For all intents and purposes, 2008 was the year that English football ruled Europe, with all four English sides making the Champions League quarter-finals, three reaching the semis and an all-English final for the first time in history. But while Manchester United and Chelsea ultimately played out the finale (just one of numerous European Cup finals featured in our personalised football books collection) the first and most entertaining clash amongst the quartet was between Arsenal and Liverpool in the last eight.
The Road to the Quarters
Between them, the Reds and the Gunners had contested the previous three Champions League finals, with Liverpool’s historic victory in Istanbul, followed two years later by Milan exacting retribution, sandwiching Arsenal’s late loss to Barcelona in 2006. In 2008, after progressing from the group stage, which included such noteworthy wins as an 8-0 demolition of Besiktas at Anfield and a 7-0 drubbing of Slavia Prague at the Emirates, the two sides toppled both powerhouses from Milan in the last 16, Liverpool swiftly disposing of Serie A champions Inter, and Arsenal narrowly edging out reigning European champions A.C. Milan after two last-gasp goals in the San Siro, a memorable result brilliantly covered in our personalised Arsenal book.
The First Leg
Thus, the stage was set for a much-anticipated quarter-final showdown, the first ever meeting between the two sides in European competition. In the first leg in North London, the home side, having topped the Premier League table for much of the season, somewhat predictably struck first; Emmanuel Adebayor, enjoying a breakthrough campaign despite the huge pressure of filling the boots of the recently-departed Thierry Henry, leapt highest and headed his side in front from a corner. Advantage Arsenal.
Or, so they thought. Within minutes, Liverpool were level; Steven Gerrard’s dynamic run-and-cross met by the outstretched leg of Dirk Kuyt. For the rest of the night, Arsenal turned the screw, but couldn’t find a way past Pepe Reina and the Liverpool back line, a recurrent issue that had plagued the Gunners since in-form striker Eduardo’s infamous leg break at Birmingham just weeks earlier, an incident that had both physically and mentally curtailed their once-promising title hopes.
The Second Leg (Anfield)
Interestingly, the two sides would meet three times in a six day period, with a Premier League encounter falling in the middle of the two-part quarter-final. It, like the first game, ended 1-1. And so it was perhaps no surprise that said scoreline was exactly where the two teams found themselves half an hour into the second leg at Anfield.
After Abou Diaby, channelling former captain Patrick Vieira, glided into the box and drilled the ball past Reina to give Arsenal the lead, Sami Hyypia pulled away from his marker and sent a bullet header in off the post to draw Liverpool level. And there it would remain until mid-way through the second half, and one of the most scintillating thirty-minute periods in recent memory.
In the 69th minute, Fernando Torres, Liverpool’s player of the season, got on the end of a Peter Crouch flick-on and turned Philippe Senderos inside out, before smashing the ball into the top corner of Manuel Almunia’s net. A fantastic goal, indicative of the Spaniard’s season, which would eventually end with him scoring the winner for his country in the final of Euro 2008.
Arsenal needed a response, and fast. On came Theo Walcott, England’s spiritual successor to Liverpool legend Michael Owen. Ten minutes later, the nineteen-year-old would provide the highlight of his fledgling career to date. Walcott picked the ball up well inside his own half and ran almost the entire length of the pitch, riding challenges along the way, before squaring for Adebayor to tap home Arsenal’s equaliser and crucial second away goal, just five minutes from time.
“Kop Kings of Europe”
But, as our personalised Liverpool book clearly illustrates, it’s never over at Anfield until it’s over, especially on a European night. Yet again, Arsenal failed to protect their advantage, and less than a minute after the restart Liverpool had a penalty, the result of Kolo Toure clumsily halting Ryan Babel’s jinking run. Captain Steven Gerrard, like so many times before, stepped up at the crucial moment to make Arsenal pay.
As the Gunners desperately pushed forward, their European hopes fading rapidly, Babel broke free on the counter attack, evaded the attempted professional foul from Cesc Fabregas, and slotted past Almunia to send Liverpool to the semis. 5-3 on aggregate, and 4-2 on an exhilarating night where, as the Mirror reported, “English football was the winner”.