Ten years on from Liverpool’s best first XI in the Premier League era, Klopp’s men are poised to exceed Rafa’s best team.
It was a bitter-sweat season for the club. The last shining days of summer before a bitter, Glen Johnson infused winter. For nine months, Benitez’s men looked as though they might just achieve the culmination of five year’s work from the legendary Spanish manager.
Rafa had assembled, by far and away, our best Premier League XI. It was a balanced team, teeming with quality. Riena, Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Aurelio, Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard, Kuyt, Riera and Torres, they were group who inspired wonderful memories of when we came so close to glory both domestically and on the continent. But while we were all daring to dream that season, storm clouds were engulfing the club behind the scenes. We didn’t know it at the time, but this fleeting glance of an almost complete side, would be all we’d get, before it was stripped away piece by piece.
Good times rolling
By the summer of 2008, Liverpool had twice been in the Champions League Final, and were about to begin their fifth straight season in Europe’s elite competition. A stalwart of the then fabled “big four ” Benitez’s men had engendered a confidence in the fan base and fearsome reputation in Europe.
While not being the most fluid, attacking side at times, Rafa had built a team that was bloody organised and dogged in the face so-called superior opposition. They were coming in hot to 2008-09. Averaging seventy-five points a season, over the past three campaigns, having only lost an average of 6.5 games a season in that same period, Liverpool were primed.
Torres and Gerrard were a match made in heaven and the hope was, that with some other talented players, picking up the slack that year, we could just challenge on two fronts.
So it was, Alsonso rediscovered his best form, having stank for most of 07/08 and flopping in the 2007 Champions League final. The Spaniard was at his world class best, spraying passes, half the length of the pitch with military precision, whilst also being capable of keeping the ball neat and tidy at close quarters. It was the Alsonso we all loved to see. Dirk also chipped in, with what by far, his best campaign. The fifteen goals from the right hand of second three only tell half the story. He would hunt and gather the ball with his trademark work rate, whilst also chipping in with memorable winners, such as his last gasp strike at City to pinch all three points, having been two goals down for most of the game.
Europe too was it’s usual cacophony of noise and excitement. It was in this heady campaign that Liverpool delivered one of the proudest nights for all supporters who hadn’t been spoilt by the heady days of Shankly, Paisley Fagan and Sir King Kenny. If ever there was a result which demonstrated the quality and the ferocious nature of Liverpool’s counter attack under Benitez, it was the Anfield mauling of Real Madrid on that wonderful night in March 2009.
Liverpool were incredible, Kuyt, Babel, Torres and Gerrard tore the La Liga giant’s back four to shreds. If it hadn’t been for the world class Iker Casillas that night, it could have been seven nil, easy. As it was, we had just beaten the mighty Real, five nil on aggregate. Mascherano, with his characteristic eye bulging roar led orchestrated the Anfield celebrations, and we all pinched ourselves.
Liverpool did doubles over Chelsea and Manchester United that season, most notably, a 1-4 thrashing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s great side at Old Trafford in a game which became synonymous with the previously solid Vidic being shaken to his core by the sight of Fernando Torres galloping at him at full sprint. The wins kept coming and momentum seemed to swell as the usual drop off in form failed to materialize.
Ultimately, despite only loosing twice in the league all season, Liverpool missed out on the title. Too many draws costs us. As did Robbie Keane’s bizarre refusal to score in the autumn run he was given. Despite injuries to Gerrard and Torres, restricting them to less than thirty games together in the league that season, Rafa still clinched 86 points with a goal difference of plus fifty. painfully, that point tally was enough to win the tittle in 2010 and 2011.
Perhaps Rafa was guilty of over defensive tactics too often, as great British coaches like Moyes, Allardyce and Bruce were able to come to Anfield with their buses and stifle any hope of attacking football.
Rafa’s caution was one thing, but it is also vital to remember just how good the top four English teams were in that era. As above, Liverpool were Champions League finalists twice, United reached the final three times in four seasons, Arsenal and Chelsea also reached it once. All of this was crammed between 2005 and 2011, six times in seven seasons, The Premier League had finalists, and three winners in that period to boot. Chelsea would also win it in 2012, but after only after the end of the dominance of English teams.
With such healthy competition, it is little wonder that a team as talented as Rafa’s in 08/09 could miss out on prizes and yet be so fondly remembered.
End of an era
Perhaps that season is so appreciated because what came after it was so bad. People point to the loss of Xabi Alonso as the defining hammer blow to Benitez’s ambitions. They are right to an extent, but also wide of the mark as the ills of Liverpool ran deeper than a sulking Spanish midfielder leaving the club.
The prelude to 08/09 saw criminal under funding and the undermining of a top class coach by the poisonous American duo masquerading as custodians of the club. Liverpool missed out on key targets David Silva, Dani Alves, Florent Maluda, Kakha Kaladze and Gareth Barry – all of whom would go on to win major honours and be hugely influential on their respective teams.
Told no so often no on keys targets, Benitez was left drawn and exhausted by his battles with the owners. The lack of investment left the squad painfully thin. When everyone was fit, we could call on a world class eleven, but with a squad containing El Zhar, Ngog, Skrtel, Spearing and Dossena it was clear that an overhaul was needed. It never came and those players would eventually go on to play 531 games for Liverpool between them, such was the rapid decline in the playing staff at the club.
Rafa will always be a Liverpool legend. There is an ungrateful and unworthy section of the fan base who constantly winged about the Benitez years and a very dismissive about what was achieved under the Spaniard.
Yes it was turgid football at times, but we won two trophies, reached another two finals on top of that and were a top eight side in Europe for five years. Some fans are ultimately never happy, unless we win 5-0 every week, maybe they should try basketball for a goal scored every eight seconds.
The legacy left behind by Rafa is deceptive and only now starting to show how important this era was. We never won the league, but the Champions league win and the team he built, culminating in 08/09 put us back on the map. Six months after his disgraceful sacking, the club was still able to snare world class talent such like Luis Suarez. We were also still able to attract top quality like Sturridge and Coutinho at a time when the club was really floundering. How vital were the still recent memories of the club between 04-09 in clinching these vital signings? How bad would things have gotten without them?
The big name of the club which has faded in the nineties was polished and put forward to the top of game once more by Rafa. He should have had his crowning glory in 08/09. That team is still the most balanced one to eleven ever to take to the field for Liverpool in the Premier League era. Fast-forward then years and Jurgen Klopp is now building something equally special.
The attacking brilliance of his side, the effort they display week in week out, and some of the results thus far under his stewardship, have been breathtaking. If Rafa had been blessed with the depth of talent at Klopp’s hands, he would have won us back to back tittles for sure.
If Klopp can fix Liverpool’s Achilles’s Heel between the sticks then he truly is primed to challenge as Rafa was in 2008. If the lovable German can go a step further than that wonderful side of 08/09 then whose to say what he can’t achieve at Liverpool.