Frank Lampard closes down Steven Gerrard in the semi-final second leg at Anfield in 2007
'A GAME LIKE
Liverpool and Chelsea met in five successive UEFA Champions League campaigns between 2005 and 2009, three times with a place in the final at stake. Here Chris Burke looks back at the opening shots of a very modern rivalry
Many of football’s most passionate rivalries are older than short-sleeved shirts, shinpads and goals with nets. There are the ancient duels for local bragging rights. Timeworn tugs-of-war kicked off by a half-forgotten grievance from a bygone century. And all dutifully passed down by one generation to the next. But, every now and again, the contemporary supporter gets to witness a rivalry froth into life, a contest no less fascinating for being a new phenomenon.
Step forward Liverpool and Chelsea. The Reds and Blues. Northern powerhouse and London newcomers. Curiously, this all-English beef was seared not in the heat of domestic battle but on the European stage, in the quest for UEFA Champions League glory. The two teams met for five straight seasons in the competition between 2004/05 and 2008/09, including three semi-finals, and for a while there was no more intense fixture anywhere in football.
Sometimes spectacular, often attritional, usually dramatic, those continental ties were unmissable. They were also shot through with significance, the ambitious Londoners taking on the traditional provincial giants with proud working-class wroots. And the cast of characters fed the intrigue brilliantly. “Fact,” as Rafael Benítez might have said, Liverpool’s studious boss an excellent foil for the hyper-confident Chelsea manager José Mourinho.
This was also Steven Gerrard v Frank Lampard, two of England’s most gifted midfield talents and emblematic figures for their teams – though no less so than rival centre-backs and fellow club icons Jamie Carragher and John Terry. Both teams were brimming with talent, but some players felt this burgeoning rivalry more than others. Stewed over it. As Carragher explained to Lampard for the Daily Mail: “I’ll be honest. I couldn’t stand you as a club. It surpassed Everton and Manchester United as our rivalry for a period.”
Yet how different the landscape might have looked if their Premier League game on 11 May 2003 had gone another way. The sides met on the final day of the season with a UEFA Champions League place a stake, Liverpool needing to win at Stamford Bridge to leapfrog Chelsea into fourth. This was billed as the ‘£20m match’; it ended up being far more lucrative. Legend has it that Roman Abramovich was poised to buy Tottenham Hotspur – until Jesper Grønkjær secured a 2-1 victory for the Blues and a place at Europe’s top table. Weeks later, the Russian billionaire swooped in west rather than north London.
Abramovich transformed Chelsea. And he was ably assisted by Mourinho, who collected his first trophy at the helm by defeating Liverpool in the League Cup final in February 2005. Benítez’s men did not have to wait long for revenge. Three months after, Liverpool
José Mourinho and Rafael Benítez in deep discussion at Anfield in 2005
overcame Chelsea to earn a place in the UEFA Champions League final thanks to … well, that depends which set of fans you ask. The history books record a fourth-minute second-leg winner from Luis García on a raucous Anfield night. For Mourinho, “It was a goal that came from the moon,” the Portuguese convinced the ball had not crossed the line before William Gallas booted it clear.
“People know me from Liverpool and always ask about the goal,” García told the Guardian a few years ago. “I should ask for a penny every time.” Either way, that hotly disputed effort, sealing a 1-0 aggregate win and setting the stage for the Miracle of Istanbul that was to follow, underlined the wafer-thin gap between the teams. And, the following season, there were no goals at all – ‘ghost’ or otherwise – when the teams were reunited in the group stage as holders Liverpool topped the section.
"I have to admit it did turn my head, because big things were happening at Chelsea"
More significantly, Gerrard played both those encounters in a red shirt. Despite his allegiance to the Merseysiders’ cause, the iconic No8 had come close to joining Chelsea that summer, shocking fans and ratcheting up the tension between the teams. “I’m a Liverpool man through and through,” he later admitted to BT Sport, “but I have to admit it did turn my head, because big things were happening at Chelsea.”
Sure enough, Mourinho’s charges had clinched the Premier League title in 2004/05 and defended it the season after, while Liverpool’s long wait for a 19th English crown stretches back to 1990. But the Reds could trouble any side over one or two games and they saw off Chelsea in both the FA Cup semi-finals and FA Community Shield in 2006, results that did little for Mourinho’s appreciation of his Anfield counterpart. “We were good friends until Liverpool started winning,” noted Benítez. “Then he started changing his mind.”
The Spaniard got the upper hand again in another UEFA Champions League last-four showdown in 2007. Joe Cole had given Chelsea a 1-0 win at home, only for Daniel Agger to respond at Anfield and force a penalty shoot-out. Benítez sat cross-legged and pensive on the turf as Pepe Reina kept out Arjen Robben and Geremi, leaving Dirk Kuyt to convert the winning kick. Within five months,
Luis García is still regularly asked about his 2005 semi-final strike
Mourinho was gone from Stamford Bridge – though, oddly enough, it was Benítez he replaced when he returned in 2013.
But that all lay ahead. The next time Liverpool faced Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League, another semi-final contest in 2008, Avram Grant was in charge of the Blues, and the outcome was altogether different. After a 1-1 draw at Anfield, Chelsea prevailed 3-2 in an emotional encounter to reach their first final, Lampard burying an extra-time penalty just days after the death of his mother, before Didier Drogba scored his second.
If that game had quickened pulses, the best was still to come. In the quarter-finals a year later, any weary neutrals were silenced on another thrilling Stamford Bridge night, as Chelsea looked
to defend a 3-1 advantage. What followed was simply epic, Liverpool leading 2-0 at the break and bringing Guus Hiddink to boiling point. “Sometimes you lose your temper,” confessed the interim Chelsea manager, whose players eventually snuffed out the danger – but only after a pulsating 4-4 draw, with Lampard plundering a late double.
From a disputed winner to an avalanche of goals, the two teams had served up entertainment of every stripe over a four-year stretch. And while the fervour may have drained a little from their rivalry since, the spectre of those feverish European nights will surely hang over Istanbul. The memory of a time when Reds v Blues meant white-knuckle thrills, rancorous feuds and grudging respect. As Lampard said: “It was a game like no other.”