A Quarter of a Century of Liverpool FC in the Premier League Era, 1992-2017, Part 10
Consolidation and Cup Finals
In this next instalment of the series, we take a look at the post-Istanbul seasons as Rafa Benitez’s team reached the 2006 FA Cup Final and then the 2007 Champions League final.
Originally a series of articles covering the period 1992 to Klopp’s arrival in 2017, it was written by TTT Subscriber Anthony Stanley, serialised on The Tomkins Times and then published by TTT as a book called A BANQUET WITHOUT WINE - A Quarter-Century of Liverpool FC in the Premier League Era.
The book is available from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Banquet-Without-Wine-Quarter-Century-Liverpool/dp/1521850674. It remains a definitive matter of record of Liverpool FC during the period in question.
How does one top arguably the greatest night in the history of the club? The answer was twofold for many Liverpool fans: keep Steven Gerrard and mount another genuine title challenge. The former would be ultimately successful; although it looked for a spell as if it would end with the captain jumping ship to Chelsea, Gerrard’s genuine love for the club overcame his demons of self-doubt. The latter – attempting to wrest the Premier League from London and Manchester United – would be infinitely more challenging and it would take a few years of tweaking and consolidation before a genuine title tilt would become a reality.
Rafa Benítez knew the faults in his squad: comprehensive defeats at the likes of Bolton, Birmingham City and Southampton in the 04/05 campaign had convinced the Liverpool manager that pace, power, consistency of performance and a genuine target man were prerequisites to succeed in the physically demanding English Premier League. Pepe Reina arrived for the sometimes slipshod Dudek who, fresh from his Istanbul heroics, would have to make do as a reserve before he departed to warm the bench in Madrid. A month after resurrecting the ghost of Bruce Grobbelaar in Rome, the Pole’s career as a first choice elite goalkeeper was effectively over. Indeed, the miraculous complexion of the Champions League final and the improbable nature of the feat were graphically displayed with the fact that three stalwarts of that campaign, Baroš, Šmicer and Bišcan, also departed, while Hamann and Traoré would now only play a bit-part role. Peter Crouch – after terrorising Liverpool’s rearguard for Southampton the previous January – arrived for £7 million. The striker was seen as the clichéd ‘big man with a good touch’, who could keep the ball in opposition danger zones and bring others into play; a role he performed laudably well in his time with the Reds. Mohamed Sissoko was signed from Valencia, under the noses of Everton, to add some steel and nous. Sometimes looking like a world beater, the Malian ultimately lacked the technical ability to really make an impact (although injury would also play a part in his Anfield career not being what Rafa hoped it would be). Finally, in January, the Liverpool manager added Daniel Agger, a stylish Danish centre-back, to the ranks and, to the delight of Liverpool fans everywhere, reunited them with one of their favourite sons. Robbie Fowler was back in a Liverpool shirt.
The 05/06 season was a curious one that started in mid-July, thanks to UEFA caught out by the unlikely event of a Champions League winner finishing outside the top four. The Welsh part-timers TNS (“they’ll be dancing on the streets of Total Network Solutions tonight”!) and the Lithuanian side, FBK Kaunas, were expectedly and comprehensively dispatched before autumn set in; the Reds finally took their place in the group stages of Europe’s flagship competition with a 3-2 aggregate win over CSKA Sofia that included a 1-0 home defeat. Rafa’s problems with trying to build and juggle his squad were evidently far from over.
This emphatically proved the case as Liverpool’s poor domestic form continued from the 04/05 season. Draws were undermining the Reds’ start to the campaign and by the time Fulham systematically dispatched Liverpool in late October, Rafa was staring grimly at another massively underwhelming league season. With Liverpool languishing in twelfth place, already a frankly ridiculous seventeen points behind the defending champions, Chelsea, the Liverpool manager would probably have come under some close scrutiny by Kopites if a fifth European title had not been secured so memorably.
But Benítez was building and it would not be long before we began to see the fruits of his labour: the following nine league games in a row were won (while only conceding one goal – a truly phenomenal achievement), resulting in the Reds lying in third spot by the turn of the year. It was a position they held onto and some stunning form in the last few months of the campaign resulted in a superb finishing points haul of eighty two; a twenty four point improvement on the previous season. Moreover, the Reds won all nine of their league games from 15th March until the end of the season. Clearly, Rafa was coming to terms with the unique eccentricities of English football.
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