Liverpool's 2000-01 treble season was, naturally, defined by their successes in the League Cup, FA Cup and UEFA Cup.
But long before the possibility of silverware materialised, the Reds embarked on the new campaign with another primary objective: Champions League qualification.
Gerard Houllier’s side had missed out on a return to Europe’s elite club competition the previous year by failing to win any of their last five league games, a dip in form that saw them finish two points behind third-placed Leeds United.
No such slip-up could be allowed to happen again as Houllier targeted an average of two points per match for his side to secure a Champions League ticket and take a significant step in their development.
Here, as our series looking back on the incredible 2000-01 season continues, we examine the highs and lows of a dramatic top-flight campaign that ran alongside those three glorious cup runs.
A sun-kissed Anfield provided the scene for Liverpool’s season-opener against Bradford City, a clash they won 1-0 thanks to Emile Heskey’s surging run and clinical finish midway through the second half.
The Reds were up and running, but the arduous nature of that victory foreshadowed a tricky remainder of the month.
Just two days later, they had two men sent off – Gary McAllister and then Dietmar Hamann – in a 2-0 defeat at Arsenal. A sobering outcome against a team Houllier’s men sought to compete with.
“The two teams battling for the titles at the time were Arsenal and Manchester United, [Arsene] Wenger and [Sir Alex] Ferguson,” detailed Jamie Carragher.
“And I think there were probably three or four clubs around them hoping to join them and make it a top three. I think those teams were ourselves, Leeds and Chelsea. We were all like a little nucleus of teams trying to join the other two and trying to make it a three-way fight for the title.”
It was clear improvement would be required, however, as Liverpool then squandered a three-goal advantage with 17 minutes to play to draw 3-3 at Southampton.
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Back-to-back Anfield wins over Aston Villa and Manchester City provided sufficiently soothing medicine at the outset of September.
Michael Owen helped himself to a hat-trick in little over half an hour against Villa, while Hamann dispatched two sumptuous finishes past City to help the Reds edge a 3-2 result.
Once again, though, stumbles were around the corner – a 1-1 draw at West Ham United was followed by the same scoreline on home soil versus Sunderland.
“The start of the season was not going according to plan, but it didn’t surprise us. Because this team was coming together,” said Phil Thompson, assistant manager to Houllier. “When you’re looking for that steady progress, that is going to happen.”
A demoralising 3-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge dropped Liverpool to seventh and again bruised their ambitions, leaving them somewhat short of the level of form Houllier deemed imperative.
The Reds delivered an emphatic response next time out, though, as Heskey’s hat-trick put Derby County to the sword, though the victory came at the cost of a head injury to Owen.
A towering near-post header, a vicious blast from distance and a poacher’s finish at Pride Park exhibited the full range of Heskey’s skills and encapsulated the confidence with which he would play all season.
The England international was the difference again when his former club, Leicester City, visited Anfield, before Houllier’s men wrapped up the month with their best result of 2000-01 to date.
Three months after swapping Everton for Liverpool, Nick Barmby – of course – opened the scoring in the Merseyside derby with a memorable Anfield Road end header.
“It was one of those headers that looked like it took an age to go in,” said Heskey. “And then everyone just runs off and goes celebrating in the corner.
“It was just great to see him get off the mark as well because there was a lot of focus on him. To get on the scoresheet was wonderful and put us at ease to go on and win the game.”
Kevin Campbell soon levelled for the Blues but second-half strikes from Heskey, yet again, and Patrik Berger (penalty) sealed a 3-1 win and ensured genuine momentum heading into November.
In keeping with the season so far, however, the Reds promptly slumped.
A thrilling, but ultimately futile, showdown at Elland Road in which Houllier’s charges led 2-0 and later 3-2 eventually ended in a 4-3 win for fellow chasers Leeds.
Yet more Heskey goals – this time a brace – helped clinch a comprehensive defeat of Coventry City at Anfield to lift Liverpool back into third place in the table.
Successive 2-1 defeats at Tottenham Hotspur and Newcastle United undermined their recent progress, though, and left the manager with plenty to ponder coming towards the halfway point of the season.
December would be another period, in terms of results, of positives tarnished by negatives.
But two high-profile victories gave Houllier’s developing side a psychological boost that had a transformative effect on their campaign, both in the league and the three cup competitions.
After Charlton Athletic were dispatched 3-0 at Anfield and Ipswich Town clinched a 1-0 win in L4, the Reds travelled to Old Trafford – a ground where the club had not been victorious for more than 10 years.
Danny Murphy’s precise free-kick on 43 minutes divided the arch-rivals on the day and consigned that frustrating streak to the history books.
“I’d had a free-kick minutes before that and I’d messed it up,” explained Murphy. “When we got this particular one, me and Nick Barmby had been practising them in the week and I thought he was going to pull rank a little bit.
“Nick actually said to me, ‘You’ve had a sighter, go again.’ So, I thought, ‘Lovely, no problem, you don’t have to ask me twice!’”
Another dose of conviction Liverpool could mix it at the top had been delivered.
“We were told we hadn’t won there for the amount of time we hadn’t and these were all the triggers that were getting you going and getting the juices flowing going into that one,” said Steven Gerrard.
“I had a real big belief we were going to shock people, because no-one really gave us a chance. We went in as underdogs.
