The Greatest Goal I Ever Saw - Liverpool's Vladimir Smicer v AC Milan
A sharp intake of breath was taken in my household when Liverpool's Vladimir Smicer received the ball just outside the AC Milan penalty area, in the 56th minute of the 2005 Champions League Final. It was not an inhalation of excitement, nor of anticipation but was simply taken to allow my grandfather to scream “Don't Shoot! Soft lad!” at the television.
Liverpool fans were, of course, aware that Vladimir Smicer could score goals from this distance; he had shown this through his prolific form for the Czech Republic. However, in Liverpool colours, these efforts from the edge of the box were, more often than not, rattled into row 76 of the Kop.
When the ball arrived at his feet that night, Vladimir Smicer had been playing for Liverpool for exactly six years and one day, he was already aware, (as were the fans) that he was considered surplus to requirements and was to leave the club that summer. To my grandfather, and for my sins, to me, this was good news. Smicer had failed to impress me throughout his Anfield career, moments of genius were heavily outweighed by the Czech cruising through games, seemingly unaware that he was in fact directly involved in their outcome. Fans' frustration was compounded by Vladi's unwavering vacant smile which never left his face, even when he struggled to cope with The Premier League's midfield maestros such as Ben Thatcher and when he couldn't find a way past the defensive might of people like Ivan Campo. 184 games of torment at the hands of Smicer's chronic underachievement, left all who shared that night with me absolutely convinced that the impending shot would fly into the dark Istanbul sky, never to be seen again.
We were wrong.
After receiving a trademark shuffled pass from Dietmar Hamann, Smicer took a touch (let it be noted, a rather heavy touch) and struck the ball past the approaching Clarence Seedorf. It was a clean strike, leaving his white boots without a trace of shank or slice, and it was powerful...bloody hell was it powerful.
What happened next is key to my reasoning for this being the best goal I have ever seen.
Flying through the penalty area at knee height, Vladi's shot was undoubtedly goal bound. However, there was a problem, an obstacle, a Czech Republic team-mate, a player equally as average as Smicer himself. Between Vladimir and redemption stood Milan Baros, occupying the exact space where his shot was heading. A better, more talented striker may have plucked the ball out of the air, controlled it and lobbed it deftly over the AC Milan goalkeeper. Not our Milan. To equal, if not greater effect, Milan Baros pogoed ungracefully out of the way of his compatriots thunderous strike and allowed the ball a safe passage into the corner of the net.
This, for me, summarised Liverpool's Champions League campaign of 2005. An average set of players had manipulated their average set of skills in just the right way to be successful. Smicer's shot and Baros' clumsy evasion tactics, showed the unit that our team could be and this style was echoed through almost every match I saw them play that year. Whether it was Igor Biscan hitting an uncharacteristically rich vain of form to tackle Bayer Leverkusen in Steven Gerrard's absence, or Djimi Traore's wise decision to remove himself almost entirely from the action in the second half of the final, leaving the cramp-ridden Jamie Carragher to cover his defensive duties. Liverpool seemed to know their strengths, and simply blocked out their weaknesses.
Are these coincidences? Or do Baros and Smicer's joint efforts act as a summary of Liverpool's tactics that brought them back to the summit of European football? A sort of “Do what you can, and then get out of the way” attitude. Steven Gerrard's header and Xabi Alonso's conversion of a rebounded penalty were important, but did they echo the practicality of style which had got us this far?
Either way, when it went to penalties my Grandad's first name on the sheet was Vladimir 'soft lad' Smicer.