The year is 2002. Bruno Cheyrou – touted the ‘new Zidane’ by manager Gerard Houllier – joins from French side Lille. High praise indeed. But Cheyrou never lives up to the tag. He scores just five goals in 48 appearances. In 2006 – four years and two unsuccessful loan moves later – he’s deemed surplus to requirements by new manager Rafael Benitez.
It’s 2004. Fernando Morientes, a precocious talent who boasts an impressive record of 82 goals in 182 appearances for Spanish giants Real Madrid, makes the switch. Exciting, huh? The Spaniard – a £9million signing – is bought to replace Ballon d’Or winner Micheal Owen. But just two seasons and twelve goals later, Morientes is shipped out.
It’s 2011. Kenny Dalglish, on a summer spending spree, splurges a reported £17.5million on Aston Villa winger Stewart Downing. The Englishman is in his prime. He’s a fully-fledged England international and has just enjoyed his best season yet, scoring eight goals in all competitions for Villa.
With the likes of Andy Carroll at the club, it’s believed his crossing abilities will pay dividends. Downing is the missing link, fans hope. But his career follows the same trajectory as Carroll’s – downwards. In 2013, the Englishman leaves the red of Liverpool for the claret and blue of West Ham United having made little impression.
And the list goes on… and on… and on…
It’s fair to say the Reds have had their fair share down the years. But in my mind, three names stick out head and shoulders above the rest. Disagree? Comment below with your top three.
3. Alberto Aquilani
The Italian made his name in Rome. At the age of just 17, Aquilani had plenty of suiters. Chelsea and Arsenal, for example, were said to be keeping tabs. But the beginning of his career was stop-start. Whilst his talents were undisputable, injuries were frequent.
The Italian was an integral part of Italy’s U-16, U-17 and U-21 teams throughout the early 2000s as a dynamic, versatile midfielder. Aquilani could dictate games from the middle. He was full of energy and had an eye for a pass. It was this amalgam of abilities which attracted the attention of Liverpool and Benitez in 2009.
The Reds took a £20million punt on the youngster which, even at the time, seemed substantial.
His plaudits were numberable, however. Indeed, Roma legend Francesco Totti even went as far as to say Aquilani could be “the best in the world” – if he remained injury-free. Former Red John Arne Riise – a Roma player in 2009 – was also full of praise. The Norwegian waxed lyrical about the youngster’s elegance on the ball and clinical edge. He was a ‘box-to-box midfielder’, as Riise asserted, and when comparing him to Xabi Alonso – the man Aquilani had the impossible task of replacing – Riise said he is “probably more dangerous (in front of goal)”.
Fans took to him. Welcoming the Italian with open arms, Scousers dubbed him Il Principino – little prince – a title which adorned a banner unveiled on the Kop not long after his arrival.
The void left by Alonso – the heart of Liverpool’s midfield for half a decade – was large. And Aquilani, forever injury-prone, struggled to fill it – literally. In fact, he made his first Premier League start in late December against Wolves at Anfield, some five months after he’d put pen to paper on a five-year-deal.
Highlights thereafter were few and far between. A brilliantly timed half-volley finish in the Europa League semi-final second-leg is perhaps the most memorable moment on Merseyside.
But injuries continued to haunt the Italian. So much so that after Benitez’s departure in 2010, he made just two more competitive appearances in the red of Liverpool.
He then returned to Italy to play for Juventus, then Milan – two loan spells – and finally, in a permanent move away from Anfield in 2013, Fiorentina.
2. Harry Kewell
In the early 2000s, Kewell was one of the most sought-after talents in the Premier League. The Australian – and, coincidently, boyhood Liverpool fan – was signed by Houllier in 2003.
It was, at the time, a major coup. The Reds had pipped the likes of Milan, Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona to his signature. Kewell made his name at Leeds United as a dynamic winger with a wand of a left peg. But, much like Aquilani, injuries prevented him from realising his full potential.
Houllier must have thought he’d purchased the final piece of the title-winning jigsaw – it cost £7million. The then 24-year-old seemed to tick all the boxes, and so he was deemed what is today tritely called a ‘marquee signing’. Liverpool had lacked a natural winger since the days of John Barnes, so that made a lot of sense.
Kewell made a decent enough start, scoring seven goals in the league including a sumptuous strike against Merseyside rivals Everton. He also finished as Liverpool’s top-scorer in European competition. But then the wheels fell off.
Injury after injury, Kewell’s form deteriorated. He was a shadow of his former self in 2004/05, scoring just the one goal all season. The Australian could only curse his luck as he hobbled off in the 2005 Champions League final with barely twenty-minutes played. The severity of his injury – diagnosed in the summer as ‘Gilmore’s Groin’ – ultimately meant he would spend much of the duration of the next two years at Liverpool watching on from the sidelines.
In a career blighted by injury, flashes of brilliance only added to the frustration. An arrowed shot into the top left corner at the Kop End against Everton in March 2006 served as a reminder of his talent.
In his last season at the club – 2006/07 – Kewell played just twice – in a 1-0 defeat to Fulham at the Craven Cottage and in a 2-2 draw against Charlton Athletic on the last day at Anfield.
1. Robbie Keane
Keane may be a surprise pick for some. Indeed, the Republic of Ireland international was only on Merseyside for a mere 6-months. He arrived at Anfield in 2008 with high hopes of lifting Liverpool’s first English league title for twenty-years alongside the likes of Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres.
Keane, a proven goal-getter, was to provide much need depth in attack behind arguably the best in the world, Torres. As it turned out, the former Spurs man hardly got a look-in.
Even so, Keane still managed to find the back of the net on seven occasions. A ferocious first-time strike into to the upper netting against Arsenal at the Emirates is the pick. But, if truth be told, Keane and manager Benitez never saw eye-to-eye, as the former has recently made clear – you can find out why here.
Keane left in January to return to his former club. Bizarrely, Liverpool sold the forward for a cut of the price they’d paid for him.
The Reds went on to finish a close second, four points behind champions Manchester United. Dropped points at home to the likes of Manchester City (they weren’t all that then), Everton, Arsenal and a defeat away at Middlesbrough meant the Reds agonisingly missed out.
The inevitable question which can never be answered is this: had an immensely capable Keane stayed, would Liverpool have pipped United to the title? It’s this deeply unnerving sense of ‘we’ll never know’ which puts Keane top.