June 4, 2010

In Rafa we did trust!

As Liverpool FC announced the departure of Rafael Benitez as team manager after a six year spell I would like to take this opportunity and pay my tribute to the man by reminiscing on those glory moments during his tenure at the helm of the club.

It was a chilly December night in 2004 that Liverpool FC took the field to outsmart the Greek champions, Olympiakos Piraeus, at Anfield with the sole purpose of progressing to the next round of the Champions League in their expense.  They fell behind by a Rivaldo free-kick and started the second half in desperate need of three goals (sounds familiar?).  My team on the night seemed to be holding on quite well and when the clock reached the 80th minute and Liverpool had only scored once (through Florent Sinama-Pongolle) I really believed that for once Olympiakos was going to be the team to make me proud.  Then walked in Neil Mellor in place of Milan Baros and changed the whole game with two excellent moves.  First a goal, which riled Anfield into a collective voice as noisy and raucous as it had been in years, and then a header that neatly cushioned the ball into Steven Gerrard's path to fire an unstoppable half volley past Antonios Nikopolidis and send the standing Kop into delirium.  I know that most remember this game because of Gerrard's goal, but I do because of Benitez's gamble on bringing on Neil Mellor in the closing minutes of the game.  A gamble which paid him back in gold!

May 25th 2005 - 15 minutes that shook the world? At half time the pundits had crowned AC Milan as Champions of Europe and were sure that Steven Gerrard was on his way to Chelsea.  So what was said at half time in Istanbul? Was Didi Hamann all Liverpool really needed? All I remember at half time was my brother calling me from Athens to voice his disappointment in Liverpool's performance.  'For crying out loud, this is Liverpool we're talking.  Where's Shankly's spirit?'.  I told my brother, both of us Olympiakos fans, that Liverpool have been there before (in need of three goals at half time) and managed to come on top: 'They'll do it again - believe me!'.  To be honest, I don't think I believed myself; this was AC Milan we were talking about! The unbelievable did happen: Steven Gerrard flew above all to score a header, Smicer put one past Dida from a mile away and Alonso scored after seeing his penalty (won by Gerrard) saved.  In extra time, the Hand of Dudek happened and in the penalty shootout Shevchenko thought he saw Grobelaar in goal (I think everyone did too).  From the depths of despair to an everlasting legacy!

Alan Hansen put it best, in describing the 2006 FA Cup Final, when he said that without one man West Ham would have had the trophy in their dressing room and would have been celebrating.  The Steven Gerrard show was what kept Liverpool in the game even when the captain couldn't stand on his own two legs.  That goal in the end reminiscing of that beauty against Olympiakos a year and a half ago send Liverpool and West Ham all the way to the penalty shootout where Pepe Reina was given a chance to redeem himself for his poor performance during normal time.  And boy did he take his chance as he saved not one, not two, but three spot-kicks! Credit though has to be given to West Ham for a fantastic performance which conspired in producing one of the most amazing FA Cup finals, which was stolen from their own hands by that man; Steven Gerrard!

Fernando Torres delivered a scintillating solo performance to torment his old adversaries Real Madrid and send Liverpool into the Champions League quarter-finals on Tuesday 10th March 2009.  With a 1-0 Benayoun advantage carried from the Santiago Bernabeou Stadium everybody was expecting Liverpool to defend like mad in order to preserve that advantage.  Enter Fernando Torres and his opportunity to bring Real Madrid off their high-horse and exact revenge for the 'favour' they enjoy in the Spanish La Liga.  Torres's amazing runs ably supported by Steven Gerrard drove Liverpool to breathtakingly overwhelm Real Madrid to such a degree that if it wasn't for the outstanding Iker Casillas the score could have easily reached double figures. 4-0 was a kind reminder to Real Madrid that 'This Is Anfield'!

It had all looked rosy when Cristiano Ronaldo converted a first-half penalty, but it ended up in a real torment before the United fans left their 'Theatre of Nightmares'.  As Fernando Torres hounded Vidic, the tall Serbian centre-back endured an uncharacteristic nightmare afternoon conceding a multitude of mistakes which resulted in two Liverpool goals and a red card (third in a row against Liverpool).  No 'facts' and no 'stoppage time complaints'; nothing could derail Liverpool in their attempt to get back into the race to claim the Premier League title.  After the performance against Real Madrid earlier in the week, nobody expected Liverpool to deliver a similar performance twice in a row.  We all thought, play well defensively and grab one on the counter-attack and that may bring us a win at Old Trafford.  Bollocks! Liverpool went on the attack from the word go and besides suffering an initial setback they just carried on, outplayed Manchester United in their own backyard and delivered a stunning performance with a 4-1 win.  I will never forget Fabio Aurelio's cheekiness by scoring an amazing goal against Edwin Van der Sar from a spot-kick following Vidic's dismissal.

So, thanks for the memories Rafa and "you'll never walk alone"!

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