Liverpool’s Champions League victory rightly has become ingrained into footballing folklore. The thrilling, almost impossible comeback against AC Milan in Istanbul is often cited as being one of the biggest and best night’s in the Anfield club’s history and is widely regarded as one of the best games of football to have ever taken place. However, four years previously Liverpool were bouncing around Europe and scoring goals for fun as they made their way towards Dortmund and the 2000-01 UEFA Cup final.
That triumph has, unfortunately, become somewhat forgotten over the years as events, despite Liverpool and Alaves serving up nine goals in another all-time classic. On that journey to UEFA Cup glory, Liverpool’s first European final since Heysel in 1985, they faced Slovan Liberec in the Second Round.
The two ties would springboard Liberec on to greater glories and set the tone for Liverpool’s goal-happy, carefree and ultimately successful jaunt across Europe.
Unlike their English counterparts. Slovan Liberec could not call upon decades of history, nor could they boast vast quantities of players with international recognition. Their first piece of silverware was gained during the 1999-2000 season when they lifted the Czech Cup after narrowly defeating the minnows of Banik Ratiskovice.Prior to that, the club, based in the north-west of the Czech Republic, had a fairly uninspiring record: After the Velvet Revolution Liberec had established themselves as an upper mid-table side in the Czech Republic’s top flight, but in Czechoslovakia they were firmly a regional club who tended to float between the second and third divisions.
And so when Leandro Lazzaro scored twice at Strahov to down the second division upstarts and win the Czech Cup, he fired Slovan into Europe for the first time in their history.
Liberec’s first ever encounter in Europe was to be a tie against the Swedish side Norrkoping, who they defeated via the odd goal in seven. Meanwhile, Liverpool made tough work of seeing off Rapid Bucharest, relying on a single Nick Barmby goal to see off the resilient Romanians. And when Liberec and Liverpool were paired together for the Second Round many a shoulder was shrugged by the English journalists, Liverpool management and, strangely, Liverpool’s Czech contingent.
“I don’t know much about them,” Patrik Berger noted ahead of the game. Luckily, though, Berger knew his geography as he pointed out that Liberec is “a small town in the north near the Polish border.” Compatriot Vladimir Smicer attempted to provide some insight of his own before he resorted to the tried and tested cliches: “This will be the biggest game in [Liberec’s] history,” he stated.
In reality, the two Czechs probably knew a lot more than they were willing to admit to the press. Both Berger and Smicer had lined up against Slovan in the early 1990s when playing for Slavia Prague, so to suggest that they knew nothing about their compatriots was a lie at best. At worst, it was horribly insulting.
And so, in typical tabloid fashion, the build up to the tie continued with Liberec portrayed as the country bumpkins who weren’t quite as sophisticated as Liverpool and English football in general.
Liverpool controlled the first leg but failed to make their possession and pressure count until late on. The BBC described the Anfield side’s display as ‘listless’, which while being understandable was also very harsh: The fact was that Liberec had defended tenaciously and were set out to contain. It didn’t help matters that Robbie Fowler spurned numerous chances and somehow managed to put a second-half penalty high into the stands.
The winning goal came with just minutes to go. Zbynek Hauzr flapped at a corner, palming it to Nick Barmby who drove on the diagonal before striking at goal. His shot was deflected, Hauzr stuttered, and Emile Heskey volleyed in to give Liverpool the victory their dominance deserved.
The dissection that followed was overtly critical. Yes, Liverpool were laborious in victory, but they did dominate and control the tie. Liberec, playing a flat back five at times, were there to defend and defend resolutely they did. As scrappy and below par as Houllier’s side were, they did create enough to put the tie to bed at the first time of asking.
However, the reverse fixture a fortnight later would be open, enthralling and diametrically opposite to the one-sided affair which took place at Anfield. Liverpool would still win by a one-goal margin, but Slovan Liberec showed that they could be considered to be domestic heavyweights while Liverpool opened up and flaunted their attacking dynamism that would lead them to the UEFA Cup Final six months later.
Slovan Liberec 2-3 Liverpool
Where?: Stadion u Nisy, Liberec
When?: November 9, 2000
Why?: UEFA Cup, 2nd Round, 2nd Leg.
Between the two legs, Liverpool had defeated Everton in a fairly one-sided Merseyside derby and then lost to Leeds United in an all time classic Premier League games. Perhaps responding to that seven-goal shootout at Elland Road Gerrard Houllier made three changes for the trip to the Czech Republic. One was enforced, as Patrik Berger missed out through injury, but Danny Murphy and Gary McAllister were dropped, or to put it diplomatically; rested.
