Exceeding the achievements they had accomplished the season before was always going to be hard for Liverpool. They had gone from also-rans in the race for the Premier League and missing out on Champions League qualification on the last day of the season, to finding the cutting edge they had lacked in 1999/00 to complete an unprecedented treble – the F.A Cup, the Worthington Cup and the UEFA Cup. Gerard Houllier now had to improve his team further to turn them into credible competition in the Premier League. Liverpool were now a club taken seriously and it was down the Frenchman to make sure they capitalised on the fear they had instilled into the rest of England.
Houllier decided that an overhaul of the squad was not necessary. He trusted the quality in his side and thought best to keep faith with a team that had won three trophies the season before. There were a couple of areas Houllier identified for improvement though. The first was at left-back and Norwegian John Arne Riise was brought in from Monaco for £3.5 million. Houllier clearly never trusted his goalkeeper either, as he bought Jerzy Dudek from Feyenoord for £4.85 million and Chris Kirkland from relegated Coventry City for £6 million. It was also in this summer that Liverpool agreed a £3 million deal with Banik Ostrava for Czech forward Milan Baros, although he wouldn’t join until the following season due to work permit issues. There was only one player outgoing in the summer of 2001 – Christian Ziege would join Tottenham Hotspur for £4 million. He may have been the only departure during the summer but a few more high profile names would come in and out of Anfield during the final season which didn’t feature the now maligned transfer window.
The season started early for the Reds as they had to travel to Finland to play F.C Haka in the Champions League 3rd Qualifying round. They won the first leg comfortably 5-0 away before sealing the tie with an easy 4-0 win at Anfield to seal progression into the group stages of Europe’s premier competition. After defeating Haka in Finland, they met Manchester United in Cardiff for the Charity Shield. Gary McAllister scored an early penalty which Ruud van Nistelrooy cancelled out on his debut. Michael Owen put Liverpool 2-1 up in the 16th minute and that’s how the game stayed, as Gerard Houllier extended his purple patch over Sir Alex Ferguson in what was meant to be his final season in charge at Old Trafford.
A week later the league season began with the visit of West Ham United to Anfield. Owen put Liverpool ahead but Paolo Di Canio equalised from the spot on half an hour. It took until the 77th minute for Owen to double his tally and win the game for Liverpool. After beating Haka three days later, Houllier took his men to Monaco to face Bayern Munich in the UEFA Super Cup in a bid to claim a remarkable fifth trophy in a calendar year. It was a performance of sheer quality. John Arne Riise got his first Liverpool goal, ironically on his old stomping ground. Emile Heskey made it 2-0 right on half time and Michael Owen made it 3 immediately after the break. Liverpool were coasting when Hasan Salihamadzic pulled one back on 56 and Carsten Janker made sure it was a nervy finish by scoring on 82. But Liverpool held out to win the Super Cup against the reigning European champions. August wouldn’t end happily for Liverpool however. Michael Ricketts put newly promoted Bolton Wanderers ahead but Emile Heskey equalised. In stoppage time, Dean Holdsworth hit a seemingly harmless shot towards Sander Westerveld’s near post. The Dutch ‘keeper dived over it and ball nestled in the back of his net. The mistake would prove costly for Westerveld and ensured he had played his last game for Liverpool. He was sold to Real Sociedad for £3.75 million in December.
After an international break in which England famously beat Germany 5-1 in Munich – all the goals coming from Liverpool players (Steven Gerrard, Emile Heskey and Michael Owen) – the Reds face Aston Villa in the first league back. Goals from Dion Dublin, Lee Hendrie and Darius Vassell made sure it was a miserable afternoon for Liverpool, which was compounded when goalscorer Gerrard was sent off. Liverpool’s first Champions League game in 16 years was next up when Boavista came to Anfield on 11th September 2001. The date is now famous for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York of course and those incidents 2000 miles away put the game in doubt. The match eventually went ahead and Elpidio Silva’s third minute opener was cancelled out by Michael Owen to secure a respectable 1-1 draw. The following Saturday we made the short trip across Stanley Park to play Everton. The first Merseyside derby of the season saw all the points come back to Anfield thanks to goals from John Arne Riise, Steven Gerrard and a Michael Owen penalty securing a 3-1 win (Kevin Campbell grabbed a goal for Everton). The games came thick and fast, as a 0-0 draw away to Borussia Dortmund in Europe was followed up with a 1-0 home win against Spurs thanks to a rasper from Jari Litmanen. There was one more Champions League game to fit into September, 1-0 home win over Dynamo Kiev in which Litmanen scored his second goal in a week. The month was complete with a 2-0 win over Newcastle United at St. James’ Park, with Riise and Danny Murphy scoring either end of the game.
