1.10 AM Monday, 22 April 2024
  • City Fajr Shuruq Duhr Asr Magrib Isha
  • Dubai 04:29 05:47 12:20 15:47 18:48 20:06
22 April 2024

Kop hero Czechs out in style

Jubilant scenes in Istanbul as Smicer holds the Champions League trophy aloft. (GETTY IMAGES)

By John McAuley

Vladimir Smicer may be long gone from Anfield, but he is certainly not forgotten.

Chants of 'Vladi' still emanate from the Kop on European nights, in homage to the modest man from Prague's contribution to one of the most captivating nights in the club's history.

Liverpool contested the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan at the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul and, with the scores level after extra-time, the Czech Republic star was faced with the prospect of firing the Reds to glory.

Of Rafael Benitez' Famous Five for the dramatic penalty shootout, Smicer found himself at No4.

"Benitez was walking around the pitch asking who was going to take the penalties and he came to me," recalls Smicer, who was training in Dubai last month with his Sparta Prague side. "I had to say yes. I was 32 and at that age where you can't hide behind somebody younger.

"I had already found a maturity in the game, in football and in my career. I had to take responsibility for that moment. When else will you get the chance to shoot a penalty in the Champions League final?"

Smicer didn't even expect the chance to take part in the final in Turkey. Told months before that Liverpool would not be renewing his contract, the industrious midfielder expected his last game to be the concluding Premier League tie against Aston Villa on May 15.

He didn't even make the matchday squad. Certain he had kicked his last ball for the Merseyside giants – "I was really, really down after the Villa game" – Smicer travelled with the team to Turkey 10 days later for their sixth appearance in the European Cup final.

Things didn't go quite to plan for the Reds. Up against an experienced Milan team brimming with international pedigree, Liverpool found themselves three goals down after a bewildering first-half.

Smicer had only joined the action in the 23rd minute, following an injury to Harry Kewell, and watched agonisingly as Hernan Crespo's double added to Paolo Maldini's first-minute opener to seemingly condemn their opponents to defeat.

Smicer and his stunned team-mates entered the dressing room in disbelief.

"It was a disaster," he confirms. "All our heads were down and we were worried about conceding another because three was already a lot. But Benitez said we've got to at least score one to give pleasure to our fans because there were more than 40,000 in the stadium.

"We were so disappointed because we knew this was maybe the one chance in our lives to win the trophy and we perhaps wanted to take it too much. Then Benitez told us we had nothing to lose and that who knows what happens in football?

"He gave us that bit more fighting spirit and all the players wanted to go back out on the field and prove themselves. We thought if we got one in 10 or 15 minutes we could get a second and then who knows?"

Liverpool, spurred on by the talismanic Steven Gerrard, got the first when their captain headed past Dida to spark six of the most manic minutes in the club's history.

Smicer then added a second to the bottom corner from 20 yards and, before Milan could catch their breath, Xabi Alonso had netted an inconceivable equaliser to send their travelling fans into ecstasy and the game into extra-time.

Jerzey Dudek shone between the posts in the additional 30 minutes, highlighted by his superb double save from Andrei Shevchenko, a perfect piece of Polish goalkeeping that led Smicer to believe Lady Luck was smiling on the Anfield club.

However, with the scoresheet recording a stalemate, a penalty shootout would decide their fate. Having watched Serginho, Andrea Pirlo and John Arne Riise all contrive to miss from 12 yards, Smicer was faced with Liverpool's fourth penalty and the chance to pile pressure on Shevchenko, who would need to score if his Czech opponent netted his.

"The most nervous moment was walking from the centre circle to the penalty spot," says Smicer. "You can feel everyone is watching you. I knew it would be my last kick for Liverpool and that if I missed everybody would remember it forever; not just in Liverpool, but also in the Czech Republic and throughout the world.

"It was bad, very bad in fact, but when I took the ball I just concentrated on what I wanted to do. I picked a corner and hoped the keeper would move the other way, which he did. And when Shevchenko missed it was just unbelievable. The team, the management and the fans all went crazy.

"It was a great feeling, especially because I'd made the step up to take the penalty and I scored the last goal of the final. It was a special, special night for me and was the best way to say goodbye to the club and the fans – the perfect end and everything I wanted and dreamed of."

'Vladi' has since returned to Anfield on a couple of occasions and described the reception he got as "amazing". A series of injuries limited him to only 121 appearances during his six-year spell on Merseyside and frustrated fans as the player could only show glimpses of his talent.

Smicer rues the time wasted on the sidelines, but agrees he ended his Liverpool career on the ultimate high that night in Istanbul.

"Then all the trouble is for the good because the way it finished everything is forgotten," he says with a smile.

Although having departed Liverpool almost four years now, Smicer can rest assured he'll always occupy a special place on the Kop.