On paper at least, these alterations made Liverpool appear to be a much more attacking side that the one scored three the previous weekend. With Vladimir Smicer and Nicky Barmby operating out wide and Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey up front, it was a starting XI to be feared. Houllier, and Liverpool, evidently meant business.
Liberec, meanwhile, had a rotten time between their dates with Liverpool. Immediately after their trip to Anfield they had lost 3-0 to Teplice – though with all three goals coming in the final third of the game and with Ladislav Skorpil opting not to rotate too much, tiredness was a contributing factor to that defeat – and followed that up with a 1-1 draw with Sigma Olomouc.
Skorpil opted to make only one chance from the side that started at Anfield, and that was to start with Roman Jun at left wingback.
In an interview with Channel 5 that was broadcast prior to the second-leg, Vladimir Smicer was asked if the unthinkable could happen. Could Liberec upset Liverpool? Again his response was bemusing. “No, I don’t think so,” he said, before breaking out into a childish giggle. It was yet another bizarre and dismissive response from the Czech international.
With the tie just minutes old, Smicer was made to eat his words.
Roman Jun played a one-two with Pavel Capek and scampered off down the left, hurdling over a rather desperate sliding tackle from Jamie Carragher in the process. With the byline approaching and no Liberec player in the penalty area to aim for, his out-swinging cross appeared to be in vain.
Bout of nowhere arrived Jiri Stajner. And as he leapt, so did the 7,000 strong crowd.
Liberec were leading 1-0.
Mixed in with the typically patronising profile pieces in the pre-game buildup, Ray Houghton, a pundit for Channel 5, touched on Liverpool’s recent defensive frailties. The segment was relatively short and lacking in analysis or explanation, but he was right.
In the 1999-2000 season, Liverpool had the best defence in the Premier League. But inside ten minutes they had been made to look distinctly amateurish. Just before Stajner’s goal, the Liverpool back four fell asleep, became disjointed and allowed Leandro Lazzaro to get in behind and pull a shot narrowly beyond the far post with Sander Westerveld beaten. If Liverpool needed a warning shot, then that was it. They failed to act, switched off once again, and allowed Stajner to meet Jun’s cross unchallenged.
Liverpool then laboured as Slovan’s three-man back line easily took care of Robbie Fowler and Emile Heskey. The physical pairing of Josef Lexa and Petr Johana marshalled the visitor’s forwards into anonymity early on, and with Bohuslav Pilny acting as the sweeper, Liberec always had one extra body in the centre to neutralise any breaks. Missing an outlet in the final third, Liverpool started to lose their cool.
The tackles started flying in from all angles. The English commentators raged at the physicality of the Czechs while giving the likes of Barmby and chief culprit Steven Gerrard were given a free pass. With the game threatening to boil over and turn into an ugly, brutal spectacle, a modicum of calm was restored by an unlikely individual.
Emile Heskey stopped engaging in a battle of strength with Johana and instead started to drop deeper, almost playing as an old-school number ten at one point. With Johana unsure whether he should move out of defence or pass marking responsibilities onto Janu, Heskey began to control the game and fashioned Liverpool’s first real chance when he put a daisy-cutter of a strike inches past the post.
Robbie Fowler, who had a torrid evening, was marooned up front, but Heskey’s decision to operate between the lines opened the game up. Gaps began to appear on the pitch as Liberec’s players began to chase this way and that. Liverpool passed and passed, causing the hosts to contract in shape. There was a sense of the inevitable when Liverpool equalised through Nick Barmby. As he raced towards the travelling fans, the relief was evident.
Barmby’s goal had to be seen to be believed. Probably the smallest player on the pitch, he rose to meet Christian Ziege’s deep free-kick and with a deft flick, he guided the ball past Hauzr. With the penalty area packed with bodies, it was an improbable goal from an improbable source. Yet the replays showed exactly what happened: Lexa and Pilny were wrapped up in nullifying Markus Babbel’s diagonal run, leaving Johana with the options of tracking a moving Barmby or keeping tabs on Heskey. Johana stayed with Heskey, who barely moved an inch. Barmby was free.
