The idea that one isolated event can happen and change everything forever simply doesn’t work. Single moments do not occur, without precedent, to shift the course of history irreparably. It’s not that simple. In life, infinite possibilities are so endless, that it’s impossible for us to truly fathom with our simple homosapien minds. Life exists as a continuous cacophony of causality. It’s a collapsing domino trail of infinite width and infinite length. So, it’s pointless trying to pinpoint watershed moments in eternity’s ongoing narrative. Things happen because of the random collection of events that followed the Big Bang, from the collapse of an empire to a fruit fly sneezing, they all contribute towards the ever-expanding ripple effect of time.
At least that’s how things occur most of the time.
Occasionally, just occasionally, some force presides over causality and takes things into its own hands. This is Fate. For some reason unknown to us mere mortals, Fate loves football and regularly interferes with its outcome. Why? Its for the same reason we love football. Its a welcome break from the monotony of the everyday. Its winning and losing, hope and despair, love and hate. It epitomises Fate’s very existence.
He manifests himself in the form of a massive looming figure, lurking over stadia. All-present and all-knowing, and not exactly benevolent, he’s a Frankensteinian product of football punditry. He has the steely stare of Graeme Souness, the enormous iron chin of Jimmy Hill and the booming voice of Brian Moore on the Big Match. He seldom speaks though, he just bides his time, interminably waiting.
We now take a less universal approach to football causality and instead take one that’s far more localised. Merseyside, 8th December 2004. Liverpool lead Olympiakos 2-1 but that’s not enough. A victory of two clear goals is the bare minimum to see them through to the knockout stages of this season’s Champions League. They sit five minutes from Greek tragedy.
With the clock ticking, Liverpool surge forward, wave after wave of attack raining in on Nikopolidis’ goal. Carragher’s speculative ball into the box meets the head of Neil Mellor. His cushioned lay-off places the ball straight into the path of the one man on the pitch who could pull off what follows. Re-watch that moment. You know the ball is going in the net before you’re even able to gauge the direction of Mellor’s header. That’s premonition. In football you can feel it coming. You can feel momentum shift, a causality rift in the space-time continuum.
Fate lurks above Anfield, casting a watchful eye over proceedings. As part of his match day ritual, his long, looming limb extends and wraps bony carpals around the four corners of the pitch. With a flick of the wrist, he spins it. The pitch, pivoting on the centre spot, rotates at the speed of light and where the ball lands next is a matter of chance.
No-one notices the effects of this fateful centrifuge. Everyone’s too fixated on the game, though it does explain the lurching feeling in your stomach. Its consequences are dramatic. It shifts the ball in such a way that a knife-edge moment is inevitable.
At Anfield, premonition kicks in. Carragher’s cross reaches the head of Neil Mellor. It’s going in. He cushions it from the edge of the penalty box of an oncoming Steven Gerrard. It’s going in. Gerrard takes one step. It’s going in. He keeps his head over the ball, just as we’re taught with textbook technique, putting every ounce of energy from every sinew of every tissue of every taught muscle into the ball. The net bulges. It’s in. Bedlam. The Kop surges forward. Rafa checks his watch. He’s the only person in the stadium not embroiled in the pandemonium. All preconceptions of decorum are out of the window. A steward, caught up in at all, hugs him. Rafa reciprocates. Perhaps there is a beating heart, coursing with adrenaline behind that icy, calculating exterior. Even in the gantry it’s gone out the window. Andy Gray - Everton legend, Andy Gray - finds himself immortalised in YouTube replays of the goal, screaming “OH YOU BEAUTY!”
Fate has been watching all of this, from his vantage point above the Main Stand and seemingly liked what he saw. With a shocked look on his face, and a hint of a smile emerging at the corners of his mouth, he leaves the ground and buys a scarf on his way down Arkles Lane. He’s free for the knockout stages. He’s coming back.