The first game in October after another international break saw Liverpool relinquish their hold on the Worthington Cup at the first time of asking, in a surprising 2-1 defeat at home to Grimsby Town. We got back to league action the Saturday afterwards in a poignant game. Leeds United when in at half-time 1-0 up after Harry Kewell’s opener. When the two teams emerged after the break, Gerard Houllier was nowhere to be seen. Danny Murphy equalised but nobody was talking about the football – where was the boss? It turned out Gerard Houllier had suffered a heart attack in the dressing room during the break and had been rushed to hospital, where he underwent emergency heart bypass surgery. The illness would see him kept away from Anfield until March 2002. The burden would fall on the shoulders of his assistant and club legend, Phil Thompson.
Thompson’s first full game in charge was in Kiev in the Champions League. Goals from Murphy and Gerrard sealed a 2-1 win and Thompson dedicated the win to the absent manager in a post-match interview. Back in league action, Liverpool travelled to Filbert Street and beat Leicester City 4-1. The game would see the final masterful performance of Robbie Fowler who was sold to Leeds in November for £11.5 million. Next up was a trip to Portugal to play Boavista, where we again drew 1-1. We then went ot South London and beat Charlton Athletic 2-0 at the Valley thanks to a goal from Michael Owen and rare, and outstanding, conversion from Jamie Redknapp. The month was rounded off with a great performance in the 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund at Anfield. Goals from Stephen Wright and Vladimir Smicer securing our progression into the second group phase of the Champions League.
November started in stunning fashion. Two goals from Michael Owen and a thunderbolt of a free kick from John Arne Riise rendered David Beckham’s goal a consolation as Liverpool beat Manchester United 3-1 at Anfield. We then travelled to Ewood Park, where we played out a 1-1 draw with Blackburn Rovers. Next up was the first game of the Champions League second group phase at home to Barcelona. Liverpool had beaten the Catalunyan side in the semi-final of the UEFA Cup the season before but they were a different proposition now. The gulf in class was apparent and goals from Marc Overmars, Fabio Rochemback and Ptrick Kluivert secured a 3-1 for Barca. A rare quiet month for Liverpool ended with an uneventful 1-0 win at Anfield over Sunderland, with Emile Heskey grabbing the only goal of a game which saw Dietmar Hamann sent off.
A packed December started with a 1-0 away win at Pride Park against Derby County. Our Champions League action for the year ended with a 0-0 draw against Roma in Rome. This was followed up with a 2-0 win against Middlesbrough and a 0-0 draw with Fulham, both at home. The latter was the start of a run of one win in nine games, which continued a week later at Stamford Bridge. A terrible afternoon saw goals from Graeme Le Saux, Jimmy Floyd Hasslebaink, Sam Dalla Bona and Eidur Gudjohnsen contribute to a 4-0 Chelsea win. Liverpool’s misery was complete when the usually reliable Gary McAllister had his penalty saved by Carlo Cudicini, who had thwarted Liverpool all afternoon. A week later saw the visit of Arsenal to Anfield. A penalty from Thierry Henry and a close range finish from Freddie Ljungberg were enough to cancel out Jari Litmanen’s header and claim a 2-1 win for Arsenal. The year ended with two away games; the first came at Villa Park as the Reds ran out 2-1 winners, and the second came at Upton Park in a 1-1 draw.
2002 began with another packed month ahead for Phil Thompson’s boys. Steven Gerrard put Liverpool ahead against Bolton on New Years Day, but Kevin Nolan equalised to claim a point. The defence of the F.A Cup began a couple of days later with Liverpool comfortably sealing progression with a 3-0 home win against Birmingham City. That midweek we travelled to St. Marys for the first time and turned in our worst performance of the season in a deflating 2-0 defeat to Southampton. It was a low point for Liverpool and signalled the possible end of our title challenge for another year. The only way seemed to be up from here and the upturn in fortunes would be gradual. It started with a credible 1-1 draw at Highbury, when John Arne Riise scored to cancel out Freddie Ljungbergs opener. We then played Southampton for the second time in a month and managed to draw 1-1 with them at Anfield. After that game we made the short trip to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United looking to end out baron run. Liverpool turned in a great performance and Danny Murphy scored the only to claim Liverpool’s first three points of the year. A couple of days later we were back at Highbury to play Arsenal in the F.A Cup. Arsene Wenger was keen to gain revenge on Liverpool for the F.A Cup final the season before and did exactly that when Dennis Bergkamp’s goal sent Liverpool out. To make things worse, Jamie Carragher was sent off and suspended for a prolonged period for throwing a coin back into the crowd that had been thrown at him. January was rounded off with another 1-0 win for Liverpool, this time at home against Leicester City.
