stop criticism. Hosgson came in made some shocking signings, led us into the relegation zone and insulted the fans and some of his players, all in 6 months yet he make a negative comment about him and the likes of Red4life are incensed.

  22. Christ another bullshitter like JK