With 45 minutes gone of the 2004/05 Champions League Final a first European title for Liverpool in over twenty years looked to be lost amongst the late May haze of the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul. Shell-shocked scousers slumped disbelievingly following a three-quarters of an hour to forget. A first minute goal from AC Milan captain Paolo Maldini and a swift brace from Argentine striker Hernan Crespo before the interval saw the Italians 3-0 up with only half the game played. Dreams of glory were hanging by a thread.
As the second half began hardly anyone watching would have been able to predict what was set to happen, but Liverpool had developed a knack for digging results out when the moment had seemed lost and in Steven Gerrard they had the ultimate ace up their sleeve.
Considered by many as one of the finest midfield talents of his generation Gerrard could do it all. A box-to-box dervish with a range of passing that left those huddled inside the Kop swooning. He was blessed with a versatility to hold and keep things steady, to dictate play from deep or to spring forward to launch and often finish attacks. Along with being the owner of a thunderous long range strike he also had that ‘edge’, something that is often said all the true greats have. A competitive streak that drives you on beyond what you can control within the ninety and on that night in Istanbul he demonstrated it all and not for the first time.
Back in 2001, in yet another all time great European contest Liverpool took on Spanish side Alaves in the UEFA Cup Final. Gerrard would make his mark scoring what would be the first of many major final goals. Running from deep he broke through the Alaves back line getting on the end of a pass from Michael Owen before driving the ball low and hard past Martin Herrera in the opposing goal. It was a burst of pace that left defenders standing as Liverpool would go on to win a crazy game 5-4 thanks to an extra time golden own goal.
Fast forward three years and Liverpool were on the brink of Champions League elimination trailing 1-0 at home to qualification rivals Olympiakos with just 45 minutes remaining. In what would prove to be a prophetic display, Liverpool would mount a comeback that had the television cameras rocking during one of those now mythical Anfield evenings as neutrals in attendance and even those reporting on the microphones got carried away.
Goals from substitutes Florent Sinama-Pongolle and Neil Mellor would overturn the deficit but it would be a 30-yard howitzer from Gerrard that would raise raptures. If you have a chance go back and watch it, the scenes are incredible. A final group game victory that would set them on the road to the final.
In the opening half of the tournament showpiece Liverpool had been outgunned by Milan, it was no fluke that they had started the second period three goals up, the early demolition prompting a half time change from Reds boss Rafa Benitez with German midfielder Didi Hamann coming on to add further midfield ballast allowing Gerrard the opportunity to roam ever more free.
The Italians continued to apply the pressure though and a fourth would have probably taken the game away from the English side but through a mixture of luck and defending they went into the 54th minute still just three down. In that minute the momentum shifted.
Liverpool were awarded a free kick on the left hand side of the Milan area which Norwegian fullback Jon Arne Riise would whip it into the area, sailing past the near post the ball honed in on the penalty spot where an unmarked Gerrard contorted his neck to generate all the power that he could muster to steer a header into the corner of Dida’s net. The comeback was on and as Gerrard headed back to the circle, arms whirring like a mill in a storm, a slumbering Reds support began to awaken.
A Vladimir Smicer effort would reduce the deficit two minutes later before a galloping run from Gerrard on the hour mark would lead to the award of a penalty, the referee having adjudged opposite number Rino Gattuso to have pulled the midfielder down inside the area. Xabi Alonso’s initial effort would be saved by Dida but the Spaniard reacted quickest to level the scores. From 3-0 to 3-3 in less than seven minutes.
Liverpool had the momentum but a fourth wouldn’t come as Milan regrouped and pushed for a winner of their own. After such a rush of emotions there was one final rollercoaster ride to take as the game headed to penalties. Gerrard didn’t have to step up, as the jelly-legged antics of Jerzy Dudek would become an enduring memory of a final that would see Liverpool, and captain Gerrard, lift the title they felt was theirs all along.
He would continue to have moments of decisive clarity as his career continued with a long-range strike, this time in the FA Cup Final against West Ham a year later, sparking yet another comeback victory and another trophy lift for the Liverpool leader but in a career where he almost won every major club honour available, the one glaring omission is the Premier League title. The 2014 title would be the closest he would come, but a slip against Chelsea would all but end Liverpool’s title hopes. A reminder that in football even the very best will always retire with at least one moment they would want to wipe from their memory.
It’s easy to forget that Gerrard wasn’t a one club man as, after 17 years at Anfield, he would head to the American west coast playing a season for MLS side LA Galaxy but following a season of near misses stateside he would retire aged 36, that adventure an epilogue to a spell at home where he had donned the red shirt more than 500 times.
It seems destined that Gerrard will one day take his place in the Anfield dugout having first coached at the Liverpool Academy before moving on to take on the manager’s role at Scottish giants Rangers and early signs indicate that a return to Merseyside could realistically happen one day. For now though Gerrard remains an icon at Anfield, a local lad who developed into not only a world class talent but a captain and leader. A career in red bejeweled with trophies and dazzling moments of quality. The prodigal son will surely one day return.