Liverpool travel to Rome in the Champions League on Wednesday night, knowing that anything but a complete collapse will see the Reds through after winning the first leg 5-2 at Anfield. But those two late goals from last month’s visitors give the Serie A side a glimmer of hope of defying the odds, and if we’ve learned anything from the current incarnation of the European Cup, it’s that luck plays a huge part in any successful campaign.
It can decimate teams at their absolute peak, or bring those at rock bottom back to an unassailable high, and Luis Garcia’s infamous ghost goal in the same round of the 2004/05 Champions League, which Liverpool would later go on to win, serves as a crucial, fitting reminder ahead of the Merseysiders’ showdown at the Stadio Olimpico.
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.
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 a Blues shirt in a 30-second glut of the world-class 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. Last 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.
Their meeting on Tuesday night too, was influenced by apparent protection from the footballing gods. Bayern completely dominated proceedings, but couldn’t convert enough of the chances that came their way to lose 4-3 on aggregate. Real Madrid now find themselves on course to clinch a third successive European crown, despite playing well below their usual standards for the vast majority of this Champions League campaign.
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 karma curveball 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.
And that serves as a massive warning to Liverpool ahead of what will be a high-pressure affair. While they may have a three-goal lead, while Roma may not exactly represent the most fearsome of competition and while Mohamed Salah may well be the most in-form player in Europe right now, one moment of bad luck could quickly send Wednesday night’s encounter spiralling beyond their control. Roma are more than qualified to take advantage of that in front of a partisan crowd. So its not just Giallorossi the Reds must remain vigilant against on Wednesday night – it’s cruel fortune as well.