Milan Baros’ brief but eventful Liverpool career saw him make a surprise Champions League debut in March 2002, top score for his country in the European Championships, and play a key role in the Reds’ amazing 2005 Champions League success
One of the most enduringly fascinating parts of Liverpool’s incredible Champions League success in Istanbul in 2005 was the number of unheralded heroes that emerged.
Many will remember captain Steven Gerrard’s inspirational leadership, which saw him play in three different positions during the game, goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek’s match-winning saves that defied the disbelieving Italians, and manager Rafa Benitez’s tactical reshuffles that helped turn humiliating defeat into unfooling victory.
It may be argued that every individual who played a role in Liverpool’s most incredible success deserves a place in the Anfield pantheon of glory, but there are certain names who will always stand out – Jamie Carragher summoned every ounce of energy in extra-time and battled through severe episodes of cramp to keep Milan at bay; Dietmar Hamann shrugged off the disappointment of being omitted from the starting line-up to transform the game as a half-time substitution and score a penalty in the shoot-out.
Djimi Traore battling back from his horror Burnley own goal earlier in the season and escaping his aborted half-time substitution to make a crucial goal-line clearance after the Reds had drawn level; and even Neil Mellor, Igor Biscan, and Antonio Nunez, who made crucial contributions on the way to the final but never made it on the pitch in the Turkish capital.
After being surprisingly introduced off the bench in what he knew would be his final match for the club, Vladimir Smicer memorably scored the final goal of his Reds career two minutes after Gerrard’s header to really reinforce belief that an implausible comeback was conceivable.
And that intoxicating night on the European-Asian border was also the final time one of Smicer’s Czech Republic team-mates donned the red shirt of Liverpool, having made his own valuable contributions, particularly toward the end of a campaign in which he had played a significant role.
Milan Baros‘ transfer to Liverpool was originally overshadowed because it was revealed at the same time as Nicolas Anelka’s loan move from Paris Saint-Germain in late December 2001.
The ‘Enfant Terrible’ reputation of the 22-year-old Frenchman was already established following his dramatic debut as a teenager with Arsenal, where he played a key role in the Gunners’ 1997/98 Premier League and FA Cup double triumph. His reportedly’moody’ reputation, as well as subsequent moves to Real Madrid and back to the French capital, ensured his arrival at Anfield was big news as Liverpool looked to build on the previous season’s Treble cup triumph under caretaker manager Phil Thompson while Gérard Houllier recovered from a life-threatening heart problem.
It meant that the £3.2m signing of an unheard-of 20-year-old Czech forward from Banik Ostrava was always going to fly under the radar at first, though Thompson expressed his delight about Baros’s potential at the time of his unveiling.
“Gerard and our European scout, Alex Miller, first saw him at a youth event three years ago when the Czech side was fantastic,” Thompson added. “We’ve wanted him since then, and in the same manner as Gregory Vignal and the two French guys from Le Havre, Milan is a signing that makes the future of the club very bright.
“I’d describe him as a strong, quick player. He’s a goalie with a lot of speed.”
It was a dream come true for Baros, who grew up in the Czech Republic supporting the Reds since his father was a Liverpool supporter.
“I was really thrilled that my first experience in England was with such a renowned club like Liverpool,” he said years later on This Is Anfield. “My father was a red, and we used to watch the games on TV. Liverpool quickly became my favorite team.
“Back then, Tottenham was also quite popular in the Czech Republic, but Liverpool were the team for us.”
Delays in obtaining his work permit, on the other hand, made for a rough start to life in Merseyside for the young Czech, who stated that nearly everything about his new nation – the lifestyle, the food, the pace of the game – was a culture shock to him.
It was evident that Baros had been recruited with the future in mind, and he would only make one first-team appearance in that first half season at Anfield – on this day in 2002 – but the setting and circumstances of it may have underscored how high Liverpool had hoped for him.
Between 1999/2000 and 2002/03, the Champions League introduced a short-lived second group phase before the quarter-finals, and after successfully navigating the first one in their first appearance in the competition by topping a group that included Borussia Dortmund, Dynamo Kyiv, and Boavista, Liverpool began the second with a harsh reality check when losing 3-1 at home to Barcelona.
Following a string of draws against AS Roma, as well as home and away against Galatasaray, the Reds proceeded to the Camp Nou for the penultimate group game, knowing that failure would almost certainly be fatal to their prospects of qualifying for the last eight.
Houllier’s men had secured a crucial goalless draw in the Catalan capital only 11 months earlier in the first leg of their UEFA Cup semi-final and were closing in on another valuable stalemate that would likely mean victory in the final match at home to Roma would be enough to qualify when, with just over a quarter-hour remaining, Baros was introduced as a substitute in place of Emile Heskey for his Liverpool debut.
