Liverpool travel to face Manchester United in the Capital One Cup on Wednesday - the clubs' first meeting in the competition since the 2003 final in Cardiff. Jon Holmes looks back on an encounter in which Jerzy Dudek and Steven Gerrard both proved their worth
Last Updated: 24/09/13 4:58pm
Only seven minutes had elapsed of Manchester United's UEFA Champions League second group-stage clash away to Juventus in late February 2003 when Diego Forlan was forced to limp off the Stadio Delle Alpi pitch with an ankle injury.
Ryan Giggs came off the bench to score twice for United in a sensational 3-0 win in Turin that night, but the loss of Forlan was keenly felt by Sir Alex Ferguson - because it prevented the Uruguayan from the chance to torment Jerzy Dudek again the following weekend.
Forlan had embarrassed the Poland goalkeeper three months previously as United won 2-1 at Anfield in the Premiership. When Jamie Carragher headed back midway through the second half with the game still goalless, it was a simple pick-up for Dudek - but he inexplicably let the ball roll through his legs, allowing Forlan to pounce for the opener. Within minutes, the United striker had doubled the lead and Liverpool's misery in their biggest game of the 2002/3 season to date was complete. The result was hugely significant, with what had been a Reds wobble eventually turning into an abysmal run; having been top of the table after 12 games, the Reds would only win two more league fixtures before they faced United again in the League Cup final on March 2.
So when Forlan was forced to limp off in European action in midweek, Dudek would have been forgiven for letting out a sigh of relief. The Pole had lost his place in Gerard Houllier's side after his gaffe, only to reclaim it again in late January when Chris Kirkland was crocked. While United were advancing into the Champions League's last eight, Liverpool had already been bundled out of Europe's elite by Basel and were competing in the UEFA Cup instead. However, there were some encouraging signs as they beat Auxerre 2-0 on the Thursday night before the Cardiff cup-final clash against United - and not for the first time, Houllier was claiming his team had turned a corner.
The Millennium Stadium was already feeling like a lucky ground for Liverpool - they had claimed both domestic cups there in 2001 - and the return of Dietmar Hamann to the starting line-up in a defensive midfield role, with Steven Gerrard playing further forward, enhanced their chances. As the German successfully shielded the back four, Gerrard looked to seize upon any signs of slackness from United. His moment arrived on 39 minutes when David Beckham - in the period between the 'Bootgate' incident and his transfer to Real Madrid - failed to close his England colleague down quickly enough. John Arne Riise slipped Gerrard into a shooting position nearly 30 yards out, where a powerful drive was given extra aerial lift via a deflection from Beckham. The ball arced down with extreme velocity over Fabien Barthez's head, Gerrard whipped off his shirt (the FIFA law on a yellow card for such an offence was still a few years away) and Liverpool were ahead.
Their half-time advantage was not secured though until Dudek's first intervention of note. Having blocked Juan Sebastian Veron's shot, he needed Stephane Henchoz to somehow deny Paul Scholes from right underneath the crossbar.
After the break, Dudek demonstrated repeatedly that he was no dud - far from it. He produced an outstanding reaction save to deny Ruud van Nistelrooy on the hour mark, and also kept out efforts from Scholes and the Dutchman again. Liverpool's lead teetered on a knife-edge but in between Dudek's heroics, Gerrard almost extended it only for Barthez to brilliantly keep out a goalbound attempt at his near post. Roy Keane, hampered by a hip injury, was overshadowed in midfield.
It was classic Houllier - stifle the midfield, defend deep and counter-attack whenever possible. Such tactics were beginning to look outdated, but in a cup final in which his side were the underdogs, the Frenchman's methods were justified. Liverpool weathered the storm and when Hamann snatched possession after a mix-up between Mikael Silvestre and Rio Ferdinand in the centre circle four minutes from time, he was able to release Michael Owen down the right channel. With unerring accuracy, Owen struck home his 19th goal of a season that would bring him 28 overall - and Liverpool were lifting silverware again, a record seventh League Cup triumph which has since been extended to eight.
It was a bad day all round for United; earlier, Arsenal had beaten Charlton 2-0 to take an eight-point lead in the title race. Yet United would overhaul the Gunners in the run-in. En route to their 15th league title, Ferguson's men recorded a 4-0 victory over Liverpool when the teams met again at Old Trafford and they ended up topping the table by five points.
Liverpool had shown once again that they had the players for the big occasion, even if consistent success continued to elude them. Gerrard had been the best outfield player on the day, but Dudek's clean-sheet preservation and personal redemption ensured he would take the Alan Hardaker Trophy for the man of the match. When asked about Dudek, Houllier beamed with pride and in a season of more downs than ups, he couldn't resist another reference to the snakes-and-ladders nature of the game: "Today shows you how football life is: you are rock bottom, and the next day you can be a hero again." The Pole admitted he'd allowed himself some satisfaction: "It's a little payback. There was pressure on me before the game but I concentrated and the boss said 'I believe in you'."
The fans' faith in Houllier was restored too - but that couldn't last. Any UEFA Cup hopes were ended by Celtic in the quarter-finals and the Reds then missed out on a top-four finish in the league as well. The following campaign was even more turbulent, and ended with Houllier leaving by mutual consent. However, Dudek's heroics in a Liverpool shirt were far from over, with Rafael Benitez the beneficiary in Istanbul at the end of his first season in charge.
Ten years on from Liverpool's 2-0 Worthington Cup final win, only Gerrard, Giggs and Ferdinand remain among the playing ranks of both clubs for Wednesday night's third-round tie at Old Trafford. Luis Suarez looks certain to play on his return from suspension and although some big names will be rested, neither David Moyes nor Brendan Rodgers can risk fielding too many fringe players because this is a meeting that always matters - regardless of the circumstances. Perhaps it will be a goalkeeping masterclass that proves crucial, just like it was on Dudek's day a decade ago.