The year 2004 was a glorious one for the underdogs. The Champions League would deliver a champion rated as a 40-1 chance of success who beat an energetically loveable bandwagon whose odds were twice that. Euro 2004 would be the greatest against-the-odds triumph the sport had ever seen, its champion rated anything from 80-1 to 250-1.
It was the first year of UEFA’s amended four-knockout round Champions League. It suggested a less safe, more random competition for the top dogs. That’s how it worked out in its first two years, which emerged with miracle victors FC Porto and Liverpool, then order (and attendant predictability) was resumed.
The first indication that the 2004 Champions League would be out of the ordinary was a match featuring Monaco, a bunch of relatively new boys on the scene such as Ludovic Giuly, who beat the experienced Deportivo La Coruña 8-3 (!) in one group stage match. Months later Deportivo would record over Milan one of the most breathtaking victories in Champions League history (and the Champions League’s greatest ever comeback), indicating they were not a spent force. Monaco had loaned the Real Madrid striker Morientes, who had been forced out by Real’s purchase of Ronaldo in 2002. Freed from his best mate Raul’s shadow, Morientes would emerge as Europe’s premier forward in the 2004 season, scoring nine Champions League goals.
Young and hungry
FC Porto were represented by the new generation of Portuguese players who would replace and surpass Portugal’s previous so-called “golden generation” at the country’s upcoming Euro 2004 tournament at home. A young team, they had won the previous year’s UEFA Cup in a futuristic whirlwind semi-final thrashing of Lazio and a moody but skilful final against Celtic.
Their poster boy was the small, skilled, naturalised Brazilian/Portuguese Deco, who exhibited close dribbling and mind-boggling passing (left-wing crosses with the outside of his right foot, for example). These were his two best years, as he successfully dictated the fate of a Champions League title-winner as its classic number 10. He was part of a terrifically balanced midfield triangle that involved Maniche, part defensive mid, part attacking mid, part magnificent goal scorer (he was an unusual combination of everything) and grunt worker Costinha. The other new standout was the strong central defender Ricardo Carvalho, but Porto had evolved a young, capable local player in almost every position and by the end of Euro 2004 Portugal basically consisted of Porto plus Cristiano Ronaldo and Figo.
It was Costinha who elegantly stroked the breathless last-minute goal that surprisingly eliminated Manchester United in the second round and introduced ambitious coach Jose Mourinho to the world-at-large.
Milan, Real Madrid and Arsenal ease towards the semi-finals…
The real madness began in the quarter-finals, whose pairings (Real Madrid vs. Monaco; Milan vs. Deportivo La Coruña; Chelsea vs. Arsenal) did not suggest any huge fireworks in the making. In the first leg Real Madrid wiped Monaco to the tune of four second-half goals (4-2). Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo each scored in a manic ten-minute spell, but then conceded on the surface a mere honorary goal to old boy Morientes, lining up in Monaco’s red while being paid by Real Madrid to compete against them.
Holders Milan, Europe’s new superclub now featuring first-year Brazilian Kaka’s silky efficiency, similarly to Real scored four goals in eight minutes to seemingly end the tie against what on paper had looked a dangerous task against perennial contender Deportivo La Coruña, 4-1.
Arsenal were on their way to a spectacular undefeated season in England, but their classic, dynamic team of Vieria, Henry, Pires, Bergkamp, Freddie Ljungberg and Sol Campbell would never deliver at European level. They were arguably hamstrung by Bergkamp’s phobia of airplanes, which disqualified him from most away games in Europe and also the 2002 World Cup in Asia, condemning the Kluivert and Davids ‘Ajax’ Holland generation as well.
