With Liverpool heading into tonight’s Europa League last 16 second leg tie against Manchester United in the ascendency, Johnny Hynes notes that the Reds, more than most, know there’s no such thing as a safe lead in Europe.
3-0 down in Europe at half-time, the LFC management team knew they needed to make some changes if their side was to produce an unlikely comeback and salvage their Champions League ambitions.
They opted for just one substitution at the interval; Steven Gerrard being replaced by Salif Diao. The Liverpool skipper later recalled in his autobiography:
“Salif Diao? That made my subbing even more shaming. Even if I was playing on a four out of ten I could have done what Diao did!”
While that might have been very true over the course of his career, on this occasion an out of form Gerrard departing the action seemed to aid the side.
By the final whistle they had restored parity. Goals from Danny Murphy, Vladimir Smicer and Michael Owen cancelling out Basel’s three-goal lead and leaving the nervous hosts actually hanging on at the end.
Ultimately, the brave recovery wasn’t enough to progress from the group stages of the Champions League in the 2002/03 campaign, with the Swiss side finishing a point ahead of Gerard Houllier’s team in a section that was comfortably won by Rafa Benitez’s Valencia.
The sometimes forgotten game at St. Jakob Park – venue for this year’s Europa League final – is proof that even a seemingly insurmountable lead guarantees nothing in football.
Of course two seasons later Liverpool would produce a similar comeback in Istanbul, one that saw Gerrard epitomise the role of a heroic all-action captain and ended in much happier circumstances with the European Cup back at Anfield for the first time since 1984.
Now thoughts of such a recovery happening against them are inevitable with Jurgen Klopp’s team 2-0 up as they journey to Manchester tonight.
As pleasing as the first leg Europa League last 16 victory over United at Anfield was – and it was a thoroughly deserved result which had supporters buzzing afterwards – conversations with fellow Reds about it have all contained an ‘if’ or a ‘but’.
There is just a nagging doubt remaining because the final score wasn’t a more comprehensive victory due to the the superb performance of David de Gea, who made numerous interventions to keep his side in the tie.
Speaking post match, former Republic of Ireland midfielder Ronnie Whelan explained how the all-conquering Liverpool team he featured in never worried too much about being two goals behind in Europe after a first leg defeat. At that point they always felt they still had a chance.
“But 3-0,” he continued, “you’re usually not going to come back from that.”
Clearly he had overlooked Basel, Istanbul and other examples. However, you could see the point the Dubliner was making. A three-goal lead for Klopp’s men, although not impregnable, would have been much more comfortable.
At 2-0 though there is still a realistic chance for the Red Devils to recover, particularly if they score first and get the crowd behind them.
Because of that, this week’s second leg is now a real test for the German boss and what he is trying to do at Liverpool. Can they handle the situation and manage the game in the correct way to ensure they go through to the quarter-finals?
A major part of the Brendan Rodgers regime unraveling was an awful FA Cup semi-final performance and defeat against Aston Villa at Wembley last year. The sheer chaotic and shambolic nature of it left fans rightly outraged.
Nearly 12 months on from that the new manager and a similar squad go into another big game looking much more assured.
Losing last month’s Capital One Cup final to Man City on penalties at Wembley might have hurt at the time but they seem to have come out of it with renewed confidence and energy.
As the manager described it recently, they are playing ‘angry’ football.
At Old Trafford tonight they’ll need to combine it with cool heads if they are to continue their quest for silverware.
Johnny Hynes, Pundit Arena
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