Liverpool have not been regular qualifiers for the Champions League for almost a decade, but the Rafa Benítez era was littered with memorable European nights.
The likes of Real Madrid, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Chelsea and Arsenal were all beaten at one point or another throughout those years, and it was a trip to Camp Nou to face then-reigning Champions League winners Barcelona on the 21st of February 2007 that stands out for both good and bad reasons.
When Benítez’s side were drawn to ply against Spanish heavyweights, many feared the worst. Although Liverpool were one of the better teams in Europe at the time (which two finals in three years attest to), this was Barcelona – Xavi, Puyol, Ronaldinho, Deco and a young Lionel Messi would all start for Frank Rijkaard’s side, and at home no less.
The Liverpool manager brought the squad to a training camp in the Algarve before heading to Barcelona, wherein he told them they could relax with one beer on a night out. What followed was a massive bust-up between Craig Bellamy and John Arne Riise, which the Norwegian international recounted to the Liverpool Echo last year:
“We had a private room in a karaoke bar. Bellamy kept saying: ‘Ginge is going up to sing’. I said: ‘No, I’m not singing. I can do a lot of things but singing is not one of them’.
“Bellamy wouldn’t leave it. I kept saying: ‘No, no, no’, but he kept on annoying me.
“When he grabbed the microphone and said again: ‘Ginge, is coming up to sing’, I went up to his face and told him clearly I wouldn’t be and to stop it.
“I left and went back to my room. I was rooming with Daniel Agger. When I heard the key in the door I thought it was Dan coming back but then the lights went on. Next thing I saw was a golf club smashing me on my backside.
(Bellamy, incidentally, refers to this bit in his 2013 autobiography as a thwack. “If I’d taken a proper swing, I would have hit the ceiling with my backlift.”)
“I jumped out of bed and was stood in my underwear while Bellamy was there shouting. He just said: ‘9am tomorrow outside my room’. I got there for 8.45am and waited until 9.10am but there was no sign on him.
“At breakfast all the boys were laughing and when Bellamy walked in they were clapping. Of course I thought about reacting. But in the end I just left it.
“Why? I’m not a fighter. Also I was worried if I did react badly it could be the end of my Liverpool career.”
With Riise still in his room, Bellamy can fill in the blanks as to what happened after the altercation:
“It had been a big night. Nobody even noticed the golf club in my hand. Or if they did, they didn’t mention it.
“So the night out continued. The lounge got wrecked basically.
“Sofas were turned upside down, lampshades got knocked off lamps, somebody even chucked a plate at one stage and it split someone’s head open.
“By the time I went to bed, that room was not a pretty sight.”
The spat became public knowledge soon after, and rumours began to circulate that either or both of the players involved would be dropped (or even sent home) for what was a massive European fixture.
Imagine, then, the slight sense of surprise when the teamsheet was released at 6.45, to see the names of both in the starting lineup (along with Alvaro Árbeloa in his first start for the club).
When Barcelona took the lead with less than fifteen minutes on the clock, the travelling Liverpool support must have been expecting a long evening, as Deco headed home after a fine cross from Gianluca Zambrotta. The home side began to press for a second to hammer home their advantage, but a combination of Barca wastefulness and good saves from Pepe Reina kept the score at 1-0 heading towards the half-time break.
Liverpool’s defensive stubbornness paid off two minutes before the break. Steve Finnan’s cross was met by the head of Bellamy and although Victor Valdés should have kept it out, the Spanish international bundled the ball behind the line. Dirk Kuyt drove home to make sure of the equaliser but Bellamy’s goal stood – and in typical Bellamy fashion, the forward celebrated by swinging an imaginary golf club.
Although they had one or two chances in the second half, particularly one from striker Javier Saviola, Barcelona’s game plan began to flounder. Valdés made another error after the restart when he picked up a pass back, but was then alert enough to save Steven Gerrard’s resulting free kick.
However, Liverpool were to take a surprise lead with just over fifteen minutes remaining, and it seemed that fate was intervening with the scorer. Valdés got down to a shot from Dirk Kuyt but when then the ball fell kindly to Bellamy, he was able to square it to Riise who directed the ball into the roof of the Barca net with his weaker foot.
From being the centre of attention for all the reasons prior to the match, Bellamy and Riise were now the heroes of the hour.
Benítez was given one final scare as a Deco free kick looped over a stranded Reina and struck the post late on, but Liverpool were not to be denied a famous European victory.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Valdés, Belletti, Márquez, Puyol, Zambrotta, Motta (Iniesta 54), Xavi (Giuly 65), Deco, Messi, Ronaldinho, Saviola (Gudjohnson 82)
Subs Not Used: Jorquera, Van Brockhorst, Thuram, Oleguer
Liverpool (4-4-1-1): Reina, Arbeloa, Carragher, Agger, Riise, Finnan, Sissoko (Zenden 84), Alonso, Bellamy (Pennant 80), Gerrard, Kuyt (Crouch 90)
Subs Not Used: Dudek, Hyypia, Gonzalez, Mascherano