When the two teams emerged for the second-half it was Liverpool who took immediate control. Heskey had a speculative, but goalbound, effort saved by Hauzr, drawing a painfully obvious pun from Jonathan Pearce in the Channel 5 commentary box. “Safe as Hauzrs!” Pearce cried. Slovan’s goalkeeper aimed a glare down the pitch, but whether he was staring daggers at his midfielders or Pearce is up for debate.
While Liverpool controlled, Liberec offered much more than they did a fortnight earlier. Stajner popped up everywhere, dancing and darting his way around red shirts, and Jun had the measure of both Smicer and Carragher, but their forays forward were too few and far between. But there was always the chance that the pair of them – especially Stajner, who appeared to be acting on a more advanced plane than his teammates at times – could create something.
Both number 9s were substituted after nights to forget. Bar his effort that went just wide of Westerveld’s goal in the opening few minutes, Lazzaro had barely been involved and looked every bit the player who would be on his way out of the club in the coming weeks. Down at the other end, Fowler did little to dispel the critics who had been on his back since his profligate display in the first-leg. Though his isolation had allowed Liverpool to prosper elsewhere.
These substitutions changed the game. Lazzaro was the first to go, replaced by Kozuch who slotted into midfield with Stajner moving further forwards. If the intention was to shut up shop and play for the draw, it failed. Johana bounded out of defence and tried to play Jun in behind the Liverpool defence. The centre-back could only find empty space and Liverpool promptly worked the ball downfield to Smicer who crossed low to Heskey. Heskey’s flick caught Hauzr out and the goalkeeper – perhaps not expecting to see such flair and finesse from the burly centre-forward – could only palm the ball into the net.
Fowler soon departed, replaced by a returning Michael Owen who scored with his fourth touch. The goal only served to (unnecessarily) further the gap between the two sides, but there was to be one final shift in philosophy for Liberec. Like a punch drunk boxer needing a knockout, they went straight for the jugular.
David Breda, a late substitute, repeated Owen’s feat and scored within a minute of coming on. His goal was the best of the night; a curling effort from the edge of the area that left Westerveld floundering and the entire u Nisy stadium believing that the implausible comeback could well be a reality. Then, seconds before the whistle blew, Stajner appeared on the right to produce a final moment of magic. He drove towards the byline and picked out an unmarked Jan Nezmar. Unfortunately, Nezmar missed what has to be described as a sitter and as the ball bounced harmlessly past the post the German official, Edgar Steinborn, blew for full time.
What Happened After?
Liverpool’s defence was shown to be suspect against Liberec, a negative that was highlighted in the madcap final against Alaves – a team, like Liberec, the Anfield club should have beaten comfortably – and at various times throughout their domestic campaign. But their journey, both immediately following the trip to Bohemia and in the subsequent years after, has been well documented. UEFA Cup success was replaced with Champions League finals, but what of Liberec, the small Czech club who were competing in Europe for the first time?
The combination of prize money and gate receipts meant that Liberec could install floodlights at u Nisy, at a supposed cost of £400,000. The following season the north stand was constructed, which brought the stadium’s a capacity up to 9,900, and new training facilities were built. Investment in infrastructure was the priority; Liberec were building for the future.
But, that future arrived early. Eighteen months after hosting Liverpool at the Stadion u Nisy, Slovan were crowned champions of the Czech Republic. That season they also embarked on another UEFA Cup run, knocking out Celta Vigo, Mallorca and Lyon en route to a quarter-final defeat by Borussia Dortmund. The 2001-02 season was certainly one to remember.
After guiding Liberec to their maiden league title Jiri Stajner (who was the best player on the pitch that night against Liverpool) departed for the Bundesliga and Hannover, where the stayed for the best part of eight years. In 2010, he would return ‘home’ to become an instrumental figure in Slovan’s title-winning season of 2011-12. So impressive was the now veteran midfielder that when Tomas Rosicky’s fitness was in doubt ahead of Euro 2012 many thought that Stajner, at, was the natural replacement.
Four of Slovan’s team remain at the club, now in non-playing roles. Jan Nezmar, a late substitute, became Sporting Director shortly after his retirement, while Pavel Capek, Tomas Janu and Zbynek Hauzr are reserve team coaches.
For the Anfield side, the trip to the Czech Republic was an uneasy one, but one that laid the foundations for an end-to-end philosophy that would deliver silverware. But for Liberec, it was just the beginning.
The original version of this article was published in 2013
- Posted by Chris Boothroyd
- On 23rd November 2015