Liverpool’s unlikely CL title defence at TNS & a prime Steven Gerrard hat-trick
After the miracle of Istanbul in 2005, Liverpool had to navigate three rounds of qualifiers before a chance to retain their Champions League crown, with a first port of call against Welsh side TNS.
Rafael Benitez had taken time to get results at Anfield. His sturdy, defence-focused mindset worked wonders in Europe, helping cause upsets against Juventus and Chelsea before the madness against AC Milan in the 2005 final.
But Liverpool had finished fifth in the Premier League with a relatively paltry tally of 58 points, three fewer than their Merseyside rivals Everton and a massive 37 behind Jose Mourinho’s machine-like Chelsea.
UEFA couldn’t not have the champions competing in their flagship competition and were made to tweak things about for the Reds to enter, entering them at the first round of qualifying. Ties against TNS, Lithuanian side FBK Kaunas and Bulgarian giants CSKA Sofia followed.
Steven Gerrard stays
At the centre of Liverpool’s universe was Steven Gerrard, the chest-beating academy graduate captain, having taken them through the group stage with a last-gasp thunderbastard against Olympiakos and dragged them to the three-goal comeback against AC Milan.
Entering the peak of his powers at the age of 25, he was named on that year’s Balon d’Or podium behind Frank Lampard and a prime Ronaldinho at-his-most-fun.
For all Liverpool’s European glory, they still looked a distance off the Premier League’s very best, and Gerrard had reached a level where he should have been challenging for titles.
It’s easy to forget now that the Champions League final was close to being a fairytale final match for his boyhood club as he became a daily fixture of the transfer gossip columns amid talk of a move to Chelsea that summer.
The newly-minted, Roman Abramovich-backed Blues had reportedly tabled a £32million bid and Gerrard is said to have said his goodbyes to his team-mates.
There was a stage when it looked certain that the midfield talisman would never don that iconic Carlsberg-adorned red shirt again. But sure enough, he did, kicking off the 2005-06 campaign against the champions of Wales.
Head in the right place
There are all kind of urban myths as to why Gerrard remained in Merseyside. Whatever the reason, he stayed home, sparing Mourinho of the conundrum no England manager of that era could figure out by fitting him and Lampard together.
A good month before the Premier League got underway, at a point in the summer schedule that Liverpool’s owners would probably rather they went on a money-spinning pre-season tour, they instead welcomed TNS – Total Network Solutions back then, not The New Saints as they’re now known – to Anfield.
Barely a fortnight after the ‘en route to Stamford Bridge’ headlines, Gerrard lined up for Liverpool against the relative minnows, champions of a Welsh league that was ranked around Latvia and Finland in the doldrums of UEFA’s coefficient table.
In truth, it was little more than a stroll in the park for Liverpool, but with question marks over his head having been turned, he stepped up to the occasion and bossed it as you’d expect from one of the finest players in the world at the time.
Just a couple of months prior, Gerrard had put in one of the all-time great individual performances in European competition. So putting TNS to the sword was probably as easy for him as he made it look.
Gerrard v TNS (H) Champions League 05/06 | Hatrick pic.twitter.com/loKdA1iOSR
— GDon ☬ (@lfcgdon) May 11, 2020
He scored all three goals in a routine 3-0 win at Anfield, slotting home inside eight minutes for the opener before capping off his night’s work with a trademark 25-yard effort a couple of minutes before full-time.
It was a similar showing in the second leg, played in front of a packed-out 8,000-crowd at Wrexham’s Racecourse Ground, when he was introduced for Xabi Alonso for a 25-minute second-half cameo, scoring two goals in two minutes late on – 16% of his 30 Champions League career goals came against the Welsh outfit.
A memorable meeting
Such was his stature at the time, Total Network Solutions’ players relished the opportunity of pitting their wits against Gerrard, and 15 years on, there’s almost a sense of pride and prestige to getting tonked by him almost single-handedly.
Like a young Andriy Shevchenko turning out for Dynamo Kyiv at Barry Town, his very presence is still talked about and remembered fondly there.
TNS manager Scott Ruscoe, playing in their midfield in both legs back then, recently reminisced on the occasion in an interview with TotalSport.
“Being a Liverpool fan, it’s nice to talk about it and discuss it,” he said.
“These sort of nights don’t come around too much in your career. They’re special. I got Xabi Alonso’s shirt framed, it’s one of my favourites. Whatever house I move to, it’ll always stay with me.
“I wanted Gerrard’s shirt, but one of the subs came on and took it within two minutes, so I said to him, ‘Any chance of your shirt because I’ve chased you round the pitch all night.’ I got nowhere near him by the way.
“It was probably the most surreal feeling I’ve had as a footballer. Standing in the tunnel and you’ve got Carragher, Pepe Reina, Sami Hyypia, Gerrard, Alonso, Morientes to name a few.”
Standing in the presence of greatness for evidently a special experience for the TNS players involved, in spite of their pair of 3-0 defeats.
It also set the tone for an all-round much improved Liverpool under Benitez, who finished third and registered 82 points in the Spaniard’s second season in charge.
Gerrard finished the 2005-06 campaign as top scorer with 10 Premier League goals and 23 in all competitions, ending it in style with more cup heroics, at the double in another 3-3 final and penalty shootout triumph, against West Ham in the FA Cup.