It was puzzling that Arsenal could never rise to the top. Most unfairly blamed Henry despite his copious amounts of goals and assists. The real reason was probably manager Arsene Wenger’s stubbornness, his utmost faith that Arsenal’s attacking game could impose itself in all situations. Previously Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson had been similar, shaped by England’s football culture, but Raul and Real’s win in 2000 inspired a surprising burst of realpolitik around 2001, when he recognised that Manchester United would have to be smarter and dig in once in a while like the Italians. He was subsequently rewarded with an ultra-defensive 2008 Champions League title. This never happened to Wenger. The one and only year that Wenger recognised that Arsenal were not good enough, 2006, was the one year that with some extra defensive help and mindset they perversely almost won the Champions League.
Arsenal had not lost to Chelsea all millennium and it was felt that for the 2004 team of the “Invincibles”, this was the year. France Football’s Philippe Auclair, an Arsenal fan, argues in his critically acclaimed biography of Thierry Henry that the second leg of Arsenal’s home tie against Chelsea (or at least the first half of it) was weirdly the definitive statement of Arsenal’s ball movement and greatness that season. But Jens Lehmann’s mistakes in goal cost them. Chelsea, flush with a sudden confidence, dominated the second half and won at the end, breaking – and soon reversing – the hoodoo between the two clubs.
But this edge-of-the-seat match was just the beginning, as over in France Monaco were in the process of scoring three goals to overcome a 5-2 deficit against Real Madrid.
Monaco were Europe’s darlings that year, a one-year phenomenon greater than the sum of their parts, coached by the man who as captain had recently lifted both trophies for France, Didier Deschamps. Morientes and Ludovic Giuly, a dashing attacking mid, led them almost single-handedly to their shocking victory against Real, but they would score a similarly rollicking win over Chelsea inspired by their nobodies in the semi-final. At halftime with Real still comfortable at 5-3 Giuly, having just scored, had been the recipient of countryman but opponent Zidane’s curiously encouraging words to him from across the rampart as they walked off the field at the break: “Can’t you work it out? We’re absolutely shattered.”
That they turned out to be. Morientes scored an identical header to his goal in the first match immediately after halftime, noticeably firing up him and the entire team, and Giuly won it (3-1, 5-5 aggregate, away goals to Monaco) with a beautiful backflick, his second goal, twenty minutes later. Raul had a good goal annulled, and Monaco twice hit the posts at the end. It was a sensational result, leaving the way clear for Milan to win the title.
The greatest Champions League match?
The next day was the formality of their return match in Spain, 4-1 up against Deportivo. But in the dressing room Deportivo’s forward Walter Pandiani exhorted them to “play like maniacs”, and he duly twisted around to score from outside the box only five minutes in. Deportivo did not give Milan a moment of respite. Dida misjudged a cross on 33 minutes, headed in behind him by Deportivo’s spiritual leader Juan Carlos Valeron, and on halftime Albert Luque found himself through and buried it into the top corner. Deportivo had only taken one half to overcome an insurmountable lead, and for Milan, walking off the field 0-3 and away goals down, it was their first opportunity to rest all night from the onslaught.
Andrea Pirlo spitefully described it: “Our opponents were going at a thousand miles per hour all night, even the older players who’d never exactly been known for their ability to combine speed with stamina. What struck me most was how they kept on running at half time. To a man: no exceptions… We were chasing shadows all night. Their players were crazy buzz bombs flying around all over the place… The Deportivo players were like men possessed, galloping towards a target that only they could see.”
Deportivo ended up winning 4-0, the exact reverse of the teams’ last match in Spain the season before. To date it is the only time in Champions League history (post-1993) that anyone has overcome a three-goal first-leg deficit.
It seemed that Deportivo La Coruña had finally evolved into the champions-in-waiting they should always have been and had presented themselves for the last three years. The other teams left in the draw were merely Monaco, Porto and an inconsistent, pre-Mourinho Chelsea. It was as unlikely a final four as we will see. For Deportivo, it had to be a formality.
Monaco continue the rollicking times
But the tournament took further twists into the semi-finals. Monaco won an inspired match 3-1 at home to Chelsea and announced themselves as Europe’s team of the moment, playing most of the match with a man sent off. Deep into the game at 1-1, new sensation, bottle-blond Beckham-esque winger Jerome Rothen sent Morientes free on the right and he drilled in. Then substitute Shabani Nonda touched in the dagger to the near post five minutes later.
