Remembering the 2001 UEFA Cup Final

15 years ago, the UEFA Cup produced a climax that at the time at least was regarded as European football’s greatest ever final. A logic-defying match packed with twists and turns, jubilation and despair captured the imagination of the millions watching around the world, not least the fans of Liverpool and Deportivo Alaves, who endured every almost every emotion a football match can possibly provoke during 116 action-packed minutes.

Yet from the moment Jerzy Dudek saved Andriy Shevchenko’s penalty in Istanbul four years later, by which time Alaves were no longer even in Spain’s top flight let alone European finals, the 2001 UEFA Cup final already had the feel of a relic from another era, a freak event consigned to the history books rather than a game that would be cherished forever.

Although few in the Basque town of Vitoria-Gasteiz, will ever forget that night, the 2001 UEFA Cup final deserves much greater recognition and may rise from the shadows of Istanbul for a week at least with Liverpool again facing a side from La Liga in the final of Europe’s secondary club competition this week. It’s only when you truly look back on the game that you realise it was as close to the perfect final, from a neutral perspective at least, as you are ever likely to find in any football competition, anywhere in the world.

Even before a ball was kicked, the ingredients were in place for a special night. The setting, Dortmund’s iconic Westfalenstadion, easily one of Europe’s most atmospheric arenas provided the perfect backdrop. However instead of the famous ‘yellow wall’, it was swept in a sea of red as Liverpool looked to end 17 long barren years in European competition, a period which had included the horrors of Heysel and Hillsborough and seen the club fall from the pinnacle of both English and European football pecking orders.

Liverpool were looking to complete a fine cup treble having won the FA Cup in dramatic fashion the previous weekend and the UEFA Cup final represented their first shot at resurrection as a major European football power. That was just one aspect of a match-up that served up many intriguing angles given at the other end of the pitch stood an Alaves side that had already enjoyed a fairytale run in what was their debut European campaign, giving a real ‘David vs Goliath’ feel to proceedings.

The Basque minnows were no mugs either having finished just one point behind Real Madrid and only three behind Barcelona in the previous season’s Primera Division in Spain. The foundation of that success had been La Liga’s most stubborn defence but summer arrivals of midfielders Ivan Tomić from Roma and Jordi Cruijff from Manchester United had added some creative flair that had helped transform them into a much more attacking unit. They netted an impressive 31 goals on route to the final, which was 17 more than Liverpool had managed and included a win at the San Siro against Inter and a thumping 9-2 aggregate success in the Semi-Finals against Kaiserslautern.

Liverpool were still clearly the favourites but nobody was writing off Alaves given their form in the competition. However few could have predicted the night of incredible ebbs and flows that was in store for us. It was an evening that almost defied the laws of what makes a great football match.

Even before commentators around Europe had managed to squeeze in the token line on such occasions of how a goal for the underdogs would set the match up perfectly, Liverpool were a goal up with Markus Babbel heading in a Gary McAllister free-kick. The inclusion of the Scottish veteran ahead of Vladimír Šmicer had been the only change from the FA Cup winning team of four days earlier and the 36 year old would more than justify his selection with an outstanding display.

In the early stages, Alaves looked to be a team that was crumbling under the pressure of by far the biggest night in their previously undistinguished history. Emile Heskey, spurned a good opportunity only moments afterwards when put clean through on goal again by McAllister and after only 16 minutes Liverpool doubled their lead through Steven Gerrard.

With the favourites 2-0 up and Alaves on the ropes, there seemed like there was already no way back for the Spanish club. The temptation for them at that point must have been to try and tighten things up at the back, where they were looking incredibly shaky, in an attempt to gain some sort of foothold in the game. The danger that it could quickly turn into one of the most one-sided cup finals in living memory was already looking a very real prospect such was the ease that a confident Liverpool side were slicing open their opponents.

And to that note, Alaves coach Mané must be credited for an incredibly bold substitution that changed the course of the game. With just 22 minutes on the clock, instead of shutting up shop and trying to at least prevent any further damage until the interval, he replaced central defender Dan Eggen with Uruguayan striker Iván Alonso and within 4 minutes of his arrival on the pitch, Alonso had cut the deficit heading in from Cosmin Contra’s cross.

