By Joe Behan
It’s not that difficult for "Soccer Scene" to pick team of the year when looking at who won the silverware and who is going to Europe next year. Champions: Manchester United; FA Cup winners: Liverpool; Worthington Cup winners: Liverpool; UEFA Cup winners: Liverpool; Champions League: Man. United, Arsenal, Liverpool; UEFA qualification: Leeds, Ipswich, Chelsea; InterToto Cup: Aston Villa.
Without doubt the vote goes to Liverpool. When they won the Worthington Cup, beating Birmingham City 5-4 on penalties, it was like, OK, it’s the Worthington Cup, no big deal. Nonetheless, the results leading up to that final gave more weight and notice to the impact Liverpool were having on the EPL game, and indeed Europe’s UEFA.
It was back in December when Liverpool began to let the soccer world know that the Super Reds had begun their trail to global stardom, a status they are desperate to achieve once again. Last weekend, Liverpool gave Charlton Athletic a 4-nil second-half thumping to gain that precious Champions League spot. It is interesting that Liverpool started and ended their incredible run against Charlton. After a disappointing month of November results, Liverpool opened December by beating Athletic 3-nil. A 2-nil win over Olympiakos in the UEFA Cup and another 3-nil extratime win over Div. 1 champions Fulham in the Worthington, were just the tonics Anfield needed before the back to back with Manchester United and Arsenal. After a brilliant win at Old Trafford Liverpool trounced Arsenal 4-0 in front of the rejuvenated Anfield faithful.
A hectic schedule of eight games in January saw the Pool win 6, draw one, and lose to Crystal Palace 2-1 in the Worthington first leg. In the second leg, the Reds destroyed the Palace hitting them for five in the same month. For good measure, Liverpool beat Leeds at Elland Road in the FA Cup fourth round, scoring in the 88th and 90th minutes. Before winning the Worthington at the end of February the UEFA dispatching of Roma with a 2-1 aggregate win turned a few heads toward a Michael Owen comeback. His brace gave Liverpool that all-important 2-nil victory at Roma in the first leg.
Robbie Fowler was not to go unnoticed that month, opening the year with a brace against West Ham and a fantastic strike in the Worthington final. Fowler was back, too, for Liverpool.
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After opening March with a shaky defeat Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier wasted no time in tightening things up at the back. A 0-0 result away to FC Porto set up a nice 2-nil win for the Pool with Owen sealing the victory. Many a premier team had fallen to Tranmere and it was Liverpool who eventually put the Cup giant killers away in the FA quarters. Houllier’s troops marched on to the end of this month by beating Manchester United with Fowler sealing the win this time.
Now the real test arrived on April 5, the daunting Nou Camp Stadium, 90,000 fanatics, Barcelona vs. Liverpool in the UEFA Cup semifinal. Once again, Houllier masterminded a sensational nil-all tie. Three days later Liverpool overcame Wycombe Wanderers by 2-1 in a nerveracking FA Cup semi. Something was bound to give, the run had to stop, and indeed it did just that. Were Liverpool going to sustain their marvelous performance after only one point out of six, drawing one all with Ipswich and losing 2-1 to Leeds?
The best buy of the season, Gary McAllister, popped up to take Liverpool through the month of April. In the Merseyside derby, he scored in the 90th minute to give Liverpool a 3-2 win. After scoring the all-important penalty to beat Barcelona in the second leg of the UEFA, McAllister finished off the month for Liverpool with four successive goals in four successive wins for the Pool.
With so much to play for, an absolutely tremendous season could all fall apart in the month of May. Indeed, the finale to Liverpool’s season was one of the most dramatic endings we have seen for quite some time. Before their FA Cup Final with Arsenal, Liverpool bagged seven points out of nine, thus keeping their Champions League hopes very much alive. McAllister made it five in a row with the May opener against Bradford, while Owen hit an amazing six goals in those three crucial games. Liverpool had a chance to seal Champions League against Chelsea, but a 2-all tie meant it was down to the wire in their last EPL game.
Before that Charlton fixture, the Pool looked more likely to beat CD Alaves in the UEFA rather than Arsenal in the FA Cup. For sure it was looking that way against the Gunners, who were 1-nil up with less than 10 minutes remaining. Within five minutes, Owen banged in two to give Liverpool their domestic cup double. There was no way could the UEFA be as dramatic but like the old m’stro Bill Shankly used to say, "Football is a funny old game." CD Alaves came from a 3-1 deficit to level things up only for Fowler to make it 4-3. Then, in the 89th minute, Jordi Cruyff made it 4-all. Liverpool has had this knack for coming back from the dead all season, and a little luck to help them on the way. In the 117th minute Geli Roura turned the ball into his own Alaves net to give Liverpool the UEFA Cup. The icing on the cake for Liverpool’s incredible treble was their 4-nil win over Charlton and now the Reds are back where they belong: playing alongside the Euro elite in the Champions League.
While Manchester United won the premier and Arsenal were second, it is Leeds who come in runners-up for "Soccer Scene" team of the year. A respectable fourth in the league puts them back in Europe, but their fantastic semifinal run in the Champions League deserves the silver medal. Glasgow Celtic ousts Man. United and Arsenal to get bronze, even though they don’t play in the premier. In fact, Bohs are right up there in the hunt for medals given all things equal of course.