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Liverpool’s History in the Europa League: 2001

As Liverpool prepare for the 2016 Europa League final, we look back at the club's history in the competition and to 2001 when the Reds reached their first European final in 16 years and took their third UEFA Cup.

Gary M. Prior/Getty Images

Nine years. That is how long Liverpool fans have had to wait for another European final after a 2-1 defeat to AC Milan in Athens. It seems like a long time, but it's not the longest barren spell since the club started participating in European competitions in 1964. No, that distinction belongs to the 16-year gap between 1985 and 2001.

Entering the 1985 European Cup final, Liverpool were truly among the European elite. In 12 years the Reds had racked up 4 European Cups, 2 UEFA Cups, and a European Super Cup. Then disaster struck on and--infinitely worse--off the pitch. The Heysel Stadium disaster resulted in 39 deaths and hundreds of injures, and Liverpool supporters took the brunt of the blame. When other supporters accuse us of being "murderers," this is the incident they're talking about.

Liverpool lost the match to Juventus 1-0, and a six-year European ban ensued. And the ban hurt. Liverpool missed out on their chance at a fifth European Cup in 1986, 1988, and 1990. They also were barred from competing in the 1987 UEFA Cup, and the 1989 Cup Winners' Cup. When the European ban was lifted, Liverpool were beginning their title drought in England's top flight, which had the knock-on effect of relegating Liverpool to the UEFA Cup and Cup Winners' Cup, if they were to compete in Europe at all.

From that fateful day in 1985 to the UEFA Cup final in 2001, Liverpool never came particularly close to European glory. In their first trip back to Europe, the 1991-92 UEFA Cup, the Reds made it to the quarterfinals before falling to Genoa 4-1 on aggregate. Despite not technically winning a cup, Liverpool qualified for the 1996-97 Cup Winners' Cup after losing to Champions League-bound Manchester United in the 1996 FA Cup final. Liverpool advanced to the semifinals in that rendition of the Cup Winners Cup, losing to Paris Saint-Germain 3-2 on aggregate.

Following their enforced vacation, Liverpool had lost their European mojo, not to mention a great deal of respect around the footballing world because of Heysel. The club needed to regain continental respect, both on and off the pitch, and 2001 would kick off a resurgence throughout the 2000's that would lead to a UEFA Cup, a Champions League title, two UEFA Super Cups, and multiple deep runs in big continental tournaments.

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In the 2000-01 season, a total of 138 teams participated in the UEFA Cup, a number which would be whittled down to a less obscene, though, still pretty obscene 96 teams in the first round proper. Unlike today's competition, there were no group stages, only home-and-away ties. Like today, teams that finished third in the Champions League joined the UEFA Cup in the third round of the competition. Liverpool qualified on the strength of their fourth place league finish in the 1999-2000 season, and were joined by fellow English sides Chelsea and Leicester City, who qualified for their FA Cup and League Cup wins, respectively.

If Liverpool had any intentions of winning the competition, they certainly didn't show their hand from the get-go. The Reds squeaked past Rapid Bucharest 1-0 on aggregate, thanks to a solitary goal from Nick Barmby in the first half of the away leg. Still, the name of the game is to survive and advance, something that both Chelsea and Leicester City failed to do against St. Gallen and Red Star Belgrade. Like that, Liverpool were the only English side left in the competition.

The second round saw Liverpool host Czech side FC Slovan Liberec for the first leg. Emile Heskey grabbed a late winner for the Reds, securing a 1-0 advantage in the 88th minute at Anfield. Just 9 minutes into the return leg Liberec's Jiří Štajner put the home side on level terms, but Barmby responded with a strike on the half-hour mark to put Liverpool up, and with a crucial away goal advantage. Second half goals by Heskey and Michael Owen secured the victory, as the Reds returned from the Czech Republic 4-2 winners on aggregate.

Liverpool drew Champions League drop-out Olympiacos for the third round. The Reds traveled to Athens for the first leg, and led twice, thanks to goals from Barmby and a young Steven Gerrard. But Olympiacos striker Alexandros Alexandris responded both times, including a goal just as stoppage time was set to begin. Liverpool left Athens with a 2-2 draw. The away goals wouldn't matter in the end, as the Reds won 2-0 at home, with Heskey and Barmby once again finding the back of the net.

With 16 teams left in the competition, Liverpool faced Roma, first away, and then home. Rome, of course, is where Liverpool achieved two of their European Cup successes, and it would once again prove to be a special place for the Reds. Owen bagged two second half goals, and Liverpool returned to Anfield with a 2-0 advantage. Back on Merseyside, Roma's Gianni Guigou gave I Lupi hope with a 70th minute goal, but the Reds held on to win 2-1 on aggregate.

