Unlikely Liverpool heroes ready to be born as Europa League final nears
As Liverpool embarked on the customary "lap of appreciation" after their final home match of the season on Wednesday, some of the team members must have been wondering if this would be the last time they'd be on the famous Anfield turf as Liverpool players.
Footballers change clubs more than ever these days and so the final home game of a season often provides outgoing players with an opportunity to say goodbye to the fans, and for the fans to show their appreciation to the players. Liverpool have had several of these situations over recent years, with the likes of Sami Hyypia, Jamie Carragher and of course Steven Gerrard a year ago. In all of those cases both the player and the supporters knew a departure was imminent. However, sometimes it's not so straightforward.
Players often don't know what the summer transfer window will hold for them, and while there's been plenty of speculation about several members of the Liverpool squad, none have officially been told they are out of the door yet. Or if they have, the fans haven't been made aware of it.
The Reds still have two games left to play, but that will surely have little or no bearing on manager Jurgen Klopp's plans for next season. In his mind, he will know if a player is in his plans or not, and that will not change, irrespective of what happens at the Hawthorns on Sunday or in Basel next Wednesday, when Liverpool face holders Sevilla in the Europa League final.There are several in the current squad whose time on Merseyside might be drawing to a close, as there are varying degrees of uncertainty surrounding the futures of Kolo Toure, Joe Allen, Martin Skrtel, Lucas Leiva, Jordan Henderson and Christian Benteke. Perhaps others, too, as no one knows for sure what Klopp's plans are for next season.
The game in Switzerland next week will not decide anybody's future at the club, but it may provide an opportunity for some to make a lasting impression before they depart. Sometimes on the biggest occasions, it's the unlikeliest of heroes who emerge and Liverpool fans know that better than most.
In 2001, the last time the Merseysiders lifted Europa League trophy (then the UEFA Cup), 35-year-old Gary McAllister was the key to victory. The Scot will forever be remembered by Kopites for his contribution against Spanish side Alaves in perhaps the most exciting final the competition has seen. He scored from the penalty spot and also floated in the free kick from which Delfi Geli put through his own net to give Liverpool a dramatic "golden goal" victory in Dortmund's Westfalenstadion.
In 2005, when Liverpool shocked the football world by winning the Champions League, few expected Vladimir Smicer to be one of the game's key protagonists. He didn't even start the match and only got his opportunity because of an injury to Harry Kewell. He was playing in what would turn out to be his last game for the club and came off the bench to score as the Reds famously came from 3-0 down at half-time to overcome AC Milan on penalties at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium. Smicer also converted a spot kick in the shootout; one of many enduring images of that incredible night is of the likeable Czech clutching the badge on his shirt following his successful penalty.
Smicer left the club that summer and if not for that contribution against Milan, his time at Anfield would largely be remembered as a tale of what might have been. He promised much, but often failed to live up to expectations. All of what went before is forgotten now as he will forever be linked with that night in Istanbul. Could one of the current crop follow in his footsteps?
Joe Allen seems the most likely as he has much in common with Smicer. Universally seen as a nice lad, he's popular with supporters and teammates and has shown flashes of genuine quality but has often been on the fringes, in no small part due to an inability to stay fit. No talks have taken place yet to extend his stay at Anfield, and he's been strongly linked with a move back to Swansea this summer. He's unlikely to start next week, but will almost certainly play some part as Klopp has frequently used him as an impact substitute to good effect.
Another parallel with 2005 could be the goalkeepers. Jerzy Dudek was another hero of Istanbul after making a miraculous save to deny Andriy Shevchenko in extra time and then saving from the Ukrainian again in the shootout. That wasn't his final game for the club, but it may as well have been, because whenever Kopites think of Dudek, they immediately remember his heroics in Istanbul. He remained at Anfield the following season but only as a back-up to Pepe Reina, signed that summer by Rafa Benitez as the Pole's replacement.
Current incumbent Simon Mignolet may well find himself in a similar situation. Having only just been awarded a five-year contract, the Belgian is unlikely to be shipped out by Klopp, but it would be a major surprise if another goalkeeper was not brought in to at least provide him with serious competition. Regardless of what the future holds for him, Mignolet has an opportunity next week to follow Dudek's path and make himself an Anfield legend. His last cup final appearance saw him make a costly error against Manchester City, as he allowed Fernandinho's shot to go through him at Wembley in February, so he'll be hoping for better luck this time.
There have been so many similarities between this season and the 2004-05 campaign that it almost feels like it's destined to end in a similar fashion next week. In Benitez's first season at the club, he reached the League Cup final and lost. He had a disappointing Premier League campaign and missed out on the Champions League qualification places, only to get in anyway by winning the trophy and thereby force UEFA into letting them defend it.
In his first season on Merseyside, Klopp has also reached and lost the League Cup final (or Capital One Cup as it's now known) and has missed out on Champions League qualification via a disappointing league placing. And now, just like Benitez, he has the chance to qualify as the fifth English club by lifting a European trophy.
Should Liverpool bring the trophy back to Merseyside next week, Klopp will obviously take his place alongside the other great managers who have led the Reds to European success, but these occasions are not just about managers and star players. If the trophy is won, even the bit players in the squad will always be remembered and revered.
Croatian midfielder Igor Biscan was an unused substitute in Istanbul but had played a significant part in helping the Reds get to the final. He moved on that summer, as did striker Milan Baros, who started against AC Milan but was sold to Lyon at the beginning of the following season. Both remain popular figures and are remembered fondly by supporters for their part in bringing a fifth Champions League to the club.
Even Djimi Traore, much maligned during his time at Anfield and who barely featured for the club after Istanbul, is a well-liked figure and can always be assured of a warm welcome any time he returns to Merseyside. None of the 2005 Champions League winners have to buy their own drinks whenever they come back to Liverpool. That's what European finals can do for players: They present an opportunity to make an indelible mark on club history.
Klopp should be drumming into his squad this week that isn't always the superstars who make the headlines in big finals, it can be anybody, so Liverpool's players all need to be ready for next week's game against Sevilla, as you just never know when your moment will arrive.
Just ask Vladimir Smicer.
Dave Usher is one of ESPN FC's Liverpool bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @theliverpoolway.