It raised a few eyebrows among the travelling Liverpudlians in the stands, who soon got a glimpse of the Czech’s vivid but raw talent when he picked up the ball near the halfway line on the left-hand touchline and embarked on a diagonal run right into the heart of the Barcelona penalty area – seemingly without ever lifting his head up – before eventually being crowded out by defenders.
Given the difficulties of his settling-in period, Baros’ inclusion surprised not only those watching but also the man himself, but his mentality in those early months had not gone unnoticed by Gerard Houllier, who would return to the dugout the following week for that crucial decider against Roma but was inevitably aware of everything going on at Anfield and Melwood during his convalescence.
“”Milan’s mindset was right from the start; he just needed time,” Houllier explained. “With all due respect to Banik Ostrava, he was a young guy who had moved from a little club in Czechoslovakia to a major club and a large environment in Liverpool.
Michael Owen had been left on the bench with the new season’s Champions League campaign set to begin three days later in Spain against Rafa Benitez’s Valencia, but Baros rose to the occasion magnificently, playing a key role in a 3-2 victory that lifted the Reds to third in the league table, opening the scoring on the stroke of half-time by receiving a Hamann pass following a smart dummy by Bruno Cheyrou on the edge of the penalty area, spinning away from his marker
He added a second on 71 minutes, producing a deft outside-of-the-boot volleyed finish from Gerrard’s left-footed right-wing cross to put Liverpool back in front following Ricardo Gardner’s equaliser, and reflecting on those two opening salvos of his Anfield career Baros said: “The Barcelona game when Phil Thompson was in charge, I was on the bench but wasn’t nervous because I never expected to be involved.
“That was a big surprise to receive 15 minutes and it was amazing to play in front of 75,000 people in one of the world’s top stadiums, but my biggest recollection is the Bolton game. I knew I’d start three or four days before the match and could prepare accordingly. It added to the emotional impact of the encounter for me.
“It’s one of the biggest events of my career. I was quite nervous before the game. Bolton was a challenging place to visit back then; they were always fighting. It was more of a fight than a football game.
“I was overjoyed with how everything went. I scored two goals and came close to a hat-trick when I hit the post. It’s a memory I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
“That was my first start for Liverpool and I scored two goals, incredible.”
Owen returned to the team for what would be a humiliating defeat at Valencia’s Estadio Mestalla, but Baros started and scored in Liverpool’s next two matches, at home to West Brom in the Premier League and Basel in the Champions League, fostering genuine hope that Houllier’s side now possessed the kind of depth required for a sustained assault on the top prizes.
The Reds went top and stayed there for the best part of a month after beating Leeds United in mid-October, but the wheels fell off their season – and ultimately Houllier’s reign overall – when their first league defeat of the season at Middlesbrough in early November was followed three days later by elimination from the Champions League at the first group stage following a 3-3 draw in Basel, leading to an 11-game run without a league win that lasted into the following season.
A season that began with so much hope and promise ended in failure when defeat at Chelsea on the final day meant failure to qualify for the following season’s Champions League, despite Baros finishing with a respectable tally of 12 goals in 22 starts (42 appearances overall), which put him joint-second in the club standings.
He also earned his first medal after playing a brief but unsatisfying role in Liverpool’s League Cup final victory over Manchester United in Cardiff, replacing Heskey on the hour mark but then being replaced by his Czech teammate Smicer in the 89th minute.
“I was unhappy at the moment,” he said. “You don’t want to go off as a substituted substitute, but it’s more disappointing in a cup final against major rivals.
“We had just gone 2-0 up and the game was won. I was taken aback because I had only replaced Heskey with half an hour remaining. I was young and disappointed, but you have to consider what is best for the team. It is the most crucial aspect. What mattered was that we won the trophy.
“I let it get to me during the celebrations because I was humiliated. I should have appreciated the moment more. It’s been many years, and I can only look back with pride. It was my first significant honor, so I have a very different perspective on it now.”
After only appearing as a substitute in Liverpool’s first two games, he earned a starting spot for the next three – the second of which saw him provide an important assist for Michael Owen as the Reds got their stuttering start to the season up and running with a 3-0 victory over Everton in the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park – before suffering a broken leg, which kept him out for five months, away to Blackburn Rovers.
Within a week of his return to first-team action the following February, Baros scored a stunning equalizer at Leeds, and soon after scored the opener in Liverpool’s UEFA Cup quarter-final first leg against Olympique Marseille. However, with Houllier attempting to salvage Champions League qualification from another disappointing season as his Anfield era came to an end, the manager largely went with his tried-and-trusted Owen and Heskey partnership.