The thinkers’ semi-final
The other semi-final was the opposite of that eight-goal thriller, a measured, short-passing, cross-border west Iberian derby of sorts, between two clubs – FC Porto and Deportivo La Coruña – who wore the same colours, played in the same manner, were situated only a couple hundred kilometres away from each other, and Deportivo’s Jorge Andrade had even crossed from one to the other a season ago. Deportivo purposely achieved a superficially beneficial goalless draw in Portugal, avoiding the 1-4 hole of the Milan tie and setting themselves up for success at home, but they had turned off their momentum in doing so and were stuck in the same go-nowhere mode a week later when they returned to Spain and the mirror teams continued to cancel each other out. There was no onslaught from Deportivo this time – their only chance for the match was when Porto’s offside broke down in the first half and Valeron blew a certain, three-on-none chance to score.
Porto had been the only team of the four ignored after the quarter-finals and after the semi-final first leg, but they now chipped away, bossing possession in an away game, hitting the post, and finally provoking a marginal but technically correct penalty when Deco wriggled around the inside edge of the box and was tripped. Derlei, the fleeting superstar of the 2003 UEFA Cup campaign, drilled a perfect penalty and Deportivo had thrown away the chance of a lifetime. They say that in Galicia people sit on the rocks overlooking the ocean with a type of sad longing called morriña. This match would have only fed such sentiments.
Monaco complete the miracle
The sparse, technical qualities of the Champions League would take an uncharacteristic all-action detour to the English Premier League, when Chelsea’s brilliant all-out attack wiped out their two-goal deficit shortly before halftime. For a glorious minute they were in the final, and Porto looked no chance in comparison.
But Rothen and Morientes pulled out a brilliant play on halftime, Rothen running around the defender on the left and putting the ball sharply onto Morientes’ head. He twisted cleverly to reflex the ball onto the far post, from where it was forced home by the incoming cavalry. After the break, Monaco were finally able to control some tempo, and Morientes ended it with a clever team goal on the hour, a one-two taking advantage of young John Terry’s charging blood-and-thunder approach.
Despite Morientes’ ups and downs with Real Madrid he had won three Champions Leagues as Real’s starting forward each time, but proving himself away from the Real Madrid gravy train and taking Monaco to the Champions League final was arguably his finest achievement.
A unique event
The Monaco vs. Porto final is my favourite match, not for anything that occurred on the field but simply for the fact that it happened, Europe’s signature game contested by two young ‘Latin’ teams from outside the main leagues. It was decided by Giuly’s early injury, hampering Monaco, who probably otherwise would have won and who nonetheless laid a siege on Porto in the second half. But without Giuly there was no one to supply Morientes in his last match for Monaco, and Porto stayed tight on Rothen, the other potential match winner.
Deco finally broke out of the red and white waves to initiate a steady passing move and scored with a shot that was something like a pass, faking a body angle and stroking it across his body, suckering both keeper and defender. For Deco, even the taut act of shooting on goal could be reduced to a mere passing angle.
Porto had been adaptable; swarming and attacking at home, defensive otherwise. They had greatly benefitted from the luck of the draw and would probably not have beaten the Milans, but they had nonetheless been a consistent winning team. Coach Mourinho’s greatest achievement was completed in his first year on the scene before he even realised what happened (he immediately walked off the presentation dais and was never photographed with the trophy). He would begin his smoothly abrasive, charmingly combustible wanderings trying to replicate what had originally been right before his eyes.
Of Monaco’s detachable parts, only Giuly and left-back Patrice Evra would go on to greater things elsewhere. Rothen and Prso surprisingly went nowhere, and even Morientes was sort of done. Barcelona, finally ready to do some big things, would buy both Deco and Giuly for the upcoming year, so in a way the lovely, bizarre 2004 Champions League wasn’t completely unattached from what happened before and after it.