The Anfield Talk’s Ronan (@ronan_orourke) looks back to 2008’s tie with Internazionale in the latest instalment of our Classic Matches series.
On paper it looked a nightmare draw for the Reds. Inter Milan were unquestionably the team to beat in Serie A, they possessed an iron grip on that title in the second half of the decade and were on course for another that season. Their squad at the time was a veritable who’s who of European football. They had the experience of Javier Zanetti, Luis Figo, Patrick Vieira, Dejan Stankovic and Hernan Crespo combined with world class talents like Zlatan Ibrahimovic. They were very much a force to be reckoned with.
However, Liverpool under Rafa Benitez were a side that feared nobody in Europe. They were of course champions in 2005 and runners up in 2007. In Fernando Torres, Benitez also finally had the striker he had been dreaming of. Other attacking talents in Yossi Benayoun and Ryan Babel were also signed that season to bolster the attack but it was the Torres and Steven Gerrard partnership which took Liverpool to new heights. It was a contest that promised to be mouthwatering for the neutral so early in the tournament as two of the favourites for the tournament went head to head in the last sixteen.
The first leg at Anfield effectively didn’t provide any resolution at all. Inter spent the majority of the match down to ten men as Torres tormented Marco Materazzi into two early yellows. Late goals from Dirk Kuyt and Gerrard provided an advantage of sorts but it was far from an insurmountable one. It was a terrific win for Liverpool but there was plenty of work still to do.
It was thought that returning to the San Siro, the Reds would face an onslaught. The tie was still believed to be wide open despite Inter not scoring a usually vital away goal.
Inter would of course be without Materazzi for the second leg but also critically would be missing the colossus of his defensive partner Ivan Cordoba due to injury.
Liverpool would be missing key man Xabi Alonso as his girlfriend had gone into labour that week but Javier Mascherano was passed fit to start alongside other new signing a young Lucas Leiva in midfield. Steve Finnan would also be absent due to injury so Jamie Carragher slid over to right back with Martin Skrtel coming in at centre half alongside Sami Hyypia.
The atmosphere to start the game at the San Siro was electric bordering on hostile. The legendary stadium was packed to the brim with 80,000 supporters, the large majority of which were backing the home team. However, it was Liverpool who started better with Torres already giving Nicolas Burdisso a hard time down the right.
It was interesting to note that at this point in history, Ibrahimovic was still considered somewhat of a flat track bully given his relatively average goalscoring record against top tier sides. He was a danger no doubt but nowhere near as ruthless as he became later in his career.
Unsurprisingly though, Inter didn’t take long to get going. Inter captain Zanetti was always a quite wonderful footballer to watch and despite his 34 years, was leading his team’s charge. Zlatan’s strike partner Julio Cruz would be the first to test Pepe Reina with a sharp drive from the edge of the box.
The game then settled down to an ambling pace aided probably by a series of tactical fouls by the Reds. Inter appeared to already be getting frustrated by the disjointed nature of the contest with manager Roberto Mancini furiously waving imaginary yellow cards from the touch line.
Inter carved out their first big chance just short of the half hour mark as Zlatan found Cruz in the box who thankfully dragged his shot wide instead of squaring it to Stankovic who had the goal gaping. It was a big let off.
Burdisso then picked up his first yellow card when he cynically scythed down Kuyt after clumsily losing possession. It was a moment that would later prove crucial. The half ended with Liverpool on the whole fairly comfortable. Inter’s quality was evident though their lack of penetration in the final third would have been pleasing for Benitez.
Inter were dealt a back breaking blow early in the second half when Burdisso was shown a second yellow after a seemingly accidental collision with Lucas. It did appear to be a harsh decision but they were now down to 10 men needing 3 goals to turn the tie around. It was a daunting task to say the least.
It could have been so different for Inter though. Zlatan had two glorious opportunities to get a goal back for the Nerazzuri but squandered both without even testing Reina. Those misses were to be the fatal blow to Inter’s hopes.
When Benitez signed Fernando Torres the previous summer, he was hoping to finally get a world class talent in the forward line. His debut season was that and more for the Spaniard and his goal just after the hour was an intervention of the highest quality.
Fabio Aurelio won possession aggressively down the left hand side when he pick pocketed a marauding Maicon. The Brazilian then quickly fed Torres who swiveled majestically on the edge of the box before firing his 26th goal of the season past a despairing Julio Cesar. One chance, one goal. Absolutely lethal.
At that point the tie was essentially over. Inter needing four goals and down a man looked dead and buried. They wouldn’t even get one back. This Liverpool team was not in the business of even giving up consolation goals if they could possibly avoid it.
If there’s one word to sum up Liverpool’s performance that night it would be professional. It wasn’t too dissimilar to the famous performance in Turin in 2005 though thankfully much less stressful. It was clear that the 2008 squad was on another level to what we had seen before. Not only could they execute Benitez’s defensive plan to perfection but they had the threat on the break to hurt opponents. It was a devastating combination. By eliminating the Serie A champions on merit, this team proved once again they were one of the best in Europe. While not the most entertaining game Liverpool had ever played, it was a memorable one all the same for the magnitude of what was achieved.