Fourth place – and everything that would lead to the following May – was eventually secured before Liverpool ended Houllier’s reign as manager, and the lack of recent game time did not appear to have harmed Baros when he was top goalscorer at Euro 2004, notching five goals in five games as the Czech Republic reached the semi-finals before losing to eventual surprise winners Greece.
His dissatisfaction with life at Anfield reared its head during the tournament, when he accused Houllier of destroying his confidence and claimed he would have left the club if the French manager had not already done so, though his feelings toward the man who brought him from Ostrava to Liverpool softened over time.
“I had lost my motivation in Liverpool, and it wasn’t until I linked up with my national teammates that I shed weight, recovered some mental confidence, and regained my motivation,” he explained. “I’ve heard that I play differently for my nation, but that’s simply not the case. At Liverpool, I play precisely the same way.
“Houllier knocked the wind out of my sails. I wasn’t getting picked, so I decided to leave Liverpool in the summer. I was quite upset about not being on the team. I was in good shape and felt it was an injustice.
“But, a new coach has been appointed, and the situation has altered. Rafael Benitez will start every player from the same position next season.
“Everyone of us will have something to prove. Now that the previous boss has left, I want to stay and be a part of it. All I can hope for is that I can carry this form into next season, which I am confident I can.”
The departure of Owen to Real Madrid that summer was offset by the arrival of £14m French forward Djibril Cisse, but Benitez started the season with the two of them up front, with the Czech scoring the first Anfield goal of the Spaniard’s reign in a comeback victory against Manchester City and also scoring in the Champions League group stage opener against AS Monaco, which officially set Liverpool on the road to Istanbul.
It would turn out to be the most productive stretch of Baros’ Anfield career, with the Czech scoring 11 goals by mid-December of the new season, including his only hat-trick in a 3-2 win over Crystal Palace at Anfield clinched with a last-minute Kop-end penalty.
With experienced Spanish striker Fernando Morientes arriving from Real Madrid in January, Baros’ opportunities became more limited, with the manager increasingly opting to play Gerrard in a more advanced role as the Reds’ wildly inconsistent league form forced Benitez to find a solution to make his side more resolute.
Morientes’ protracted transfer meant he was cup-tied for Europe, and with Cisse suffering a broken leg at Blackburn earlier in the season that would keep him out until the season’s end, Baros became Benitez’s go-to guy as Liverpool’s unexpected and exhilarating Champions League campaign built to an incredible crescendo – the Czech starting every one of the knock-out ties against Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus, and Chelsea, as well as the
After having the visitors’ best chance of the goalless first leg of the semi-final at Stamford Bridge, when his header from Gerrard’s cross was brilliantly denied by his compatriot Petr Cech, it was Baros’ quick thinking and burst of pace beyond Ricardo Carvalho from Gerrard’s cute dink four minutes into the Anfield second leg that caused the Chelsea keeper to race out and clatter him, with Luis Garcia following in to score the eternal
“It was the loudest game I’ve ever played in,” Baros subsequently revealed. “It was powerful before the kick off and during the game, but after that final whistle it was fantastic.
“I recall how insane it was for Luis Garcia’s goal. I attempted to reach the ball and was taken down by Petr Cech. I turned to face the referee, expecting a penalty, but Anfield just exploded!
“I don’t care what anyone says about it being inappropriate. We were successful. It was preferable to receiving the penalty, which you could always avoid. It gave us the lead, and we fought with everything we had to keep it.”
Cisse’s remarkable recovery from a compound leg fracture suffered at Blackburn the previous October bolstered Benitez’s strike options ahead of the final, and with Liverpool already linked with new forwards ahead of the summer transfer window, there were suggestions Baros could be on his way, with the Czech admitting it was a possibility before the trip to Turkey.
“I have got multiple offers from other teams, and it is now my agent Pavel’s responsibility to talk to them,” Baros told the Daily Mirror. “Maybe I’ll leave Anfield, maybe I won’t. We will consider what is presented.
“I am calm about my future and I can concentrate totally on the Champions League final. But my major goal right now is to preserve my spot ahead of Cisse in the final against Milan, and I will do all in my power to do that.”
Cisse started and scored twice in Liverpool’s final Premier League game of the season against Aston Villa at Anfield, but while Benitez surprised everyone by dropping defensive midfield lynchpin Hamann in favor of Harry Kewell, Baros was named to the starting lineup to face AC Milan, much to his relief.
“To be honest, I was astonished that I started,” he remarked. Djibril scored twice in the penultimate league game before we flew away for the championship. I was expecting him to participate. Rafa chose me, and I was astonished to see Harry Kewell in the squad after a string of injuries. But that is the manager’s responsibility. He chooses the team and has a game plan.”
