After such a bizarre sequence of tournaments (2002 World Cup, 2004 Champions League, Euro 2004) it was hard to know who in fact the world’s best players were any more. The famous older names had all repeatedly gone missing in these most recent tournaments.
It was undoubtedly the changing of an era. Zidane and the Real Madrid crew were a year out of favour and it would only get worse. Notwithstanding Porto and Monaco’s adventures, Valencia had actually been Europe’s best club in 2004, winning both the Spanish title and the UEFA Cup, but would be ruined by a coaching change and were a ‘starless’ team anyway. Spain’s players had ruled the Champions League but had just bottled an international tournament; ditto Italy.
Oliver Kahn was fading in Bayern’s goal. On the other side of the globe Brazilian forward Ronaldo, who had beaten Kahn twice in the World Cup final two years ago, in June 2004 both provoked and scored three penalties in one match for Brazil against Argentina, but it would also prove his last moment at the pinnacle. Milan Baros had top scored at Euro 2004 but would do nothing for Liverpool. Michael Owen was still cleverly knocking them in but he would try an ill-advised move to Real Madrid, looking for the Champions League in the very year that Liverpool would get there without him.
Even the in-form players had caveats: Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney were still raw. Frank Lampard had a magnificent 2004 and 2005, but he was only a two-year phenomenon at that peak level. The Arsenal contingent would come out flying in the new season, but they would take a terrible and immediate – and permanent – nosedive upon losing their 49-match undefeated streak in a brutal game at Manchester United. Besides Shevchenko, the best forward was Ruud van Nistelrooy, but Manchester United would take flight years later only upon dropping him.
But that year new certainties began to fill the void. Three clubs rose spectacularly – and yet none of them would win the Champions League. Milan, with Shevchenko as effective and consistent as ever, made their usual dignified progress through Europe, and the whole 2005 Champions League season appeared a fait accompli for them.
“I think I’m a special one”
Chelsea, with apparent genius manager Jose Mourinho having been poached much like the rest of ex-Porto, were suddenly an astonishing team of power and watertight defensive force, who would concede a tiny fifteen goals and lose but one match in the entire Premier League season. They were led in attack by goal-scoring central midfielder Frank Lampard, England’s best player at Euro 2004 who would play his best season in 2005; new Dutch winger Arjen Robben, a streaky but solidly-built player, the first of Holland’s post-Ajax generation who would be one of the great stars of world football for the entire next decade; and Didier Drogba, the sometimes tempestuous but always effective battering ram of a forward from Cote d’Ivoire. When that season Bayern Munich conceded a key header to Drogba (not for the last time, incidentally), their coach when presented afterwards with an opportunity to blame his defenders simply shrugged and replied, “Drogba’s great at that sort of thing, what can you do?”
Ronaldinho, a player the likes we had never seen
Barcelona had given the gentle Frank Rijkaard the chance to lead them, and in the 2004 calendar year, inspired by Ronaldinho, they began to make their way. In the new season they acquired Deco and Cameroon forward Samuel Eto’o and there was now no stopping them. Ronaldinho and Eto’o were by far the most dynamic players in the world. Ronaldinho was the perfect attacking player: he had otherworldly, blink-and-you-missed-it dribbling skill – one Nike commercial featured a slow-motion dribble where he tapped the ball in opposite directions in the same second with the same ankle, contrived of course but an apt indication of the sense of his movement and ability. He was given Barcelona’s free attacking role, streaking with the ball, usually scoring his own goals or occasionally supplying Eto’o. Eto’o was similarly zippy but was more focused on goal scoring. The two scored the majority of Barca’s goals in a free-flowing team.
So Ronaldinho was all of a sudden the world’s undisputed top player. The other player ranked just behind him was identically a Brazilian free attacking central mid, but whose qualities and style were the exact opposite of Ronaldinho’s. Kaka was a young player who had been along for the ride at Korea/Japan 2002, come to Milan and now dominated their central midfield. Where Ronaldinho was flashy and fast, everything done for the joy of doing it, Kaka’s every movement was economical and oozed efficiency, every slow dribble and through pass purely done for the purpose of scoring and winning games in a more European style. Ronaldinho’s best work was done in a permanent crouch, gauging how he could instantaneously slip past his marker, while Kaka was always upright, gliding through to receive passes, always at ease. They were opposites off the field too, Ronaldinho black, with long hair and goofy teeth, who enjoyed living it up; Kaka quiet, white and religious, who could have been a catwalk model if not a footballer and looked the part when suited up in black in an advertisement with tennis player Roger Federer. The idea of both of them suiting up in yellow on the same Brazil team boggled the mind.
Get used to them
The two up-and-comers Chelsea and Barcelona were drawn against each other for the second round knockout tie in 2005 (and also 2006, and would in addition record cathartic semi-final victories against each other in 2009 and 2012). It was the beginning of the epic, decade-long confrontation between Barcelona and the Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho, who quickly grew to hate each other despite Mourinho having once been on Barca’s books.
