10 Mar 2016

LFC Catastrophe: How Houllier robbed Liverpool fans of once-in-a-lifetime Man Utd showcase

Tonight, for the first time in the club's history, Liverpool face Man United in a the Europa League, and fans of both sides are wildly excited about this rare opportunity to see England's two biggest clubs face-off in European competition. It's an historic occasion, but if things had gone differently in the past, Liverpool could've played Man Utd on an even bigger European stage.

On the 9th April 2002, a particularly catastrophic tactical decision by Gerard Houllier robbed Liverpool of the chance to participate in what would've been (IMO) one of the games of the century.

On the night in question, Liverpool faced Bayer Leverkusen in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final, and the prize for winning? A tantalising, once-in-a-lifetime semi-final tie against...Manchester United (who Liverpool had already beaten twice that season).

Like most other fans at the time, I was massively excited at the prospect, and given the 1-0 lead from the first leg at Anfield, I felt confident that Liverpool would dispatch Leverkusen and reach the the semi-final.

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

With the aggregate score at 1-1, things were incredibly tense; Michael Owen squandered chance after chance (at least three one-on-one as I recall), 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 simply cannot understand: he replaced Dietmar Hamann with Vladimir Smicer.

Before this substitution, Liverpool were keeping comfortably keeping Leverkusen at bay, with Hamann playing a key role with outstanding defensive work in midfield. Clearly, the right move was to protect the lead and preserve the prospect of dream date with Man United in the semi-final, but that the dream died 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, and sensed a weakness in midfield, which they exploited to the full.

Without Hamann’s physical presence, positioning and organisation, Leverkusen poured forward, repeatedly 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 fans were cruelly robbed of the game of the century.

Having watched the game many times, it's crystal clear that the substitution (negatively) changed the game, and I have absolutely no doubt that Liverpool would've prevailed if Hamann had stayed on the pitch.

The obvious comparison here is the 2005 Champions League final against Milan, which shows the importance of Hamann in solidifying the centre of the field. Milan ripped Liverpool’s midfield apart in the first half of that game, and it took the introduction of Hamann to really swing the game in LFC's favour.

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

Houllier’s disastrous decision not only cost Liverpool the sublime satisfaction of knocking United out of the European Cup, it cost the Reds a shot at another European trophy. Real Madrid would’ve been a tough prospect in the final, especially with Zinedine Zidane in his prime, but Los Blancos were definitely beatable.

The players picked themselves up and went on to finish second in the league that year, but for me, the Leverkusen disappointment put a dampener on the whole season.

Fourteen years later, and the dream is back on, and with any luck, Liverpool will put Louis Van Gaal's pedestrian team to the sword tonight. Let's just hope that Klopp doesn't make a similar tactical mistake at some point in the game (!)

Author: Jaimie K


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