Slovan Liberec 2-3 Liverpool – November 9, 2000
The Liverpool UEFA Cup triumph of 2000/2001 is ingrained into footballing folklore although that classic nine-goal game has lost credence and stature since the Anfield based club mounted that thrilling comeback against AC Milan in the Champions League final four years later. It was a victory that hectic which raised the heart, beating irregularly, into the mouths of every Liverpool fan. But on that journey to Dortmund, Liverpool faced Slovan Liberec in what would be a turning point for the Czech club, but also served as a mild prelude to the Reds’ entire UEFA Cup campaign that season
Slovan Liberec 2-3 Liverpool
Where?: Stadion u Nisy, Liberec
When?: November 9, 2000
Why?: UEFA Cup, 2nd Round, 2nd Leg.
Unlike their English counterparts Slovan Liberec could not emphatically call upon decades of history, nor could they boast vast quantities of players with international recognition. Their first piece of silverware was gained during the 1999/2000 season as they lifted the Pohár ČMFS (the Czech Football Cup, now known as the Pohár České pošty or Czech Post Cup) after defeating minnows Baník Ratíškovice 2-1 in the final. The Argentinian Leandro Lázzaro was the hero that day in Prague as his two goals went down in Liberec history, and the following season Slovan would make their bow in Europe.
In the first round of the 2000/2001 UEFA Cup Liverpool overcame Rapid Bucharest 1-0 on aggregate, relying on Nick Barmby’s solitary strike in Romania to progress, while Liberec defeated Norrköping via the odd goal in seven in what has turned out to be the Swedish side’s last game in Europe thus far.
Coming into the first leg tie at Anfield many a shoulder was shrugged by the English journalists tasked with writing previews, yet surprisingly Houllier got a similar reaction when he asked the two Czechs in his squad for advice: “I don’t know much about them,” Patrik Berger noted before excelling in geography to point out “[they are] from a small town in the north near the Polish border.” Compatriot Vladimír Šmicer provided slightly more insight before falling into the cliché trap by stating “this will be the biggest game in [Liberec’s] history”.
Liverpool were victorious in the first leg, but only just. Robbie Fowler spurned numerous chances including a second-half penalty that he put high into the stands, and while Liberec rarely threatened, they caused enough problems when venturing forwards to take a goalless first-leg result back to the Czech Republic. But Emile Heskey’s fortuitous late winner spared Liverpool’s blushes and set the Premier League side up with a nice advantage for the return tie under the shadows of the Ještěd mountain a fortnight later.
The opening portions were even yet undeniably scrappy; Liverpool misplaced passes whilst Liberec looked slightly in awe at hosting such a club on their own turf. Though while Robbie Fowler fired the first warning shot of the game – a speculative effort that looped well wide – it was Slovan who threatened earliest. Lázzaro, who flattered to deceive throughout, nipped onto an exquisite Jiří Štajner pass, beating Markus Babbel to the ball, and pulled his shot past both Sander Westerveld and the far post. If Liverpool needed a warning shot after their performance at Anfield, that was it.
But much to Houllier’s despair, his defence – which had conceded four goals the weekend prior – switched off. Roman Jun scampered down the left and skipped over Jamie Carragher’s sliding challenge and curled in a pin-point cross. The ball hung in the air and started swirling away from Westerveld, Christian Ziege acted as a solitary man while Jiří Štajner, a man now almost synonymous with Slovan Liberec, leapt.
The stadium roared.
Speaking pre-match to British broadcasters Chanel 5 Šmicer laughed off speculation that Liberec could ‘do the unthinkable’ and cause an upset; “No I don’t think so” he stated, “No, they will try and make it difficult for us.” Liberec certainly did make it difficult, they rolled the barrel cart.
Liverpool then laboured; Slovan’s 3-5-2 system frustrated those in red. Robbie Fowler did his best invisible man impression due to the continued presence of Josef Lexa and was Emile Heskey continuously tussled with the equally physical Petr Johana. There was no real focal point for Liverpool attacks and with Nick Barmby and Vladimír Šmicer contained further downfield, the gaping holes that cropped up went unpunished. Instead the bullish Heskey was forced away from a central position, but where he went Johana followed, and the two tussled, interlocked in their own personal battle that would rage on all evening.
Tackles started flying; commentators raged at the physicality of the Czechs while the likes of Barmby and chief culprit Steven Gerrard flew in late, scything down their opponents in challenges born out of frustration. With the game threatening to boil over it was Emile Heskey who calmed proceedings down by dropping deep and losing the attention of Johana. The defence and midfield lost track of who should be marking the burly England centre-forward and the striker put a daisy-cutting effort narrowly wide. The chance settled Liverpool who quickly regained composure.
The gaps between Slovan’s central defensive and midfield three began to be stretched; Liverpool passed and attempted their luck from range causing uncertainty to spread. But the warning signs were there for themselves and Roman Jun once again skipped down the left wing and proceeded to torment Jamie Carragher, Jun looking to have the advantage in that duel.
It took time but Liverpool hauled themselves level when Nick Barmby of all people glanced a header past Zybnek Hauzr to give the visiting side the commanding luxury of an away goal. Racing over to the travelling fans nestled in the corner the relief was evident.
