'Thrilling and Farcical in Equal Measure' | Liverpool vs Alaves, 2001

With the restart of the Champions League and Europa League this weekend we thought we would take a closer look at one the greatest European finals of the 21st century. A year into the new millennium, Liverpool met Spanish minnows Deportivo Alaves in the 2001 UEFA Cup Final. The Reds had undoubted European pedigree, but their opponents were relatively unknown before the clash in Dortmund. The ensuing match would see the game played at its most entertaining as attack frequently overcame defence. 



A straight knockout tournament in 2001, the UEFA Cup was wholly different to the Europa League format of today. Both finalists would need to overcome difficult two-legged ties against some of Europe's best sides. Liverpool had comfortably navigated the opening three rounds of the competition before defeating a resurgent Roma, Fernando Santos' Porto and a Barcelona side brimming with international talent. Gary McAllister's first-half penalty sent future Reds 'keeper Pepe Reina the wrong way and earned the Merseysiders their first European final since 1985.

Alaves had grown into the competition after an awkward first two rounds. After Gaziantepspor were defeated 4-3, Norweigan pair Lillestrom and Rosenberg were despatched to earn a last 16 tie against Inter Milan. Inter were, in 2001, a side featuring a number of the continent's finest talents. Despite Ronaldo's long-standing injury, Clarence Seedorf, Christian Vieri and Alvaro Recoba offered world class alternatives and a formidable opponent to Alaves. A late comeback at their home ground, Estadio Mendizorrotza, earned a 3-3 draw before an incredible 2-0 victory away at the San Siro guaranteed their place in the quarter-finals.

The quarter-finals would see two all-Spanish affairs. Barcelona overcame Celta Vigo on away goals and Alaves managed to get the better of free-scoring Rayo Vallecano. Like their national counterparts, Alaves too would use attack as the best form of defence. Battering German side Kaiserslautern 9-2 over two legs in the semi-finals offered the competition an example of what the north Spanish side could do, when in form. Their squad could rely on key player Jordi Cruyff for inspiration throughout the tournament and his three goals in the latter rounds helped the club to progress. Together with the talented Javi Moreno and Ivan Alonso, Alaves could boast an attack to rival Liverpool in Dortmund.

Inter win at the San Siro

Liverpool entered the final as heavy favourites to take home the trophy for a third time. Earlier in the season, a penalty-shootout victory over Birmingham City in Cardiff had earned Gerard Houllier's side the League Cup. A week before the UEFA Cup Final, Michael Owen's late double sunk Arsenal to win the FA Cup, once more in the Welsh capital. Delivering two trophies, Houllier had managed to bring silverware back to Anfield and a treble was well and truly on the cards. BBC pundit Alan Hansen recognised that Alaves were a 'technically gifted' side, but believed his former club to have 'too much quality for them'. His final words offered a warning to excited spectators...
"And a final word of warning. Don't expect the game to be that entertaining.
Finals are not normally great games and both sides will sit off each other to start with and have a look at each other."[1]
Seemingly not paying any attention to Hansen's words, Liverpool would take the lead after just four minutes. German right-back Markus Babbel would head home a Gary McAllister free-kick to put the Reds firmly in the driving seat. Twelve minutes later, Steven Gerrard doubled the lead. Latching onto Owen's excellent through-pass, the 20-year old would rifle the ball under Alaves 'keeper Martin Herrera. 'All quite boring really' wrote The Guardian upon the scoreline changing to 2-0.[2] Liverpool had opened the game playing a far more progressive style than what most commentators were used to, and the lack of fight from Alaves meant many feared a boring match controlled comfortably by Houllier's men.

Alaves coach Mané would make an early substitution as attacker Alonso came on to replace Norweigan centre-back Dan Eggen. A bold move 23 minutes into the final, it would bear fruit just four minutes later. Alonso would head home a Cosmin Contra cross past Sander Westerveld to drag the Spanish club back into the tie. Game on. The goal brought Alaves to life and the next ten minutes saw numerous chances spurned. Surging forward at any given moment, gaps would begin to appear in the Alaves defence. Five minutes before half-time, Didi Hamann's pass to Michael Owen saw the in-form English striker go around Herrera before being brought down. Referee Giles Veissiere leniently only showed the goalkeeper a yellow card, but McAllister made no mistake from the spot to put Liverpool 3-1 up at half-time.
“I always remember coming into the dressing room, looking around and almost giggling,”. “Some of us were thinking, ‘How good is this? It’s almost a gimme’. You’re expecting the final to be hard, and at half-time I was thinking that they were so easy to beat. Never, ever have I been so wrong. We almost blew it."[3]

Within four minutes of the restart, Owen's and indeed Liverpool's overconfidence was crushed by a brace from Javi Moreno. First, Contra teased Jamie Carragher on the right-wing before delivering an excellent cross for Moreno to head home. Two minutes later, the Alaves number 9 fired a free-kick underneath the jumping Liverpool wall and past a flat-footed Westerveld. Euphoric celebrations would erupt from the blue sides of the Westfalenstadion. A side, who just five years earlier were playing semi-professional football, had drawn level against Liverpool. What a game.