From here, Fate follows all the way. Never has a cup run had so many knife edge moments. Every round provides a moment where Liverpool are close to being engulfed by the ominous jaws of death, but somehow prevail unscathed.
Germany’s foremost pharmaceutical-backed football club are drawn out of the bowl for the last sixteen and Bayer Leverkusen make the trip to Anfield for the first leg. Fate has turned up and has found his way to the top of the Main Stand, adorning his lucky scarf, and he’s just as surprised as everyone when Liverpool fly out of the blocks. Igor Biscan (yes, Igor Biscan) corrals the ball in midfield and jinks past what must be a dozen Bayer defenders, before laying it on a plate for a statistically less-than-clinical Luis Garcia. He skews the stats and slots home. One-Nil.
All of sudden, calamity.
Steve Finnan’s attempted header back to Dudek plays Leverkusen’s Berbatov through on goal. Anfield gasps collectively but Fate isn’t having it. Under a furrowed brow, Fate’s steely stare pierces through the evening air and centres on Berbatov. Gazes meet and in the ensuing Mexican (or rather Bulgarian) stand-off, Dimitar shoots wide. Respite for Liverpool. This sets the tone, and despite a wholly characteristic error from Jerzy Dudek that gifts Bayern an away goal, Liverpool are firmly in the driving seat. Fate’s also at the BayArena two weeks later, no need for intervention this time though. Liverpool are straight on the front foot and, after leading early, dominate throughout. The demons of a humbling defeat to Leverkusen three years earlier under Gerard Houllier are utterly vanquished.
Rafa’s Reds enter the quarter final home-leg against Juventus with a threadbare squad. When the draw is made in Nyon, the hosts are quick to point out the strength of Juve’s defence. It was the best in the competition that season; two goals conceded in eight matches. This is a team moulded by Lippi, complemented by Capello, through structure and discipline. Juventus line up with a defensive platform containing Buffon, Thuram, Cannavaro, Zambrotta and a screening Emerson. It provides the base for Camoranesi, Nedved, Del Piero, Trezeguet and Ibrahimovic to unleash their creative talents. Liverpool enter the fixture with Anthony Le Tallec making his first start of the season, Sami Hyypia returning after four weeks injured, Hamann and Alonso missing in midfield and teenage goalkeeper Scott Carson making his European debut. Anywhere else, optimism would be rather thin. This, however, is Anfield. Fate is stood on the Kop.
Following a pre-match minute’s silence for Pope John Paul II and a commemoration of the Heysel disaster in mosaic form, the action is underway. Benitez picks his team based on availability and with a mind to busy the Juventus backline. As they did against Leverkusen, Liverpool look to seize the game and make it their own. A half chance for Finnan is followed minutes later by a superb volleyed finish from a rejuvenated Sami Hyypia. This wasn’t in the script. Fate stands in a partisan Kop End, drowning in noise. Fifteen minutes later, the decibel levels take the roof off. Luis Garcia scores the Champions League goal of the season, an audacious attempt that few would even attempt. The Kop’s wall of noise has now infected the whole stadium. This is a cauldron of chaos. Juventus quickly galvanise and a foray forward sees Ibrahimovic hit the post. Remembering that he has an official role to play that evening, Fate quickly clutches the turf and twists. The rebound springs out of the penalty box and falls just far enough away from Del Piero to prevent a clean connection. His rebound trickles wide. Fate watches on, smirking. Minutes later, Del Piero is played through on goal by Pavel Nedved. No need for Fate here. Carson is big, strong and imposing beyond his years, parrying the shot away to safety. The Kop roars its approval. Sadly, Carson succumbs to a fate that has befallen Liverpool goalkeepers all season. He deals with a tame Cannavaro effort poorly, which halves Liverpool’s lead. A lead it is though, and Liverpool will take it.
