On Tuesday April 8, 2008, Rafael Benítez’s Reds and Arsène Wenger’s Gunners played out a Champions League classic in the second leg of their much-anticipated quarter-final tie.
When we think of the number of transcendent images – and moments – that this contest produced, we get a measure of its quality and weight.
Sami Hyypiä’s brilliantly accurate headed equaliser. Fernando Torres turning to thunder a shot into the top corner and roar in celebration at a rapturous Kop. Theo Walcott running away, between and past everyone in the latter stages to tee up Emmanuel Adebayor’s apparent decider.
And then, Steven Gerrard beaming with joy and being mobbed by teammates after sweeping a penalty into The Kop End’s other top corner just a couple of minutes later. Pepe Reina sprinting to embrace Ryan Babel after he finally settled the tie in stoppage time and sent Anfield into that wonderful, scarf swirling state of delirium.
Considered in isolation, they’re all superb standalone moments. Combined together and put into context – things just get better.
This was one of those increasingly familiar domestic battles on the continental stage that had a unique intensity and tension to them.
Manchester United and Chelsea would meet in the competition’s first all-English final at the end of the season and it could, perhaps, be argued that this was a time when the best four Premier League teams were also the best four in Europe.
There was the fact that there was another such contest awaiting Liverpool or Arsenal in the semi-finals. Chelsea’s 2-0 home victory over Fenerbahçe that same evening earned them a 3-2 aggregate victory over the Turkish outfit and confirmed the Blues as the opponents of this tie’s victors in the last four.
Having overcome the respective Milan clubs in the Round of 16, too – the Reds beat Internazionale 3-0 on aggregate and the Gunners saw off AC Milan with two goals without reply – both clubs had already shown they very much meant business in the 2007/08 iteration of the competition.
Adebayor and Dirk Kuyt’s goals in the first half of the Emirates Stadium first leg ensured the Anfield return was enticingly poised and there was also the familiarity element. This was the third time the teams had met in under a week – and the fourth time that season.Embed from Getty Images
The Premier League meeting in North London, sandwiched between the two legs, had produced the third 1-1 draw out of three 07/08 clashes as Peter Crouch’s opener was cancelled out by Nicklas Bendtner.
A winner was needed at Anfield. Something would have to give – and it did. The night felt suitably seismic, as The Kopite Podcast’s Jay Pearson remembered. “Electric” is how he described the atmosphere.
He said: “There was something about drawing English teams around that time in the Champions League. It seemed every year it was happening.
“Our ‘love affair’ with the European Cup was at its peak in the ‘modern era’ and playing against Arsenal, second leg at Anfield, tie even at 1-1, the atmosphere was incredible.
“I remember getting to the Sandon really early that day for the build up. Just like we did the previous year for the Chelsea semi.”
In the glowing spring twilight that tends to accompany kick-off and the early minutes of games in the Champions League’s latter stages, Anfield boomed with noise and bristled with anticipation.
Wenger’s men, though, hit their stride quickest.
Much of their best post-Christmas form had come in the Champions League that term, as strangely timid league displays saw their title charge falter in late winter – and that contrast was reflected here.
There was a tempo and zip to their early moves and that was rewarded in the 13th minute when Abou Diaby latched onto Alexander Hleb’s pass, burst into the box and rifled a shot inside Reina’s near-post.
“When Diaby got the first goal, heads didn’t go down. We knew our away goal had been cancelled out, but there was still plenty of time left in the game,” Jay recalled.
“With our pedigree in the competition over those last few years and the reputation of the second leg at Anfield, I always felt we would get the equaliser.Embed from Getty Images
“Thanks to Sami Hyypiä with one of his best ever headers, we did. Although I only appreciated it when I got home as my view was restricted by the stanchion in the Main Stand.”
That Hyypiä leveller was about as precise, as satisfying, as emphatic as headed goals come. Gerrard’s corner was directed back across goal, over the head of Cesc Fàbregas on the line and into the net via the post from fully 12 yards.
The main TV camera was wonderfully angled and even caught the touch of fade the Finn managed to get on the ball to send it on target.
It deserved to be a big goal – and it was.
After holding off further Arsenal pressure, Liverpool had grown into the game and made it all square. 1-1 again. Extra time and penalties awaited if it stayed like that.
“We said it would go to penalties. It may just have done,” ITV commentator Clive Tyldesley would memorably remark later on – but not for the conventional reason.