Looking back at the replay the Slovan defence committed a cardinal sin by forgoing their man marking duties, too wrapped up in Markus Babbel’s diagonal run, Barmby was gifted the space to divert Christian Ziege’s pinpoint set-piece in the net.
The half-time team talks probably differed greatly: Ladislav Škorpil would have told his players to keep going, to give their all and ensure that heads did not drop before their tired legs would, whilst next door Gérard Houllier probably lamented his outfit for allowing the fairytale to gain credence, with a potential French expletive thrown in for good measure.
When the two teams emerged for the second-half it was Liverpool that took control, eager to ensure that any spirited Liberec start would not be repeated. Heskey, a continued thorn in the Slovan defence, worked free and found space to shoot again, but this time Hauzr was equal to the effort and pushed the ball around the post which drew out a pun that had obviously written down and stored away for this very moment. “Safe as Hauzrs!” Pearce cried as Slovan’s number 18 stood tall and glared down the pitch.
The game wore on evenly poised and both number nines were substituted after nights to forget. A lively opening forty-five minutes had given way to a simmering second period that lacked the boiling point of a goal or a late tackle that appeared quite readily in the first. Jiří Štajner danced and ran, causing endless trouble wherever he popped up, but sadly nobody in white was quite on the same page as the influential Czech. Christian Ziege, the experienced German international, was given a torrid evening while the commentators purred and pondered about the future of Liberec’s attacking midfielder. His moments aside, Slovan offered little as they seemed set in consolidating the score line while Liverpool slowly slumped into the acceptance of the result.
But in the final fifteen minutes, the tie sprung into life: goals rained down and respectability was lost and then won again for Slovan Liberec. Through luck rather than design, the Reds eventually found space down the flanks and with Šmicer in possession the space opened up for the Czech interntaional to cross for Emile Heskey who controlled well before watching his shot settle in the back of the goal. In one fell swoop he had defeated his two tormentors in Johana and Hauzr. Symbolically though it meant that Liberec were consigned to a European exit. It was a fitting end to the tie as the bruiser stood tall over his beaten rivals. What came after though was pure spectacle compared to the slugfest.
Michael Owen returned after a spell out with a concussion to score with his fourth touch of the ball, mere seconds after he calmly jogged onto the field. The goal only served to unnecessarily further the gap between the two sides, but with Liberec looking punch drunk, time was clearly up on their first ever European adventure. But just like the best, and just like Liverpool would prove later on in the competition, they pushed through and just kept going. Late substitute David Breda repeated Owen’s feat as his curling effort left Sander Westerveld floundering and another great roar channelled around the u Nisy. Then, just as reports were being penned to file for the morning papers, Jiří Štajner’s delightful ball was met by Jan Nezmar who spurned a glorious opportunity to famously level the game against the English giants. Unfortunately his header darted past the post and the German official, Mr. Steinborn blew the whistle for full-time before play could be restarted.
Liverpool’s defence was shown to be suspect against Liberec, a negative that was highlighted in the madcap final against Alavés – a team, like Liberec, the Anfield club should have beaten comfortably – and throughout their domestic campaign as they shipped sloppy goals at inopportune times. But their journey, both immediately following the trip to Bohemia and in the subsequent years after, has been well documented. But what of Liberec, the small Czech club in Europe for the first time?
As the Channel 5 television broadcast mentioned on numerous occasions, the tie against Liverpool meant that Slovan could install floodlights – at a supposed cost of £400,000. In the following season the North stand was constructed, adding on a further 2,500 seats to bring the compact stadium’s size to a shade under 10,000. The infrastructure of the club was also improved as an adjacent training complex was installed next year. The following season Slovan Liberec pipped Sparta Praha to the title by a single point; the first time that a club outside Prague had topped the league table. Also that year Liberec embarked on another UEFA Cup run, this time reaching the quarter-finals and knocking some prestigious names out of the competition; the lessons learned against Liverpool certainly proved advantageous the second time around.
The best player on the u Nisy pitch that night was, by far, Jiří Štajner. Štajner helped Slovan to their maiden league title in 2001/2002 before departing to the Bundesliga where he stayed for the best part of eight years with Hannover. In 2010 he returned back to his former club and was once again an instrumental figure in Liberec’s title run of 2011/2012. So impressive were his performances last season that when Tomáš Rosický’s fitness came into question ahead of Euro 2012, Štajner was seen by many as the natural replacement despite his age. Sadly though for the graceful midfielder he missed out on the trip to Poland and has been forced to miss large parts of this campaign as he was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism. Thankfully, he has made a full recovery and has since returned to first team action with a transitional side struggling in the Gambrinus Liga.
Alongside Štajner, three other names are still associated with Liberec to this day. Jan Nezmar, a late substitute in the Liverpool tie, has recently made the move from player to club official since his retirement late last year, while defensive midfielder Tomáš Janů and goalkeeper Zbyněk Hauzr still remain on the club’s playing roster.
Three league titles have come Slovan’s way since the visit of Michael Owen et al in the autumn of 2000 and some reasoning behind their recent successes boil down to the monetary gains made by playing Liverpool. For the Anfield side the trip to the Czech Republic was an uneasy one that was part of a journey to short-term success, for Slovan Liberec it was just the beginning in building – on and off the pitch – a football club that challenges for honours.