“Was it a goal? That’s the question, isn’t it? I doubted it for a moment…but I turned round and saw the referee running back into position, and just started screaming.”
– Luis Garcia
That’ll be Luis Garcia, aptly summarising the mood of every Liverpool fan on the evening of 3 May 2005.
That was the Spanish striker speaking to The Guardian about his most famous Liverpool goal. But depending on who you believe, it wasn’t actually a goal.
There will never be another European campaign quite like Liverpool’s in 2005.
The Istanbul miracle is one of football’s last great fairytales. A team who looked out of place even competing in the Champions League, going all the way and conquering one of the best teams on the planet from a seemingly impossible position.
It’s one of the most celebrated games in Liverpool’s modern history, and around this time of year, you can rarely escape the replays, highlights, images and retrospective content from the their astonishing three-goal fight-back against a hapless AC Milan.
But we rarely see much of the game that set it up.
It’s common knowledge that Liverpool had to ride their luck to get to Istanbul, but it tends to fly under the radar that they didn’t actually get the ball in the back of the net at any point during their semi-final with Chelsea.
The first leg at Stamford Bridge was a 0-0 stalemate. The second, at a raucous, bouncing Anfield, finished 1-0 to the home side.
Luis Garcia is credited with the strike…but at no point did it actually go in.
Jose Mourinho’s screams could be heard from the sideline when referee Lubos Michel signalled that a goal had been scored with five minutes on the clock.
Following a driving run from John-Arne Riise, Steven Gerrard had dinked a tempting ball into the path of Milan Baros.
The Czech striker nipped in beyond John Terry, and with the Kop end doing all they could to hoover the ball into the back of the net, he poked it up and over his desperate countryman Petr Cech, who flattened him in the process.
But before the referee could even think about awarding a penalty, Garcia was on it in a flash.
He forced it goalwards and wheeled off to celebrate…just as William Gallas appeared to clear it off the line.
Perhaps the immediacy of the celebration, met with an explosion in the baying Kop, influenced Michel’s decision.
But it didn’t matter. The goal was given, and Mourinho was left apoplectic on the sidelines.
It’s only with the benefit of replays that we can say with relative confidence that it didn’t cross the line. At the time, it looked on the edge, and Garcia to this day maintains that it did actually go in.
Had the referee opted not to give the goal, he would surely have had to send off Cech for his role in stopping it. The keeper had impeded Baros and influenced his attempt to score; the correct refereeing call might have been to stop the play there and give the foul.
But while Chelsea bemoan the decision to this day, this was the charm of football before VAR. It was ugly, it was unfair at times, but it led to one of the most magical and dramatic moments in the Champions League’s modern history. Garcia sent Liverpool to the final, where they would defy the odds in the most extraordinary way imaginable.
It might not have been a goal, but ask Luis Garcia if he cares.