Fowler puts the Reds ahead

There was still much of the second half to play. Liverpool, who had been accused all season of playing 'boring' football, responded by substituting centre-back Stephane Henchoz with Czech attacker Vladimir Smicer. An ineffective Emile Heskey would also make way for Reds legend, Robbie Fowler. Fowler's introduction had reinvigorated his side and upon collecting McAllister's through ball, he fired, right-footed, past the helpless Herrera. The ensuing celebrations echoed Alaves' earlier euphoria as Liverpool had managed to 'win' the game again. Their joy was not to last, however, as Westerveld conceded a late corner. Swung in dangerously, it would be Jordi Cruyff, son of the Dutch legend Johan, who headed the ball in at the near post. Extra-time and possibly a golden goal awaited. 

Alaves had needed to produce a garguantuan effort in order to comeback twice in the final. Manager, Mané believed such an exertion played its part in extra-time,
"The result of that, however, was that we were half dead going into extra-time."[4]
The tired legs of the Spaniards were to severly hampered during the additional period, as first substitute Magno, and then captain Antonio Karmona received their marching orders for cynical challenges on Markus Babbel and Vladimir Smicer respectively. Encouraged by the two-man advantage and a free-kick in a dangerous position, McAllister would once again prove pivotal as his delivery was deflected into his own net by Delfi Geli. A golden goal four minutes from time had sent Liverpool into ecstacy and Alaves to the ground, heartbroken and defeated. At last the Reds could celebrate - their opponents couldn't comeback again.
'I'd never played in a fixture like it, and was sure I'd never do so again. Cup finals aren't meant to go that way. They're cautious, tight and usually settled by a single goal. 'If we ever reach another European final, it will be nothing like this'. [5]
The match drew instant acclaim from pundits and journalists. The crazy match was declared by many, including Alan Hansen as the 'best final ever'. Liverpool had managed to quell growing calls about their style of play with the BBC's lead writer Phil McNulty even running a piece entitled 'Who's boring now?'. [6] Alaves too had demonstrated just what they could do, giving hope to the smaller clubs of Europe with their do-or-die attitude and ruthless attacking approach. Sami Hyypia and Robbie Fowler would lift the trophy up to the thousands of Reds in Dortmund to complete a fantastic treble. Days later, a 4-0 win over Charlton would see Houllier's men finish 3rd in the league and qualify for the Champions League for the first-time. 



So why is this game so special? It serves as a perfect example for what many would believe to be a perfect game. Its drama resembles a check-list of everything needed to create jaw-dropping action and sheer entertainment. Goals? Check. Penalty? Check. Red Cards? Check. Comeback? Check. Golden goal? Check. 

Liverpool's 2005 Champions League comeback victory against AC Milan in Istanbul has perhaps meant the 5-4 win over Alaves has taken a backseat in recent years. In addition, the more recent European victories over Borussia Dortmund and Barcelona have left lasting memories to a new generation of Liverpool supporters. 2001 shouldn't be forgotten, however. Former players, like Michael Owen have been quick to recall the victory over Alaves as pivotal to the club's later 21st century European triumphs. “It was where the club needed to be...He [Houllier] was desperate to win the UEFA Cup, to put us back on the European map.” Two Champions Leagues in 2005 and 2019 and a further Europa League Final in 2016 owe a lot to that insane evening 19 years ago.

Notes:

[1] Alan Hansen in 'Hansen  tips the Reds for cup treble', BBC Sport, 15 May 2001
[2] Matt Biggs, 'Liverpool 5-4 Alaves', The Guardian, 16 May 2001
[3] Michael Owen in 'That season put Liverpool back on the map', FourFourTwo, 01 May 2020
[4] Mané speaking to BBC Sport, 16 May 2001
[5] Jamie Carragher, Carra: My Autobiography, (London: Bantam Press, 2008)
[6] Phil McNulty, 'Who's boring now?', BBC Sport, 16 May 2001

©The Football History Boys, 2020

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