Heroes of our Past: Xabi Alonso
In the summer of 2004, there was a renaissance underway at Anfield. Liverpool replaced Gerard Houllier with a new man on the touchline in former Valencia manager, Rafa Benitez. Freshly off his second La Liga title in only three seasons at the Mestalla, the Spaniard was set to bring a winning mentality and tenacity to Liverpool. In order to do this, Rafa would dip into a market he was most comfortable with by bringing in four Spanish players to help accent the talent already at the club. Arguably the most significant of signings was a twenty-two year old defensive midfielder from the Basque Country, Xabi Alonso.
Alonso, the captain of Real Sociedad, had proven himself quite an asset for the San Sebastian club. Quite the complete player effective in both creating and defending, he was routinely able to dictate play from his deep lying midfield role. With his knack for consistently putting in a shift with determination and tactical intelligence not often found in a player his age, Xabi was well on his way to becoming one of the best midfielders of his generation. It was no surprise Rafa made him the number one target when arriving in Liverpool. A move which would prove in time to be a masterstroke from Benitez, especially considering the club only paid £10.7m for the Spanish playmaker.
On the 29th of August, Xabi made his Liverpool debut away to Bolton. Liverpool supporters caught their first glimpses of what would become his trademark tactical awareness, passing ability and set pieces. Although the fixture ended in a 1-0 defeat at the Reebok, Alonso undoubtedly was a player that caught the eyes of his teammates as well as the press. The twenty-two year old continued to impress week after week throughout the season. Whether creating opportunities for his teammates or scoring beautiful free kicks, Alonso would habitually prove to be vital for the Reds moving forward. Though 2004 was a great year for Alonso at LFC, 2005 would quickly hit a major impediment. All of the momentum being built up was soon brought to a screeching halt on New Years Day 2005, after a crummy tackle by Frank Lampard left the Red’s midfielder with a broken ankle. An injury that would sideline young Alonso for the majority of three months.
“I’ve never seen anyone pass the ball as well as Xabi. It’s like watching another version of Stevie Gerrard. He is a great, great player. It’s amazing he’s only 22-years-old. He may have cost £10m but he looks worth every penny of that.” – John Arne Riise (2004)
Xabi returned to a Champions League side in its second leg of a quarterfinal against Italian juggernaut, Juventus. Some may feel that his return was a bit rushed but with Gerrard injured as well, Xabi would have to give a gutsy 90 minute display despite not being 100% fit. A valiant effort that helped the Redmen secure their ticket for a semifinal meeting with familiar rivals, Chelsea. Alonso’s Champions League campaign would hit a snag in a very tense affair at Stamford Bridge. He received a booking in the 0-0 draw resulting in the youngster missing the pivotal reverse fixture at Anfield. Luckily for Liverpool, the captain Steven Gerrard would return from injury in time for the second leg. Gerrard helped steer the game in Liverpool’s favor and with a very famous Luis Garcia goal, the Reds would march on to the Final in Istanbul.
Liverpool would end up finishing fifth in the Premiership that season. Though not exactly the league result expected when the Spanish revolution began the previous summer, there was still the Champions League glory to play for. Unfortunately, standing in their way would be arguably the greatest side in the world football, AC Milan — a match that would prove to be far from straight forward for either side. The whistle blew and the Final would be underway in Istanbul. Milan was relentless in attack and would quickly find itself up three against the stunned Merseyside club. At halftime, the tide would change and something magical was about to transpire. The Reds with help from the traveling Kop would have to find a way to achieve the impossible in the second half. In the 54th minute they would begin to do just that. Captain Fantastic would rise above the Italian defense and get on the end of a cross from Riise, flicking it far post passed Dida — that was the exact spark Liverpool needed. Two minutes later it was Vladimir Smicer’s turn as he rifled a low screamer from distance and nestled it into the side netting passed Milan’s outstretched keeper. Alonso would quickly find himself in the thick of the action as Liverpool was awarded a penalty just minutes after Smicer’s goal. The young man from the Basque Country would be given the responsibility of taking the crucial spot kick. He stepped up and drilled it low to Dida’s right but the Milan keeper was there to save the initial strike. Keeping his cool, the now twenty-three year old was quickest to the rebound and roofed it in the back of the net. Liverpool turned it around and eventually held on to win in an epic penalty shootout. A jubilant Alonso spoke after the match, stating it was the best moment of his professional footballing career.
