It may have been the best final in the history of European club competition, which is certainly saying something. 15 years ago this week, Basque club Deportivo Alaves met Liverpool in the final of the 2001 UEFA Cup at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion. The Spanish minnows had been on an incredible journey to reach that final, knocking out European giants Inter and overcoming Kaiserslautern in the semi-final by a ridiculously convincing 9-2 score line, while Liverpool had dispatched with Barcelona, Porto and Roma to make it.
Liverpool were heavy favourites and it looked like that label was a fair one when Markus Babbel put the Reds 1-0 up inside three minutes and when Steven Gerrard doubled Liverpool’s lead shortly afterwards. Rather than observe the unwritten managerial rule of never making substitutions in the first half, Alaves Coach Mane hooked one of his defenders to send on Uruguayan forward Ivan Alonso and he was immediately rewarded when Alonso pulled a goal back with one of his first touches of the ball.
The pendulum of momentum had swung in Alaves’ favour and the Spanish side pressed and pressed for the equaliser, but were time and again denied by Sander Westerveld in the Liverpool goal. Their wastefulness in front of goal was punished further just before half-time when Gary McAllister converted a penalty to give his side a 3-1 lead at the break.
The second half turned out to be just as breathless as the first. The neutrals in the Westfalenstadion were largely supporting the underdogs from Spain and they were given plenty to cheer about when Javi Moreno scored two goals in the first five minutes of the second period to level the match at 3-3. Robbie Fowler would retake the lead for Liverpool midway through an energetic second half with a goal worthy of any highlight reel. McAllister played a beauty of a through ball to Fowler, who faked to shoot a couple of times before picking his spot.
Yet this final still had more to offer. As the clocked ticked down it appeared Liverpool would soon be lifting the UEFA Cup, but Johan Cruyff’s son Jordi scored for Alaves with just one minute of normal time left to extend this incredible final. The match entered extra time, with both sides knowing that one goal, a golden goal, would win them the tournament.
Within three minutes Alaves thought they had won the UEFA Cup. Ivan Alonso had the ball in the net and the stadium erupted, delighted that the underdogs had won. His goal, however, was chalked off for offside and the match marched on. Robbie Fowler similarly thought he had scored the golden goal, but he too had been offside. Finally, a legitimate match winner was scored and it was scored for Liverpool, even if not by Liverpool. In the cruellest of endings, defender Delfi Geli headed into his own net and Liverpool, not Alaves, were UEFA Cup winners.
It will take a lot for this week’s Europa League final between Liverpool and Sevilla to live up to the drama of the 2001 showpiece event. If it even comes close to the excitement of that night in 2001 then we are in for a treat.