There’s a game everyone references when they talk about Xabi Alonso’s Liverpool career. One crystallising, glass-shattering game when you looked at the person sitting next to you and went ‘hang on, we’ve got one here.’
It was September 2004, and Norwich City had come to Anfield in their green shirts as they sometimes tend to do, presumably for no other reason than they don’t often get to wear them anywhere else.
An afternoon on which Alonso would emphatically prove his case to be the type of player you’d pay good money to see had started inauspiciously for yours truly, as I’d somehow lost my ticket on the walk up to Anfield. No doubt exasperated at the daftness of his son, my dad gave me his and then explained to the ticket office just what level of idiot he was dealing with here. Whilst I had long been seated, he made it into the ground just in time to see Milan Baros give Liverpool a 23rd minute lead.
But that’s the funny thing. Those details of that game seem somewhat irrelevant.
It turns out Liverpool won 3-0 with Djibril Cisse and Luis Garcia getting the other goals, but no-one remembers that. It also turns out that Alonso was only on the pitch for 65 minutes before he was replaced by the unique talents of Salif Diao, but no-one remembers that either.
No, talk to anyone about that game – only Alonso’s fourth start for the club – and they’ll mention one thing. Namely, this new 23-year-old Spanish lad standing in the middle of the pitch and launching passes left and right, spraying and spreading the ball as he dictated play in the manner of a seasoned veteran.
It was a quite remarkable thing to witness, and also a relief to witness for those of us who had foolishly discarded our tickets pre-match. This lad looked the real deal, the fulcrum of Rafael Benitez’s new Liverpool.
And Alonso – who will retire at the end of the season having enjoyed the most wonderful career, making real and sustained impacts at first his hometown club and then three giants of the world game, not to mention his country – did become that player. He stamped his class all over many a game, and his sense of controlling a football match became vital to a manager who craved control like no other Reds boss before or since.
People talk about Istanbul – usually after a few pints – but Liverpool would never have got there without Alonso controlling the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final at a fearsome Juventus, where the Reds protected the flimsiest of 2-1 leads without the injured Steven Gerrard or Dietmar Hamann to call on in midfield.
Rushed back from a broken ankle, Alonso was one of Liverpool’s leaders that night along with Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher, the trio dragging a team which included Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan, Anthony Le Tallec and Antonio Nunez over the line against one of the most feared forces in Europe at the time. He was now 24.
He’d soon be a European champion too, but he was even better in the following seasons.
A second Champions League title in three years eluded Liverpool in the 2007 final in Athens, and it is often tempting to wonder just what would have happened to Benitez and his players had they won that night against Milan when they were on top for large portions of the game, with Alonso a key element in that. But wondering gets you nowhere.
The Benitez era was to have its swansong with Alonso beginning to play well in spite of his manager rather than because of him, with an injury-hit and sometimes argumentative 2007/08 infamously giving way to what is now known as The Gareth Barry Lazio friendly, when loud opposition was voiced to a plan to bring in the Englishman to replace the popular Spaniard at a pre-season game. It was no surprise when the move never materialised.
And both Benitez and Alonso deserve credit for shaking that off and going again in what was a fine 2008/09.
Liverpool not winning the league has often been mentioned in the last 27 years, but the quality of the teams who beat them to it is much less so, and it took arguably the last great Manchester United side to stop Alonso, Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Dirk Kuyt, Javier Mascherano, Jamie Carragher, Pepe Reina, Benitez and company from ending the most heavily-publicised drought in English football in 2009.
The Reds have never been as star-studded since, and were much less so when Alonso departed for Real Madrid that summer, his exit somewhat skilfully handled in a manner which protected his status in the eyes of the fans, something which wouldn’t happen with some of his contemporaries.
Perhaps it is just impossible to dislike Alonso, though. His elegance on the pitch and style off it have ensured a rare status among those who play the modern game.
Everyone who lived in Liverpool in the mid to late 2000s has a story about meeting him, and all of those stories make you smile.
Just like Istanbul did. And that Norwich game.
And just like many people will do if he’s got his hands back on the Champions League trophy in Cardiff in three months’ time.
There would be few more fitting endings for a truly classy operator.