“But every single person to a man went and carried the role out that Gerard asked of us. And we deserved our win, it wasn’t a smash and grab.”
Confidence soaring, the Reds routed Arsenal 4-0 at Anfield six days later.
Gerrard offered the catalyst with a thunderous, angled drive in front of the Kop on 11 minutes, and Owen, Barmby and Robbie Fowler added increasing gloss during a satisfying second half.
“I think those two results, particularly the Manchester United one and then playing against Arsenal again a few days later, I think it gave the players, the squad a belief that we could compete,” said Thompson.
A Boxing Day defeat at Middlesbrough served a reminder of the work still required, but Liverpool moved into 2001 promisingly positioned just two points short of their target of third place.
The Reds’ propensity for shooting themselves in the foot began to dissipate in the New Year, despite the growing number of cup ties running parallel to their league schedule.
They brought in 2001 in dramatic fashion as Markus Babbel’s 86th-minute winner finally snatched a 2-1 victory over Southampton at Anfield.
Murphy’s double was the pillar of their subsequent win at Villa Park, before consecutive draws against Middlesbrough and Manchester City left them continuing to hover outside the Champions League spots.
With a two-legged UEFA Cup clash versus AS Roma, an FA Cup fifth-round tie against City and the League Cup final coming up, Liverpool played two league matches within the opening 10 days of the month and then no more.
Four points were collected as West Ham were comfortably seen off at home, followed by a 1-1 draw on the road against a Sunderland side flying high and battling for European qualification themselves.
A 2-0 reversal at Leicester in early March – the newly-crowned League Cup winners’ single league match in a five-week period crammed with cup games – and a subsequent 1-1 home draw with Derby threatened to derail the Reds’ objective.
But, once again, they produced an impressive, inspirational response, completing a Premier League double over eventual champions United with a rip-roaring 2-0 victory at Anfield.
Gerrard’s blistering blast from 30 yards soared into the top corner and the midfielder’s lofted assist presented Fowler with a chance to bury a finish past Fabien Barthez from close range.
“That’s one of the iconic Gerrard goals, isn’t it?” said Carragher. “If the ‘keeper had got his hand to it, it would have took him in the net as well.
“That almost felt like, ‘Wow, Stevie’s here.’ We all knew he was a great player, but do it against United [with] Keane on the pitch and maybe Scholes [as a substitute] as well, to produce that on that day was a real standout moment for Stevie in his career actually.”
Liverpool now sit fourth, a point behind Leeds but with two games in hand.
The Reds’ season was now approaching a decisive crescendo.
April involved eight fixtures in all competitions, including five in the league – a run that started with back-to-back encounters with sides also chasing a top-three finish: Ipswich and Leeds.
It didn’t go well.
Three days after a 1-1 draw at Ipswich – a game scheduled just two days on from Liverpool’s FA Cup semi-final – Leeds came to Anfield and raced into a 2-0 lead by the 33rd minute. Gerrard halved the deficit early in the second period, but was then sent off and the visitors held on to land a serious blow in the battle.
That loss, though, would prove to be the last significant setback of the campaign.
Because, thankfully, McAllister did not listen to advice from Carragher in the final minute of an iconic Merseyside derby at Goodison Park.
The Monday evening contest had practically everything as the Reds twice led and Everton twice equalised, with a Fowler missed penalty and an Igor Biscan sending-off part of a topsy-turvy plot too.
And then, in added time with the score 2-2, McAllister ingeniously chose to try his luck from a free-kick in the left channel from a distance of 44 yards, somehow successfully swerving his effort inside the near post as every other person inside the stadium waited for a cross.
A miracle. A priceless win. And a turning point.
“I could see [Everton goalkeeper] Paul Gerrard,” said McAllister. “It was the last kick of the ball and my thinking was, ‘He wants to be the hero here, he wants to come and try to claim this.’
“I’ve just played a similar free-kick a couple of minutes before where I sat it up at the back post, and I felt he was going to come and try to take it. And that was a big mistake by him. Because just in the run-up, it was a little technique I used: still sort of always looking where the ‘keeper’s feet [are], even from that distance you can see little movements in front. And just the fact that Gerrard makes the step to his left, I thought, ‘Wow, I’m going to go for this.’
“Prior to it I think Carra came up to me and said, ‘Don’t even think about it.’ Because he was reading that I was maybe threatening to have a shot from maybe 30 or 40 yards.
“But it all ended pretty nicely!”
The victory, and its nature, sparked Liverpool into a pivotal winning streak, chalking up defeats of Tottenham and Coventry before the end of the month – the latter courtesy of late goals from Sami Hyypia and McAllister.
With FA Cup and UEFA Cup finals to come, too, they now trail both Leeds and Ipswich by three points, but have a game in hand. They control their own destiny.
A cathartic victory at Valley Parade, the scene of their final-day failure to qualify for the Champions League 12 months earlier, carries their winning run into May.
Owen, purring in front of goal, vanquishes Newcastle with a consummate Anfield hat-trick and then bags twice in a clash with Chelsea that ends 2-2 but gives the Reds total clarity for their last game of 2000-01, at Charlton.
Beat the Addicks and they’ll be playing European Cup football for the first time in 16 years.
More on that tomorrow…