The Strike has become a popular feature on FootballFanCast over the last few months, but today’s edition is a variation on the theme. Well, arguably a variation; the debate over whether Luis Garcia’s strike that eliminated Chelsea from the 2004/05 Champions League actually crossed the line rages on even to this day. Liverpool fans insist it did; Blues supporters protest otherwise. Football was so much more fun before goal-line technology.
Nonetheless, the Liverpool birthday boy’s famous ghost goal does raise an interesting point about what it takes to win the Champions League title. Dominated by Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich over the last four years – unquestionably the three biggest teams in Europe during that time – you might be forgiven for declaring the Champions League is the most accurate and purest barometer of club football quality, even more so now Los Blancos have become the first successful title retainers in the competition’s history.
Yet, every impressive Champions League campaign, whether ending in the trophy or not, has traces of incredible good fortune somewhere down the line. They often say you make your own luck in football, but some slices of fortune have a much bigger impact than others, especially in an all-or-nothing tournament between the best Europe has to offer. Liverpool’s 2004/05 Champions League bid represents a prime example.
After a bitter-fought scoreless draw at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea travelled to Anfield knowing an away goal would be enough to get them to the final in Istanbul. But just four minutes into the game, something extraordinary happened; Steven Gerrard flicked a pass into the path of an onrushing Milan Baros – who was actually fouled by Petr Cech in the penalty box, something that always goes unmentioned – leaving Garcia to latch onto a loose ball and prod it towards goal.
William Gallas rushed back to the goal line and hoofed the ball clear but, seemingly convinced by Garcia’s celebration, referee Lubos Michel awarded the goal. Replays failing to prove anything were shown time and again as Liverpool eked out a clean sheet and prevailed to the final.
And if that victory had a large element of fortune about it, what happened in Istanbul was something else altogether; coming back from three goals down against unquestionably the most talented side of its era, AC Milan’s Kaka, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Andriy Shevchenko, Jaap Stam, Cafu, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta super XI, to eventually win on penalties is beyond luck, it’s quite rightly referred to as the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’.
Of course, that’s not to discredit an incredible comeback, but the quality between the two sides speaks for itself – not to mention a fluffed save from Dida for Vladimir Smicer’s strike and Steven Gerrard winning the equalising penalty by tumbling to the ground like a sack of potatoes. Both instances could have easily swayed in AC Milan’s, rather than Liverpool’s, favour.
We’re not just picking on Liverpool here either; the last two English sides to lift Europe’s top honour have depended on luck as well. Manchester United’s title in 2007/08 required the most unexpected of slips from John Terry in the penalty shootout, his spooned effort cannoning off the post, whilst the Chelsea side that won it in 2011/12 were amongst the competition’s weakest ever victors, their starting XI including Ryan Bertrand making his CL debut at left wing, Salomon Kalou on the right and Jose Bosingwa behind him at full-back.
Even their progression through the semi-final hinged on the most incredible of lobs from Ramires and Fernando Torres scoring one of his only truly significant goals in the Blues shirt in a 30-second glut of the world-class Fernando Torres that once graced Anfield. Then there’s the small matter of Fergie’s first European title – two chaotic, last-minute goals from corners in a match Bayern Munich had completely dominated.
Branching further afield, Borussia Dortmund’s shock march to the 2012 final saw them beat Malaga in the quarter-finals by scoring twice in injury time, only for replays to show the winner was offside. This season, meanwhile, as Real Madrid became the first ever club to lift consecutive titles, Zinedine Zidane’s side scraped through a quarter-final with Bayern Munich by scoring two offside goals, in a match that also saw Arturo Vidal miss a penalty and get sent off for a fair challenge. Similarly, it’s often forgotten Real Madrid were seconds away from losing the 2014 final, until a last-second Sergio Ramos goal saw Atletico collapse in extra time.
The list goes on and on; pretty much every good run in the Champions League has hinged on fortune, a bizarre twist of fate or a complete curveball from the footballing gods somewhere en route to the title. Luck favours the brave and all that, but from ghost goals to penalty slips, offside injury-time winners to Champions League debutants having the game of their lives, the idea that Europe’s most prestigious club tournament is decided by ability alone is clearly a complete fallacy. It’s simply a collection of football matches as unpredictable as any other – only the quality of the teams involved makes us think it’s something greater.
But celebrating his 39th birthday today, twelve years on from one of the most famous and divisive moments in recent Anfield history, Luis Garcia certainly isn’t complaining. In fact, if the Champions League has taught us anything, it’s that nobody has any right to. The luck bug can strike any team at any time, for better or for worse. Unquestionably, however, you need it on your side to win club football’s greatest prize.