Ahead of the second leg, with Hamann and Gerrard both missing, Liverpool are forced to rush a recovering Xabi Alonso back into the fold. They defend resolutely, packing the midfield with legs and support for Alonso, and creating plenty of their own chances on the break. Reaching across the athletics track, Fate spins, ten minutes in. Zambrotta’s cross from the left-hand side, bounces in the six yard box as the centrifuge takes hold. Sensing the potential magnitude of an all-English semi-final, Fate tenses, his steely stare doing all in its power to try and catch the eye of Zlatan Ibrahimovic. He blazes over.
Fate’s starting to develop carpal tunnel syndrome. He has to spin a further two times in the second half. Alonso plays a glorious through ball for Baros, who naturally spurns the chance. Late in the game, Cannavaro’s header hits the post, a carbon copy of the opportunity he scored from in the first leg. Between them, Dudek and Traore do their best to create a greater mess of the situation but only manage to concede a corner. In a tense, pressure cooker atmosphere, Liverpool cling on and ensure an all-English semi-final.
It’s a repeat of the League Cup Final. Chelsea are confident. Jose’s got a treble in his sights. Not if Fate can help it. The first leg at Stamford Bridge is cagey, with neither team really in the mood for conceding. Mid-way through the first half, however, a Joe Cole knockdown in the box forces Fate to spin. It falls to Lampard, pivoting and trying to force the ball downwards. As Fate stares grimly, the ball bounces quickly and awkwardly, too high for Lampard to get over it. He blazes over from eight yards. A huge let off. At the other end, Fate spins again and Petr Cech miraculously keeps out a goal-bound Milan Baros header. The game peters out at nil-nil. It all comes down to Anfield.
Mourinho remains enthusiastic, "I like the situation very much. I'm very confident.” He adds, seeing to remove the burden of expectancy on his players, "I think the pressure is on Liverpool. We'll go back to London as heroes, independent of the result.” This doesn’t wash with Kopites. They haven’t forgotten his hushing antics in that season’s League Cup Final. The mood of the evening is one of defiance. This is a collective twelfth man in attendance, determined to help their team over the line. An atmosphere that neither set of players have experienced before greets them out of the tunnel. There’s an inevitability in the air. It’s anger, hope, belief, love, all rolled into one. Pure raw emotion pouring from the terraces onto the pitch. Chelsea win the toss. Liverpool will attack the Kop in the first half. This is never their preference but today it suits them to a tee. Not reflecting too heavily on the tentative tactics of the first leg, Liverpool fly out the blocks. Three minutes in, Baros breaks into the box.
Fate’s only just stumbled out of the Sandon, much preferring an evening where he can enjoy the game and participate in this partisan atmosphere, he reluctantly spins.
Baros beats Cech to the ball, lifting it over him and being taken out by his international teammate in the process. The Kop appeals furiously, but this doesn’t put off Luis Garcia, whose deflected effort bounces goal wards. Gallas clears from the goal line, but was he too late? The Kop and Garcia think so; the latter runs to the corner flag, arms aloft. The former, irrespective of any refereeing decision, erupts and if you thought it was loud pre-kick off you should hear it now. The place is rocking.
The referee gives the goal and it’s entirely logical. The alternative is to send off Chelsea’s goalkeeper and award Liverpool a penalty. With 87 minutes left to play, he doesn’t want that on his conscience for the full game. One-Nil.
Liverpool dominate the next seventy plus minutes Chelsea look shell-shocked, but as Benitez, wary of the away goal rule, gradually tinkers and encourages a more defensive approach, Chelsea grow into the game. Liverpool are camped on the edge of their own penalty area but largely have only had to deal with half-chances thus far. Five minutes into the added six (in the words of Clive Tyldesley, “where have they come from?”),a lumped ball into the box is headed on by John Terry - now playing up front with Robert Huth - and Dudek comes flying out of his goal to claim a ball that he was never going to reach. He clatters all in his path and the scene in the Liverpool penalty box resembles something from a particularly calamitous stage of the Tour de France. The ball reaches Eidur Gudjohnsen and the next second takes about an hour to conclude. Through gritted teeth, Fate spins. In spite of the ball’s ominous trajectory, no one in this cluttered vicinity can lay anything on it. It’s like the Millennium Falcon, ducking and weaving through an asteroid field, reaching the other side entirely unscathed. It’s millimeters wide and the noise from the Kop is somewhere between celebrating a goal and breathing a huge sigh of relief.
