Liverpool 4-0 Real Madrid 2008/9
"This is Anfield... so what?" read Madrid's best selling daily newspaper Marca on the morning of Real Madrid's second leg tie with Liverpool in the first knockout round of the Champions League. Marca, as well as a number of other media outlets in Madrid, had predicted boldly, a whitewash to crash over the red sails of Liverpool in the build up to the first leg of the tie; Liverpool had other ideas. In a closely fought tactical battle between two highly regarded Spanish coaches, a Yossi Benayoun header separated the two sides going into the second leg.
Despite having the scoring advantage, as well as an away goal and a legitimate 'famous victory' to take into the second leg, the Madrid press again confidently predicted progress into the quarter final. After all, apart from the 'lucky' defeat to Liverpool, Real Madrid had gone 9 games unbeaten since the arrival of their new manager Juande Ramos. The aim, was to smash through the red bus that the cautious Benitez was inevitably going to park in front of the Madrid goal.
It didn't quite turn out that way.
Liverpool: Reina; Arbeloa, Skrtel, Carragher, Aurelio; Mascherano, Alonso, Kuyt, Babel, Gerrard; Torres
Real Madrid: Casillas; Ramos, Cannavaro, Pepe, Heinze; Lassana Diarra, Gago, Robben, Sneijder; Raul, Higuain
If one player embodied Liverpool during the opening 'exchanges' of the match, it was the snarling, snapping, infectious Argentine midfielder Mascherano. From kick off, Madrid, all suave and laidback in their white uniform, tried to pass through the heart of the Liverpool midfield. Barely 5 seconds had passed before Mascherano nipped in and robbed Madrid of possession. The tone for the rest of the match was set in that seemingly innocuous moment.
The first memorable moment of what would turn into a memorable match, was provided, unsurprisingly by Liverpool's number 9, Fernando Torres. Supplied, unsurprisingly, by Liverpool's captain Steven Gerrard. Rampaging down Madrid's right flank, Gerrard cut inside, spotted his partner in crime, and played a pass into the feet of Torres, who was positioned just outside the heart of the Real Madrid box, facing his own goal. It wasn't a bad for position for Madrid to be in. This was a player who did all his best work running in behind opposition defences; plus Madrid had the Ballon d'OR winner of two years previous Fabio Cannavaro, and the World's best goalkeeper Iker Casillas, as their last line of defence. And yet, this was Real Madrid. The team that Fernando Torres more than any other wanted to systemically take apart. In a flash of typical brilliance, Torres let the ball run onto his back foot, back heeled the ball towards goal, and skipped past the helpless Cannavaro. Only his Spanish International teammate Casillas stood between him and the goal he craved. Torres tried to fool 'Saint Iker' by going towards the near post, but by the skin of the Saint's big toe, the scoreline remained at 0-0.
From the resulting corner, Mascherano sent a beautiful left footed dipping volley towards Casillas' top left hand corner; only a miraculous save kept the match goalless. It was only delaying the inevitable anyway.
On the quarter hour mark, a goal that seemed to be coming for hours, finally arrived. Fabio Cannavaro badly misjudged a long punt up field from Jamie Carragher (no, really), and like two rabid dogs, Fernando Torres and Dirk Kuyt hurtled towards the ball. Pepe couldn't readjust after his mate's misjudgment, and despite protesting that he'd been fouled, Kuyt squared for Torres to prod in with the outside of his right boot. One nil.
If all of the pre match analysis was to be believed, this was to be the moment when Benitez would instruct his men to take their feet off the pedal and preserve what they had. But that wasn't what this Liverpool team was about. They smelt blood. And blood shows up best on white shirts.
Less than quarter of an hour later, Xabi Alonso whipped a typically menacing ball towards Alvaro Arbeloa in the Real Madrid box. Only Gabi Heinze stood between him and the goal. Arbeloa's wonderful chest control was stopped by Heinze's shoulder, but then, as if Anfield had suckered him into a decision, he raised his flag and waved manically to indicate a Liverpool penalty. Steven Gerrard, in the way that Steven Gerrard does, duly dispatched into the left hand corner, sending Casillas the wrong way.
Half time arrived, giving Madrid a much needed chance to just get the hell off the field for 15 minutes. There was no sense that the tie could be turned round from their perspective. Instanbul seemed impossible, but Liverpool had belief then. Milan were cocky. Milan were careless. On this night, Liverpool were relentless, and Madrid were completely void of any hope. The only question remaining was the extent of the embarrassment for whites.
The start of the second half started in exactly the same fashion that the first did. Only this time it took 2 minutes to score rather than 15. The third goal was the pick of the bunch. Babel found himself one on one with Ramos, and unbelievably managed to skin the European Championship winning full back. His left footed cross seemed to trickle towards the Real Madrid box, and as everyone else seemed rooted to the spot, one man charged onto the ball with unmatched drive. That man was Steven Gerrard. The half volley was as beautiful as it was intense, and without ever breaking stride, Steven Gerrard wheeled towards the Kop, simmering in admiration at the brilliance of the man.
If there was anyone left in the stadium who doubted that the tie was over, Steven Gerrard departing for Jay Spearing with over 20 minutes remaining signaled that Benitez believed it was. And it turned out to be a rather impressive cameo from Spearing. It was a moment that could have been a passing of the guard so to speak. Spearing was very highly rated at the club; how nice it would be to see him replicate the success of Steven Gerrard. Alas it wasn't to be, but at that moment, it seemed possible. Misplaced hope, perhaps? But isn't that the fun in football? Enjoying things for the moment.
The salt in the wounds moment arrived courtesy of Andrea Dossena. A typically incisive Liverpool counter attack involving Kuyt, Babel, and then finally Mascherano, who supplied the driven cross field pass for Dossena to fire below Casillas, who despite getting a touch, couldn't stop the fourth from going in.
At the end of the match, the legendary goalkeeper, having conceded four goals, trod off the pitch in tears. Along with Raul, the humiliation of the defeat would've hurt no one more than Casillas. And yet he was possibly the best player on the pitch. Every single Liverpool player sought him out to simultaneously console and congratulate him. A class act, badly let down by his club and teammates.
Despite that great night, as well as a comprehensive beating of Manchester United some four days later, Liverpool were to end the season with no trophies to show for some great performances. But you know what, football is all about the moment. History will look back on a team that didn't win anything, but for those who were there, for those who experienced it, Liverpool were on top of the World. If football isn't meant for the moment, what the hell is it for?