Because it wouldn’t stay at 1-1, of course. Fernando Torres didn’t half make sure of that.
After further momentum was built by the Reds – now shooting towards The Kop – in the early stages of the second half, the Spanish striker struck in the 69th minute.
Crouch’s weekend display in North London could well have been what earned him another start here – and his flick-on was his strike partner’s cue.
Back to goal, Torres chested it down to the left of the penalty spot, took one touch to keep it on the turf, another to set himself and then sent an instinctive right-footed howitzer into the top-right corner.
“My jaw dropped. It was a route one goal wasn’t it? Got to give credit to Crouchy for opening it up. Then the touch, the turn and the shot into the top corner was peak Torres.” remembered Jay.Embed from Getty Images
“He knew exactly where the goal and the ‘keeper were, he didn’t even look up. I remember putting my hands on my head thinking ‘just wow!’.”
Torres’ post-match comments speak volumes, too.
“It was the biggest night of my career and I came to Liverpool for nights like this,” said the then 24-year-old.
Ahead on the night by two goals to one. 3-2 ahead in the tie. His goal would have been a fitting winner.
There was plenty more to come, though. 15 minutes later, in the 84th minute, the match took itself onto yet another level.
A Gerrard air shot was picked up by 19-year-old Walcott – who’d come on in the 72nd minute – on the edge of his own box and he simply ran.
Past Xabi Alonso. Past Fábio Aurélio. Into the Liverpool half. Javier Mascherano got close but couldn’t catch him. Past Hyypiä. Into the Liverpool box.
His low cross from the right was intelligently cut back behind Martin Škrtel and into the path Adebayor – who’d put another one-on-one wide minutes earlier – and the Togolese coolly sidefooted past Reina and in.
The Gunners now led on away goals and their end was going suitably wild. They looked set for the semis. But the hosts weren’t settling and Babel – who’d only been introduced himself in the 78th minute – was about to show some initiative of his own.
This was quite the few minutes.Embed from Getty Images
“That is classic football for you and it’s the reason it’s the greatest game in the world,” said Jay.
“Walcott produces an exceptional run and assist – I’m still annoyed that no-one took a yellow and brought him down – to Adebayor and at that point, I’m thinking, that’s a killer blow. Especially as there was so little time left and Arsenal were a good side at that time.
“But straight from the kick-off, Babel runs into the box, Kolo Touré brings him down and penalty! Then I knew, we ain’t going out now. Stevie doesn’t miss penalties, especially in big games like this. The ground went from being deafly quiet to euphoric within a few minutes!”
The emotional seismometer was, presumably, off the charts.
Referee Peter Fröjdfeldt pointing to the spot was what cued Tyldesley to deliver that aforementioned penalties line as Anfield roared, gasped and then began to murmur in expectation.Embed from Getty Images
Then, after the skipper slammed home the spot-kick, came another.
“It’s Liverpool! It’s Gerrard! It’s surely the final word on an extraordinary night at Anfield!” the commentator exclaimed.
Almost the final word, but not quite. Liverpool – and Babel, most specifically – weren’t done.
In the second minute of stoppage time, Dirk Kuyt’s clearance of an Arsenal free-kick was latched onto by his fellow Dutchman.
“Another Arsenal goal changes the tie, so there was still that nervousness and persistent ‘whistle blowing’ to the ref,” recalled Jay.
“So when Babel is racing away from Fàbregas and buries it, you’ve got relief, joy, elation and passion all into one roar and cheer.Embed from Getty Images
“That fourth goal sealed it and for the final moments we were all swinging our scarves, singing ‘we shall not be moved’ and our love affair with the European Cup got even bigger. One of our greatest European nights.”
A night that had so much poured into it by so many – both of a Liverpool and Arsenal persuasion and everywhere in between.
It produced a gem of an experience – whether that was in the ground, watching on TV or listening in on the radio.
This was classic Champions League and, simultaneously, a classic reflection of the Premier League on the continental stage.
What we’d give to have those kind of atmospheres back. A packed out Anfield would be very welcome in next week’s Real Madrid second leg, of course.
But we’re not there yet – not that we need reminding.
Nights like Arsenal in 2008, and so many others, are at least ones we – and hopefully the players – can somehow channel energy from in the meantime.
They’re worth remembering – which makes them all the more worth utilising.
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