For a series of games so disparagingly referred to as “Shit on a stick” encounters, Liverpool’s mid-2000s clashes with Chelsea still provided a decent amount of entertainment.
Sure, it’s not the kind of thing you’ll be into if you love seeing people succeed with exciting and open play, but fans of schadenfreude weren’t left wanting as the two clubs played each other 10 times in Europe between 2005 and 2009. After all, you knew that – whatever the outcome – one of Liverpool and Chelsea would be hurting, and if you were a neutral that was often enough.
The last of those games had on its own what the first nine lacked in terms of balls-to-the-wall entertainment – as manic as the ghost goal series was subdued. However, if that 4-4 draw at Stamford Bridge marked the ‘anything goes’ stage of the rivalry, such a thing was made possible 12 months earlier.
Moments of extreme tension often require a moment of unsubtle humour to let everyone exhale, and John Arne Riise’s own goal at Anfield in April 2008 was a fart-at-a-funeral type of finish.
Riise had enjoyed taking on Chelsea before that night, playing in the semi-final victories over the London club in 2005 and 2007, and filling the gap between the two with a stunning solo goal in the 2006 Community Shield, running the length of the pitch before cutting inside and beating Carlo Cudicini from range.
Things were going fairly well at Anfield in 2008, too – the previous Champions League semi-finals had seen Liverpool play at home in the second leg both times, but the change of order looked like it wasn’t going to stand in the way of another 1-0 home victory for Rafa Benitez’s team.
After Luis García settled a nervy 2005 meeting and Daniel Agger helped take the 2007 tie to penalties, Dirk Kuyt’s first-half goal seemed set to leave Avram Grant’s Chelsea with everything to do in the return leg. And then, with the final whistle looming, Riise stooped for a header. If you can’t think of many other times when Riise has stooped for a header, this might explain why.
Cue countless jokes about seeing Riise on the motorway “heading in the wrong direction” – yeah, humour wasn’t massively sophisticated back then (and possibly isn’t even now) – and things never quite being the same again.
Watching Riise attempt to head the ball clear is like watching a dog try to butter a slice of toast. He has the body parts required to make it a success, but there is no point at which anyone would think he could produce a positive outcome.
His body moves in the way you’d expect it to, and he looks like the connection he makes is the one he’s going for, and yet he still looks surprised at the end result for reasons we haven’t been able to identify.
It’s one of those scenarios you often get in football where any other kind of touch would have been substantially better, and yet Riise’s actions felt like a pin had been pulled on a Chelsea v Liverpool grenade.
They realised, at the seventh time of asking in the Champions League, that both teams were allowed to score in the same match. Sometimes they could score more than once, if they were feeling particularly bold.
Chelsea won the second leg 3-2 after extra time, before winning 3-1 at Anfield the following season and playing out that frankly ridiculous eight-goal game in the return fixture. The need for tension was gone, and in a way the fixture was better for it.
Riise had already been fighting for his place at Anfield, starting the semi-final on the bench, and the return game at Stamford Bridge would prove to be his last in a Liverpool shirt. Ironically it was his replacement, Fábio Aurélio, who would go on to score a memorable free-kick in the 4-4 draw with Chelsea the following season.
Riise may still hurt at the memory of one of the worst moments of his career, but we need to remember that what he did was for the greater good, whether he planned it that way or not. Thank you, John Arne.