In the quarterfinals Liverpool traveled to Porto for the first leg, and played the Portuguese side to a 0-0 stalemate. Anfield once again proved to be the difference, helping Danny Murphy and Owen find the back of the net, securing a 2-0 win and a tense semifinal with Barcelona.

In the other semifinal, Deportivo Alavés thoroughly embarrassed Kaiserslautern, 9-2 on aggregate. Liverpool, on the other hand, struggled mightily to gain an advantage against the famous Catalan side. The two sides played nearly 3 full halves of scoreless football. I say "nearly" because on the bring of half time Barcelona defender Patrick Kluivert handled a ball in the box on a corner, and Liverpool were duly awarded a spot kick. Captain Gary McAllister stepped up and buried the penalty, giving Liverpool the only goal in either leg, and Liverpool advanced to the final.

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The 2001 UEFA Cup final--taking place at Dortmund's home, Westfalenstadion--went down as one of the most exciting and wild finals of European history. Because Liverpool can't do anything easy.

Their opponent, Deportivo Alavés, qualified for the tournament with a 6th place finish in La Liga the season prior, and faced an easier route to the final, and defeated most sides by multiple goals along the way, including, notably, Inter Milan. They also saw off Turkish side Gaziantepspor, the Norwegian sides Lillestrøm and Rosenborg, fellow Spaniards Rayo Vallecano, and aforementioned Germans Kaiserslautern. Alavés had no problem scoring goals, regularly hanging three, four, or even five goals on opponents throughout their UEFA Cup campaign.

Like this season, Liverpool entered the final having already played 62 games. Even more impressively, it was a side that not only made it to the final of the League Cup, but won it, besting Birmingham City on penalties. They also defeated Arsenal 2-1 in the FA Cup final--something miraculously accomplished in regulation time. In short, Liverpool not only won the treble, but did so by playing every single match it was possible for them to play that season. It's a accomplishment that, taken collectively, Jamie Carragher places above winning the Champions League a few years later.

If the Reds were tired from their hefty work load, they didn't show it in the opening stages of the match. With in a quarter of an hour, Liverpool had charged out to a 2-0 lead. Markus Babble opened scoring by heading in a McAllister free-kick in the third minute. 12 minutes later, Gerrard latched on to a diagonal through ball from Owen, and slotted it to double Liverpool's lead.

Needing a response, Alavés made an early tactical substitution after 22 minutes, taking off defender Dan Eggen for striker Iván Alonso. The change paid immediate dividends for the Spanish side, as Alonso headed in a cross just four minutes later to bring the scoreline to 2-1. Alavés were pushing for an equalizer as the half drew to a close, and missed several big chances to draw level. Instead, Liverpool would get a penalty to extend their lead when Owen was brought down in the box. McAllister slotted it, and Liverpool went into the half with a two-goal cushion, 3-1.

That two-goal cushion lasted less than five minutes into the second half. Alavés striker Javi Moreno headed in a cross almost immediately after play resumed. Not content with one goal, Moreno immediately scored another, putting a free kick from 25-yards under the wall and into the back of the net, drawing the two sides level at 3 goals a piece.

With the game level, Liverpool made some adjustments of their own, bringing on Vladimír Šmicer and Robbie Fowler. Gerrard moved to right back. In the 72nd minute, McAllister picked out Fowler, who once again put Liverpool in front, 4-3. As the clock approached 90 minutes, Liverpool's keeper Sander Westerveld conceded a corner, and Jordi Cruyff (yes, son of Dutch legend Johan) headed home the corner to send the affair to extra time.

Although the "Golden Goal" has now gone the way of the dodo, it was in effect for this match. It had been a wild final so far, and things were about to get wilder. First, an Alavés substitute was shown a second yellow and sent off for his harsh challenge on Babble. Not to be outdone, Alavés captain Antonio Karmona was booked for a second time, and the Spanish side were down to 9 men with only 4 minutes to go until penalties. McAllister took the ensuing free kick, which found the head of Alavés defender Delfi Geli, who could only manage to get enough on it to help it into the back of his own net. Just like that, Liverpool were lifting their third UEFA Cup, trotting out 5-4 winners on the day.

Like the 1976 triumph, this 2001 victory kicked off another mini golden age for the Reds in Europe. Four years later, this group would once again lift the Big Ears after an equally wild night in Istanbul. It's hard to argue that the success of this did not directly contribute to greater glory in the years to come. If Klopp wants to awaken the sleeping giants, the UEFA Cup, or Europa League as it's now know, has thus far proven a good place to start.

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