The Italians produced a first-half masterclass in the Ataturk Stadium, with Paolo Maldini’s opening inside 50 seconds being followed by a Hernan Crespo brace that left Liverpool three goals behind at the break and facing down the barrel of disgrace on the global stage.
Carragher surged forward over the halfway line before playing a slide-rule pass into the direction of the Czech’s penalty-box run in the inside-right channel, where, spotting Gerrard charging into the box behind him, Baros deftly nudged a back heel into the skipper’s path, which he latched onto before being brought down by midfielder Genaro Gattuso, giving Spanish referee Manuel Mejuto González
In his book, Gerrard praised Baros’s divine touch, adding, “I was racing in behind. I hoped against hope that Baros spotted me. If he did, I’d be in on the goal. Baros heard my pleas and located me with a pinpoint accuracy. Baros was criticized for being selfish during his time at Liverpool, but he shown incredible sensitivity that night in Istanbul.”
After a tense, interminable delay while the referee dealt with the shell-shocked and panicked Italian protests, Xabi Alonso slammed the rebound after Brazilian goalkeeper Dida saved his initial effort from 12 yards high into the net to tie the game at 3-3 and was rewarded for it by being nearly throttled by a delirious Baros who was the first of his teammates to do so.
“Stevie shouted to me that he wanted the one-two,” Baros subsequently said of his role in one of the most critical events in Liverpool history. I tried to touch it into his path with my back to goal. He got in front of his man, and it was a penalty.
“Rafa had chosen Xabi to take it before the game, and I was so relieved when he got to that rebound!” I was supposed to be the first to celebrate with him, but I accidently hooked him by the neck! It was an incredible comeback.”
After being substituted for Cisse with five minutes of normal time remaining, he watched from the halfway line as his teammates won the penalty shoot-out 3-2 to seal the greatest and most miraculous comeback in European football history and spark celebrations so wild he couldn’t fully recall them later.
“There’s about 10 seconds there where I can’t recall anything,” Baros explained. “Sometimes when I see the highlights of the penalties, I see us all racing like crazy towards Jerzy. That run has slipped my mind. It was insane; there are no words to express it. Wow, the feeling and the euphoria.
“When you go into the locker room at halftime and you’re 3-0 down, you probably believe winning the game is impossible. We were sitting in the dressing room, feeling depressed. We were considering how to score at least one goal for our fans who had traveled a long distance to Istanbul.
“But you know, we scored pretty immediately in the second half and within a few minutes the score was 3-3. Then we got lucky in extra time and ended up in penalties. Jerzy Dudek made some fantastic saves to help us win the trophy. He had a significant role in our accomplishment. Yeah, it was something that could only happen once in a hundred years.
As the dust settled, Liverpool’s new status as European champions added a new dimension to their summer recruitment plans, with Baros’s future at Anfield becoming uncertain, as he had alluded to before the final, and, after being told by Benitez that he would likely only have a bit-part role to play, he signed for Aston Villa for £6.5m in August 2005, a decision he later came to regret.
“Rafa approached me and said he wanted to bring in Peter Crouch. “That meant I’d be second or third choice,” explained Baros. “It was a simple option at the time, but if I could go back to that moment today, I would choose to stay.
“There are a lot of games in a season and I’d have got my chance again. Now I realize I made a mistake. “I wish I had stayed and waited.”
After scoring 14 goals in 51 appearances for Villa Park over 18 months, he rejoined Houllier at Olympique Lyonnais in January 2007, a somewhat surprising move given Baros’ comments following Houllier’s Anfield departure three years earlier, though the Czech later revealed how much respect he had for his former coach despite their disagreements during his second season at Liverpool.
“I think the media made more of it than there was,” he remarked. We never experienced a major issue. Sometimes the player and the management have opposing viewpoints. We had that, but I always admired him.
“He has had a significant impact on my career. He took me from the Czech league to England, and I will always be grateful to him for that. There was no serious issue, so when he attempted to sign me for Lyon again, I was grateful for the chance to play for another successful club.”
After returning to the Premier League for a loan spell with Portsmouth, where he won an FA Cup winners medal in 2008, Baros spent five years in Turkey with Galatasaray, winning a Super Lig title winners medal in 2012, before finishing his career in the Czech Republic with former clubs Banik Ostrava, Mlada Boleslav, and Slovan Liberec.
His brief but memorable stay at Anfield, on the other hand, will be remembered fondly. “We won the Champions League, and it was incredible to play in England for the team I had followed on TV with my father,” he remarked.
“2004 to 2005 was a wonderful moment for me, with Euro 2004 and then that run in Europe. I’m still watching every Liverpool game.”