How different it all might have been if Liverpool had not won the 2005 Champions League. Although it looked impossible at half-time, Benitez managed to find a way through AC Milan, led by the irrepressible Steven Gerrard. As such, it capped an extraordinary season, earnt them a spot in Europe, and marked Benitez out as a man for the big occasion, with just a touch of luck on his side. As you will see, however, it would only have taken a penalty not to be awarded that night in Istanbul for England to win the World Cup and Sven to open his very own Playboy Mansion…
May 2005: Liverpool threaten a comeback in the Champions League Final, but having found two goals they have a vociferous appeal for a penalty on Gerrard turned down when the referee decides that the Liverpool skipper has dived. This marks the end of their resurgence, and though they still battle manfully for an equalising goal, a strike on the break from Shevchenko with just a few minutes left on the clock finishes the contest.
July 2005: Steven Gerrard announces his decision to leave Liverpool. The decision is a tough one, he says, but the lack of Champions League football is the deciding factor. Roman Abramovich writes a £30m cheque, and Gerrard becomes a Chelsea player.
August 2005: Rafa Benitez hits out at the Liverpool board. “We receive thirty million for Gerrard, but I do not have thirty million to replace him”. David Moores swiftly responds through The Times that the money would have been able to spend had Liverpool qualified for the Champions League and had the revenue guaranteed from it. Benitez resorts to a series of cheaper purchases from across the continent, and replacing Gerrard in the midfield is Jimmy Bullard.
October 2005: The Sun label it the worst week in the club’s history – it begins Liverpool are ousted from the UEFA Cup after a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Hungarian minnows Ferencvaros. The Reds are again chasing the deficit, but cannot get themselves back on level terms. “Maybe I do not have luck in Europe”, Benitez laments. At the weekend, Chelsea scrape a one goal victory – the goal courtesy of Steven Gerrard, though there is a fierce debate about whether the ball has crossed the line or not. Luis Garcia runs to the referee to savage his decision, and the referee sees fit to send him off. Jose Mourinho crows after the match – “The media will say that the difference is Gerrard, but I think the difference is me. I am a special manager and signing the world’s best midfielder from my rivals for an enormous fee was extraordinary management.”
December 2005: Mourinho’s Chelsea record their 8th straight Premiership victory with a 4-1 victory at Middlesbrough, and there are two goals apiece for Lampard and Gerrard. It signifies the end of Chelsea’s unconvincing start to the season, when Lampard and Gerrard struggled to form an effective partnership. “They say that Lampard and Gerrard cannot play together”Mourinho recalls in the post-match interview, “Evidently they are wrong. I made a strong management decision at the beginning of the year that two of the best midfielders in the world should be able to play together perfectly, and I played them until they did.” Mourinho’s persistence is great news for Sven Goran Eriksson, who has the luxury of using his friendlies before the World Cup to fine-tune the other parts of his team. “The extra time has freed me up from doing something sensationalist like picking Theo Walcott”he beams, “and now I don’t have the Lampard/Gerrard dilemma I have a lot more free time. I might have an affair.”
March 2006: The title race is nearly over as Chelsea march relentlessly towards their second successive title. Thoughts turn to the World Cup, and England’s chances look better than ever. When Wayne Rooney is caught at the end of the month and suffers a metatarsal injury, Sven takes it in his stride. “Of course, we do not want to lose Rooney, but maybe we play just one striker, move Lampard and Gerrard forward, and cover with Owen Hargreaves.” The next day, The Mirror write a two-page spread entitled “Svengali – why England cannot lose the World Cup”
May 2006: Liverpool finish a disappointing 6th in the league. Benitez is widely criticised for some unambitious performances and his conversion of Peter Crouch into a holding midfielder to help strengthen the ailing midfield. The board, however, mindful of the importance of continuity and swayed by Benitez’ financial limitations, accept his excuses and look to find new owners for the next season.
July 2006: England reach the World Cup Final, where they face the Italians. In the semi-finals, they edge a tight game against the French 1-0, and the career of Zinedine Zidane ends ignominiously when he headbutts John Terry with minutes left in the match. In the final Sven names the hitherto rested and now fully-fit pairing of Owen and Rooney. With a sense of assurance, goals from Owen, Lampard and Rooney mean England ease to a 3-0 victory and spare the nation shredded nerves. Gerrard, despite not scoring, is the man of the match.
February 2007: The DIC group complete a buy-out of Liverpool – the club had approached potential buyers in the USA, but found that the club’s insignificant showing in the last couple of years had made it an unappealing investment. The changes are instant and sweeping – Rafa Benitez, who has guided the side to 8th place in the league this season, is relieved of his duties, and Sven Goran Eriksson takes charge of his first Premiership side. With no money to spend now, and very little to play for during the remainder of the season, Sven appears at training only a couple of days a week, and usually leaves Tord Grip to pass instructions on to Jamie Carragher. Liverpool slide to 11th.
June 2007: Sven uses his powers of persuasion to bring Owen and Gerrard back to Anfield, and they are reintroduced to the fans on the same day amid wild celebrations. Amongst the other new faces is Rolando Bianchi, of whom Sven says “You know what? Screw it. I can do whatever I like – I won the World Cup.”
July 2007: Benitez is welcomed back to Spain as the manager of Real Madrid. It is the fulfillment of a lifelong ambition for the Spaniard, whose exploits with Valencia are still fondly remembered in Spain. He begins his work with the contentious signing of neighbours Atletico Madrid’s Fernando Torres.
September 2007: In an extraordinary week for football, a videotape of Eriksson having relations with page 3 strumpet Abi Titmuss emerges. In the highly explicit film Sven breaks down for her the secrets of his World Cup-winning formations and promises Titmuss that he “will not be like her other boyfriends”. Despite having started the season unbeaten, the DIC group feel that the video compromises Eriksson’s reputation and therefore the club’s, and to the derision of the Kop they let him go. Jose Mourinho, unhappy at Chelsea, spies an opportunity to move to an ambitious club, and less than 24 hours pass before the job is filled. “My management is based on one simple, special rule”he says, “Give lots of chat all the time. But never to Abi Titmuss”.
May 2008: Liverpool and Real Madrid sweep aside all opposition to meet in the Champions League Final, and once again Benitez’ tactics are pitched against Mourinho’s. The final is cagey and there appears little hope of a goal. When it does come, it’s for Liverpool; a powerful effort from Owen is parried by Iker Casillas, hits the crossbar, and bounces in to the goal off the back of the Spaniard’s shoulder blade. A bemused Benitez curses his luck, and Calderon sacks him before there is time to pick up his runners-up medal.
June 2008: Eriksson, drunk on his glories of 2006, sets up his equivalent of the Plaboy Mansion in the UK. “It’s a place where you can relax and have a great time with beautiful women – but in a classy way”, he says. “I had the idea two years ago when I had all that free time and the midfield conundrum of Gerrard and Lampard had taken care of itself. I call it The Heaven-Svent Swedish Lady House, although I’m open to changing the name.”
Mark is one of the founders of www.sportwithoutspin.com, a website poking fun at the shoddy coverage expert pundits and the media at large cover sport. They’ve even given made their website look all smart, and are wondering this week how to see the best side of Ashley Cole, why Bobby Zamora would be linked to Villareal, and trying to plot Daniel Sturridge’s wage demands on a graph.