Morientes: “I consider myself part of the Liverpool squad that won the Champions League”
Fernando Morientes, who played in four Champions League finals, looks back on his time at Real Madrid and Liverpool.
During his playing days, out of all the competitions he starred in, the Champions League held a special significance for Fernando Morientes. He knows how it feels to win the trophy, score in a final, end on the losing side and even scored a crucial away goal that eliminated his employers. Due to UEFA’s regulations on mid-season transfers, he was ineligible to play for Liverpool in competition during the season the Reds won their fifth European crown in 2005, but feels he played his part in that triumph in other ways. He joined Rafa Benítez’s Spanish Liverpool in the January transfer window but couldn’t be registered for the Champions League as he had already played in the group stage for Real Madrid. It was precisely for being cup-tied that Morientes missed out on joining an elite group of players who have been at five Champions League finals (Edwin van der Saar, Clarence Seedorf and Patrice Evra).
For four seasons, Morientes had partnered Raúl in Madrid’s attack but fell down the pecking order when the club signed Ronaldo in the summer of 2002. Frustrated at his lack of playing time, the following season he decided to join Monaco on loan. In a strange twist of fate, Monaco ended up meeting Real Madrid at the quarter-final stage. Carlos Queiroz’s Madrid looked to have the tie under control, racing to a 4-1 lead in the first leg at the Bernabéu. But Morientes nodded in what would turn out to be a vital away goal late on. In the return leg at Stade Louis II, Raúl extended Madrid’s lead but rumour has it that Zidane inadvertently mentioned to Ludovic Giuly that he and the rest of the team were worn out as the players made their way down the tunnel at half-time. That information was just the impetus Monaco needed to turn the game and the tie around in the second half. Morientes and Giuly beat Casillas to make it 3-1 on the night, 5-5 on aggregate but Madrid were eliminated on away goals. Monaco advanced to the final but lost to a Porto side managed by a young José Mourinho.
At Liverpool, the Kop even put together a song which they would sing especially for him, a rework of the famous Abba hit: “There was something in the air that night, he shone so bright, Fernando!”
With both of his former clubs set to meet in this year’s final, Morientes sat down to chat to AS.
You joined Liverpool on 12 January 2005, made your debut three days later against Manchester United at Anfield. Could you have imagined then that Liverpool would go on to win the Champions League but you would be cruelly denied a winners’ medal?
It was difficult to be honest. I remember that back then, players did complain about the situation. We couldn’t understand how, after having played for one club, you couldn’t join another club halfway through the season - for exactly what happened to me. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that Liverpool win the Champions League, but me, as a Liverpool player, am not a European champions because I wasn’t allowed to play any games because of the rules; but if Real Madrid had won that year,I would have been a champion for the six games I played during the group stage (Morientes played four for Madrid in the group stage - both legs against Bayer Leverkusen and Dinamo Kiev, he was on the bench for the Matchday 6 trip to Roma). So officially, I couldn’t be a champion with my current team but I could with my previous one… That doesn’t make any sense to me.
But at least you won the Champions League three times with Real Madrid...
I realise that I have a very special relationship with this tournament. I won it in ‘98, 2000 and 2002 - the seventh, eighth and ninth for Madrid. Three experiences which hold very special memories for me because the circumstances were very different in all of them. I also feel as though I won it with Liverpool in 2005. Even though UEFA say I didn’t, that whole experience is deep inside me and I consider it among my list of honours. I was a member of that squad, I trained with those players every day and worked as hard as they did. Nor will I ever forget the final with Monaco which, even though we lost to Porto, was a tremendous experience. Five finals, four titles, in a career spanning 18 years - not bad at all. I always spare a thought for players who have reached the final maybe once or twice but lost and I won four out of five.
How did you handle it at the time?
It was strange, to say the least. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to play in the Champions League, but I ever imagined that we would reach the final and win it in the way we did. My frustration only increased as the team made it past each round - it’s understandable. I had come from playing regularly in the competition for Real Madrid and being an important member of the team. The previous year I had played the final with Monaco…
Liverpool met Juventus (who had eliminated Real Madrid) in the quarter finals. Then Chelsea in the semis, Milan in the final. What was your role in those ties?