This matchup in 2005 could have been the final, and had everything a knockout tie should. Chelsea worked their asses off to hold the irresistible Barca to a 2-1 advantage in Spain. Mourinho said a few words in between and inadvertently caused the embittered retirement of referee Anders Frisk. In England Chelsea blitzed a 3-0 return lead in England within twenty minutes, only for Barcelona to again wake up and force Chelsea onto the back foot for the rest of the match. Ronaldinho scored an amazing, standing-start toe-poke from the edge of the penalty box to put Barca ahead on away goals, but the Chelsea defensive machine grindingly held Europe’s best attacking team for the rest of the match – unable to do anything but defend the whole time despite needing a goal. But the man who was becoming the growing face of Chelsea, defender and captain John Terry, scored a header towards the end to win it. Like everything else between these two teams, the winning goal was shrouded in controversy.
Liverpool scratch and claw
It was the year England’s clubs finally woke up and competed with the rest of Europe as its equals and by 2007 its superiors. Chelsea and more surprisingly Liverpool both eliminated a cache of Europe’s finest this season. Liverpool had had a mediocre group stage and had only qualified for the second round on Steven Gerrard’s heroic long pile-driver a few minutes from time in their final match. Somehow they got something together in the new year. Liverpool’s second-leg all-out defence and the spectacular goal from ephemeral, but in 2005 effective Spanish goal-scoring winger Luis Garcia, took them past the heavily favoured Juventus after an effervescent 2-1 win and then a tense and committed 0-0 draw. The two English standard bearers were drawn against each other for the semi-final and would meet each other every single year, five years in a row.
Chelsea had streaked England while Liverpool had been terrible in the league, but Liverpool, identically to their unforseen victory over Juventus, somehow found a method and commitment in the Champions League to eliminate Chelsea. Grim 0-0 draws away from home were supplemented by Anfield’s emotional cauldron, Liverpool’s blood, sweat and tears and Luis Garcia’s two goals just getting Liverpool over the line on both occasions. There was never a home crowd quite like it. Chelsea had thus begun their cursed Champions League era, in which they were by far the most consistent Champions League team from 2004 to 2009 but would never quite win the trophy in this timeframe amid the incredible bad luck of “ghost goals”, multiple lost penalty shootouts and last-minute concessions.
A flaw in Milan’s invincible make-up?
The ever-debonair Milan awaited Liverpool in the final, on one hand avoiding the seemingly inevitable Milan-Chelsea final showdown with relief, but on the other hand thanking their lucky stars that they were even there, for they had unexpectedly been blitzed in their own semi-final in both legs by the previously unremarkable PSV Eindhoven. Milan had recorded a completely illusory 2-0 win at home by scoring at the end of each half, then had found themselves down 0-2 in the return to a pulse-racing team whose old hand Philip Cocu, from the great Holland team of turn of the century, scored twice and reminded the world of his talent. But a quick exchange of goals in the last minute made the final score 1-3 and gave Milan a bogus victory on away goals. Kaka would claim this PSV as the hardest opponent of his career to that point, and the feeling watching Milan ‘victorious’ after having been so clearly second-best was underwhelming.
Still, they were playing against a wretched Liverpool team in the final and walked off at halftime with a 3-0 lead, having led from the first minute, still appearing focused as they left the field with no smiles. A minute before, Kaka had played a jewel of a through ball from back in the field, whose angle had taken the defenders out and put the goal on a plate for Hernan Crespo. Apparently the scene in the Liverpool dressing room at halftime was a shambles, one player hitting the showers thinking his day was done and told to quickly get re-suited up, coach Benitez at that point still barely able to speak English to get any sort of message across, and after the break the sometimes wonky Liverpool goalie Jerzy Dudek saved well from Shevchenko to avoid 0-4, whatever that mattered.
Then suddenly Liverpool were only a goal down in a minute. First Liverpool’s icon, their energetic box-to-box, lionhearted midfielder and captain Steven Gerrard scored a free header, then Czech veteran Vladimir Smicer drilled a long shot into the low corner. Three minutes later Gerrard had been tripped in the box and new Spanish beacon of consistency Xabi Alonso, like Luis Garcia in his first season with Liverpool, fortuitously put in the rebound of his own saved penalty. Only six minutes had elapsed from 3-0 to 3-3. You could call it lightning.
Just like in the previous rounds, Liverpool then gritted their teeth for the next hour to grind out a result against superior opposition, holding the draw and winning the penalties (Milan scoring only two of five). Gerrard’s two-handed ecstatic acceptance of the trophy was the most blood-pumping trophy presentation ever. Liverpool number two Jamie Carragher was asked if he had believed at halftime and his answer was a straight, “No.” Liverpool, a rabble in England had somehow, unquestionably beaten the best teams Europe had to offer; interestingly the third team in a row to win the Champions League a year after not even competing in it the year before. Milan were ripped to pieces for blowing the unlosable final, and “End of an era” began ringing out. It had been the second year in a row they had lost a three-goal lead in the key Champions League tie, having been Europe’s best team both times.