The following season would bring Alonso and the Reds more silverware in the form of the FA Cup. An ever-present player for the Reds in 2005-2006, he was instrumental in the march to Wembley. In a January third round fixture against Luton Town, Alonso pushed LFC to a win after finding themselves down 3-1 in the match. Xabi accounted for two impressive goals—one from 70 yards out to bring the match back within striking distance. Later in the tournament, Xabi would pick up another ankle injury at the hands of Portsmouth which would put his Wembley appearance in serious doubt. Luckily for the club, he would be able to start for the Reds although again not being 100% fit at the time. He made his presence felt on the pitch when Liverpool’s third goal came from a set piece delivered by Xabi and put away by Gerrard. Alonso was unable to play out the full 90 and was subbed off in the second half and the match would go in to penalties without him. Liverpool was able to win the penalty shootout securing themselves their second winner’s medal in as many seasons.
The 2006 campaign started out with a bang for Xabi scoring one of the most memorable goals in his career — an extraordinary strike from inside his own defensive half against Newcastle. What made this feat so special is that it was his first goal for the club since his audacious goal against Luton, making Xabi the only player to score consecutive goals from his own half of the pitch in modern professional football history. He would go on to say that he thought his Newcastle goal was better than the Luton goal. Even without a medal, the season would be quite a successful one for Alonso and the Reds finishing third in the Premier League and making it to their second CL final in three years. This final, however, would not come out as hoped and Milan would exact revenge on the Merseyside club winning 2-1.
Although Xabi was clearly enjoying his time at LFC and had just signed a new deal in the summer of 2007, his relationship with the manager was about to plummet in 2008. Benitez’s pursuit of Gareth Barry would put a strain on the relationship between player and manager, however, the season would begin and neither Barry or Alonso would leave their respective clubs. The drama however left the Spanish midfielder feeling disillusioned and unsettled at Liverpool and with his position in the team. Even with the ongoing saga behind the scenes, Alonso was crucial in the team’s fast start to the season. Xabi would continue to prove his worth in a match at Chelsea where he scored the decisive goal in a 1-0 victory. This was historic because no away side had come to Stamford Bridge and taken the three points from Chelsea in four years. Unfortunately, it would be Xabi’s last campaign in a red kit and he would complete his £30m move to Real Madrid on August 5, 2009 — a move which Gerrard himself stated left him devastated. Many LFC supporters shared the same sentiments and affection for the Spaniard.
Since Alonso left following the 2008-09 season, Liverpool have struggled to have a powerful midfield that consistently controls a game. They have not been able to sign a player to bring the qualities that Xabi brought to the team. Although the time was right for him and the club to part ways with the growing tension, many supporter’s still long to have him back in our squad. He has proven to still be world class and has won everything there is to win for both club and country since leaving Liverpool. The one bit of comfort that we all can take in the relationship between Xabi Alonso and Liverpool is that he is one of us—a Red through and through. The man reciprocates the love from supporters and shares the same passion we do for the club. The memory of Alonso will forever echo at Liverpool. Though his playing days with LFC are long gone, the impression and impact he made at Liverpool will be felt for many years to come. The red-bearded fellow plucked from the Basque Country in Spain should always be viewed as a true Liverpool legend.
“I am still a Liverpool fan and will be forever, absolutely. The things that I have lived and the experiences I had during those five years are deep in my heart and the passion and respect I had for the club and its supporters are still the same. Hopefully I can transmit to my son what Liverpool Football Club means and how special it is, as he was born in the city.” Xabi Alonso (2011)