Exactly the same as my team mates apart from playing. I didn’t travel with the squad for away games - up until the final of course. For the home games I was just another member of the squad. I would listen to the boss’ tactical talk, which was usually in Melwood, then I’d get in my car and head to Anfield the same as those who weren’t in the squad list. The other players went on the team bus. Inside the stadium, I would be inside the dressing room with my team mates during those minutes before the team goes out onto the pitch. Rafa gave his final instructions. I would listen, look at everyone with growing frustration because I wanted to help in those games but knew I couldn’t - everyone wants to play those games. The atmosphere on those Champions League nights was so special. Anfield lives European nights in their own special way. It reminded me of how it felt at Real Madrid - especially against those classic sides. The dressing room then was small and so I just tried to keep a low profile, not to bother anyone, or distract them.
Was any one moment particularly painful for you?
Not so much in the quarter finals and semi-final, because I kept it all inside but I suffered on the day of the final. I felt irritated because I couldn’t savour it from the inside. The team travelled on their own. I had to go on another plane with those who were not in the squad and family members. We were at a different hotel in Istanbul. That was tough for me. I would have liked to have at least been at the same one as the lads - to be close to them, listen to Rafa’s chat. My experience was more like a fans’. Like it will be for me this time in Paris.
Back then you wanted Liverpool to win but now you will be rooting for Madrid.
Of course. I was a red back then and now I’m a white. I have a great fondness for Liverpool, I wish them the very best before the final and after it.
During those months when you could only play in the Premier League and League Cup, what did Rafa Benítez expect from you?
Things were always very clear between us - we spoke mostly about the games and me adapting to a style of football which was new to me. I remember when we were due to meet Juventus in the quarter finals, before the first leg in Turin, I was at home in Liverpool and the telephone rang. It was quite late. Juve had eliminated Madrid in the previous round and he called me to see if anything had struck me about them in those games, anything in particular that drew my attention… That was what Rafa was like. He had everything meticulously prepared, but wanted to know every last detail, however banal it might seem. Sometimes, I felt as though he could never really enjoy those moments of glory. He was always thinking about what he could improve or what he might have got wrong. On the day of the final, I went up to congratulate him… and he started talking about next season, and what he wanted from me… I was amazed, we’d just won the Champions League and here he was thinking about next season. But that’s what he was like.
How is Liverpool from the inside? How was your 18 months at Anfield?
I still follow them closely and I think there have been a lot of changes in the last few years, the team has grown so much. Back then, it gave me the sensation of being a very homely club - very open and accessible to everyone. You noticed the greatness of the club for how it was set up, for the stadium, and for how they make you play a part in their history. They share it with you and want you to be a part of it with them. They live in the present, but with one eye on the past - much more than here. They are constantly taking part in commemorative events - for the tragic things their fans suffered, for instance Heysel and Hillsborough, but also for their successes, their former managers and ex-players.
It’s a very different kind of worship than we have here in Spain...
Sure. It was something which I noticed in my first week there. We were playing United and I realised just what that game meant historically for the club and the fans. We ended up losing (0-1). It can be compared to a Madrid-Barça, it’s just like the Clásico. The players are very involved in all of the club’s activities - every 10-15 days, we’d have to all attend an event, all smartly dressed.
What’s it like for a Liverpool player in public, out on the street?
It’s all very normal. People respect your privacy and tend to leave you alone so you can go about your daily business unnoticed. It’s on matchdays when the atmosphere starts to really get intense, when you make your way to the stadium and you can see all of the fans on the street, having a beer… The day-to-day was completely different to what I experienced at Real Madrid. Maybe other clubs are more like Liverpool, but at Madrid, you knew the places where you couldn’t go and the public were more likely to want your time. In Liverpool, you could go anywhere without feeling pestered, although it’s true that back then there wasn’t that many places to go to. After being European capital of Culture in 2008, the city has changed a lot. When I was there, we would to Manchester to have dinner, or go out.
The final in Paris is approaching, give us your analysis of this Liverpool side, who could win the lot.
At the start of the competition, I said that the one side I hoped Madrid would avoid was Liverpool. Now, there is no way of avoiding them. For me, they are the strongest side - more than Bayern, PSG, City… For a side like Madrid, they couldn’t face a worse team - they never stop running, they have lightning -quick players up front and Madrid suffer a lot when they are pressed high up and defences play a high line. Madrid struggle to win the ball back, because they are not a team which is cut out to press high up the pitch and Liverpool is the best side in Europe if they are given space to run. A while ago, you had to be on the lookout for three players - Salah, Firmino and Mané, but now they have Jota and Luis Díaz - five forwards. They are strong in attack but I still see the final at 50:50.