The final whistle shortly follows, and Fate is somewhere in the mix of it on the Kop. They’ve not seen a night like this for years. They’re going to Istanbul, with Fate on their side.
We all know what follows. Three-nil down at halftime, Fate makes his way into a disconsolate Liverpool dressing room. Fate catches Rafa’s eye, who ushers him into the corner. Fate’s rather enjoyed the cup run and, still wearing his lucky red scarf, he offers Rafa a one-off deal. This is entirely unprecedented but then again so was being three-nil down at half-time. He grants Liverpool three chances, in exchange for Fate having three spins. This way he can at least maintain some air of professionalism. Rafa has no option. He accepts, hoping that his players will take their three chances. Within 15 minutes of the second half, Gerrard, Smicer and Alonso (eventually) have all delivered. Scouse delirium ensues in the stands. They’ve taken over 90% of the stadium and it is bouncing. Rafa’s the calmest man in the stadium. He knows that three spins are on their way.
Take a look at that scoreboard.
Midway through the second half, the first spin hits. Kaka’s ball into the box is spilled by Dudek (it’s going to be a topsy-turvy night for Jerzy). Shevchenko’s follow up is cleared off the line by Djimi Traore, who’s amazingly recovered from a first half performance that I can only describe through very aggressive, interpretive dance. Later in the half, Fate’s second spin, diverts Jaap Stam’s header into the path of Kaka. With millions worldwide holding their breath, he can’t convert. Liverpool survive the ninety minutes.
Rafa knows that there’s one roll of the dice remaining. One twist of Fate’s wheel. One test of destiny. A tentative thirty minutes, with both teams seemingly content with a shootout, is interrupted by a Milan foray forward. A cross from Serginho is met by Shevchenko. Dudek parries right into his path. One yard from goal. One yard from European glory. One yard from rewriting history. Fate spins and the next second happens in slow motion, frame by frame. Shevchenko bursts onto his own rebound, the goalkeeper lying prone before him, scrambling to gain some traction from the turf. He shoots goalwards, and Jerzy instinctively throws his arms upwards, amazingly into the one place, out of an infinite number of options, where Shevchenko is putting the ball. Three chances for the three spins, Liverpool have created their own luck and survived.
Jerzy’s nodding and grinning inanely. He’s had an absolute stinker all game - for most of the season if we’re being brutally honest - but now he knows that the tide has changed.
From the lofty heights of the Ataturk’s roofing structure, Fate looms with a huge grin on his face, still wearing the red and white scarf from the Olympiakos game. He can kick back and relax now, job done. Momentum has shifted. Penalties are out of his remit anyway. Following misses from Serginho, Pirlo and Riise, Shevchenko’s kick is vital. Having been thwarted just minutes earlier by Dudek, he must beat him from the spot to keep Liverpool in it. A stuttering run up culminates with Shevchenko scuffing a chipped effort down the middle of goal. Dudek raises a hand and the rest is history.
You can’t win anything without luck. Liverpool deserved their success; you play the hand you’re dealt with. They had their fair share of refereeing decisions, goalkeeping mistakes, injuries and suspensions go against them throughout the run. Things balance out, Fate sees to that. It’s how you deal with it. Sometimes you just need to master Fate and adhere him to your cause. That’s what champion teams do.
Jimmy Connelly, for photos from the final.
Wikimedia Commons for the trophy parade
Ben Sutherland, Flickr, https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/3630968168