The momentum had swung for the first but by no means last time in the game as Alaves came come close to levelling soon afterwards with Stéphane Henchoz clearing another dangerous centre from Contra. Sander Westerveld was then needed to provide a smart double save to deny first Javi Moreno and on the follow-up Tomic and suddenly we had a real contest.

However with the pace of Michael Owen on the break, Alaves were always going to be vulnerable to the quick counter. With five minutes until the interval Dietmar Hamann, a calming presence in the centre of the park for the Reds, released the young Englishman who won a penalty thanks to a reckless piece of goalkeeping from Martín Herrera. The Argentine was lucky to stay on the pitch in truth and was helpless to stop penalty-taker McAllister from giving Liverpool a 3-1 advantage at the break.

The red half of Merseyside breathed a huge sigh of relief but Alaves had pressed and probed enough to suggest that the game was anything but all over and the second half would have many more twists and turns in store.

The underdogs came out roaring after the interval and within 5 minutes, almost incredibly they were level thanks to a quick-fire brace from Javi Moreno. First the striker fired a bullet header past Westerweld following more bright work down the right from Contra and then he somehow manager to squeeze a free-kick through a questionable Liverpool wall leaving the Dutchman helpless to prevent Alaves levelling the game at 3-3.

The momentum was now unquestionably with the club from the Basque Country and they could no doubt take confidence from having staged some memorable comebacks during a run to the final that had seen them come from 3-1 down at home to Inter Milan at one point in the 4th Round 1st Leg to win 5-3 on aggregate.

The destination of the UEFA Cup was now firmly in the balance and a breathless game called for fresh legs as both sides made changes. Alaves replaced Moreno, the man who’d got them back into the match, with Pablo while Gerard Houllier produced a master-stroke of his own by bringing on Robbie Fowler for Emile Heskey after 64 minutes.

Within 10 minutes of his arrival, Liverpool’s local hero had ended a jinking run with a trademark clinical finish that on a more ordinary night might have clinched the match and the trophy for the Reds. However it was already abundantly clear that this was anything but an ordinary affair and with just a couple of minutes left on the clock and Liverpool on the brink of clinching their first European silverware since 1984, it was 4-4 as Jordi Cruyff rose to head home an Alaves corner.

There was still time for a strong Alaves penalty appeal as Gerrard collided with Contra in the Liverpool box but it was time for Extra-Time and the prospect of a golden goal settling an already remarkable game.

Within minutes, Alaves thought they’d got it when Ivan Alonso firing past Westerweld but it was chalked out for offside. Whether it was tiredness or sheer desperation to crown a memorable night with a winners medal, Alaves began to lose their cool after that point. First substitute Magno Mocelin received a second yellow card when a straight red would have been much more fitting for a reckless two-footed lunge on Markus Babbel.

With a man advantage Liverpool started to press for the golden goal with Fowler also having an effort ruled out for offside, in the dying moments of the first half of extra-time. Fatigue was setting in for the Liverpool players too though after a marathon campaign which had already seen them reach and win two other cup finals whilst maintaining a push for Champions League qualification via the league. They weren’t really making their man advantage pay but with only four minutes on the clock and penalties looming, they won a free-kick in a dangerous position on the left after Alaves captain Antonio Karmona brought down to Smicer and in doing so collected his second booking of the game to reduce his team to nine men.

The Westfalenstadion held its breath whilst Gary McAllister prepared to deliver the ball into a crowded penalty area. While five Liverpool players hoped to get their head on it and write their names into Anfield folklore forever, the most unpredictable of football matches had one final cruel twist at least as far as Alaves defender Delfí Geli was concerned. McAllister’s free-kick skimmed off his head and looped over Herrera and into the corner of the net to give Liverpool the win in the most bizarre circumstances.

A game that had been littered by both individual errors and moments of genuine quality had been settled by the former, which was a shame in many ways and that moment would certainly have given Geli nightmares for years to come. However in sport there will always be heroes and villains and as Alaves coach Mané noted after the match ‘one side always has to lose a final, just as one wins’.

In sporting finals, they say winning is all that matters and that nobody remembers the losers but that couldn’t be further from the truth in this case. The 2001 UEFA Cup final will always be remembered for Alaves as much as it will be for Liverpool. It was a match that saw two teams, not without their flaws, serve up a cinematic night of pure drama and excitement. For the neutral at least, it was in many ways the complete football match, an event that showcased the jubilant highs and brutal lows of the sport at its very best.

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