After such a poor run in December and January, February would be a month which had a stark contrast. On the 1st February, we spanned the M62 to play Leeds United at Elland Road. It would end in 4-0 win in our favour thanks to a goal from Michael Owen, an own goal from Rio Ferdinand and a brace from Emile Heskey. A week later we went to Portman Road to play Ipswich Town. We won the game 6-0 but, as well as the team performance, the individual performances were the most pleasing. Firstly, Abel Xavier scored 16 minutes into his debut for the club following his move from financially endangered Everton (the last player to do so). Then Nicolas Anelka came on for the first time after moving to the club on loan from Paris Saint Germain to set up two goals. A week later he would have his first Liverpool goal, equalising in the Merseyside derby to claim a draw at Anfield. The derby was sandwiched in between two Champions League games. Galatasaray welcomed us to “hell” from which we escaped with a 0-0 draw. They then made their own trip to “heaven” and walked away with a 1-1 draw.
March began with Anelka continuing his sparkling form by joining Jari Litmanen on the scoresheet as Liverpool beat Fulham 2-0 at Craven Cottage. A couple of days later kick off was delayed at Anfield for our game against Newcastle. When someone did eventually put £10 in the meter, Liverpool were comfortable 3-0 winners after Didi Hamann followed up a Danny Murphy brace. A week later we played Barcelona in a key game in our Champions League campaign. We came away with a credible 0-0 draw which meant we had to beat Roma by two clear goals on the final matchday to qualify for the quarter finals. We then made the trip up to Teeside and beat Middlesbrough 2-1 in a tricky game. Our game with Roma followed the Middlesbrough. It was a vital game in our season and was made all the more poignant by the return of Gerard Houllier to the dugout. We got exactly what we needed with a Jari Litmanen penalty and Emile Heskey header sealing the required 2-0 to set up a quarter final with Bayer Leverkusen. We finished the month with two home games. Chelsea were first up and were dramatically beaten when Vladimir Smicer volleyed home from 8 yards out with the last kick of the game to seal the points. Then Charlton visited Anfield and were sent home on the back of a 2-0 loss.
April began with the two legged Champions League quarter final. In the home tie we won an attritional game against Leverkusen 1-0 after Sami Hyypia scored on the stroke of half time. A week later we went to the BayArena looking to capitalise on the 1-0 aggregate lead we had given ourselves at Anfield. Although Abel Xavier and Jari Litmanen scored two away goals, Lucio, Dimitar Berbatov and two from Michael Ballack ensured it would be the Germans playing Manchester United in the semi-finals. Now we were out of all the cups and our attention turned back to the league. Mathematically it wasn’t over but it did seem unlikely. We kept out hopes alive when Michael Owen scored the only goal at the Stadium of Light to beat Sunderland. Derby came to Anfield a week later and two goals again from Owen secured the three points for us, sending Derby into Division One in the process. We ended April by travelling to North London. Gus Poyet scored the only goal of the game for Spurs, thus ending Liverpool’s title hopes for another year.
With no cup finals to look forward to this season we faced only two games in May to end our season, both at home. The first came with a dramatic encounter against Blackburn Rovers. A topsy-turvy game saw Liverpool take the lead three times only for Blackburn to equalise. Goals from Danny Murphy, Nicolas Anelka and Sami Hyypia were cancelled out by Damien Duff, Andy Cole and Matt Jansen. It was down to Emile Heskey to win the game late on for Liverpool, who won 4-3. The final day of the season saw Ipswich come to Anfield looking purely to survive. They found the Reds in an unmerciful mood though. Michael Owen, Vladimir Smicer, Nicolas Anelka and a John Arne Riise double secured a 5-0 win for Liverpool and sent Ipswich down. On the same day Manchester United drew 0-0 at Old Trafford with Charlton, which meant Liverpool finished the season as runners-up.
This was certainly a season of what if for Liverpool. What could Liverpool have become had Gerard Houllier not taken ill at half time against Leeds in October? It was during his recovery that Liverpool went on a dismal run of one win in nine games which effectively ended our title challenge. What if we had been able to contain Michael Ballack in Leverkusen? The German midfielder put in a stellar performance that night which inspired his side not only to reach the semi-final, but propelled them into the final against Real Madrid in Glasgow. What if we had signed Nicolas Anelka at the beginning of the season? He had made a massive difference to Liverpool in the second half the season.
The summer which followed has gone down since as a disaster for Liverpool. We chased Anelka, Damien Duff and Lee Bowyer but failed to sign any of those players. Instead we opted for much inferior players, a decision which would cost Houllier his job in the long term.