Even after retirement, this is still turning into an exciting year for Luis Garcia. The Spanish midfielder, who stopped playing in January, has enjoyed watching two of the clubs closest to his heart, Liverpool and Atletico Madrid, have seasons far beyond expectations, which could well climax in glory for both next month.
Garcia still attends Atletico matches and always watches Liverpool on television. On Sunday afternoon he will certainly be busy. Liverpool host Chelsea, knowing that a win would put them on the brink of the Premier League title. As soon as that game finishes, Atletico kick off at Valencia, trying to maintain their lead at the top of La Liga.
Liverpool against Chelsea at Anfield has a special resonance. This is one of the classics of modern English football and Garcia was the star man in one of its most arresting and important recent occasions, in May 2005.
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea came to Anfield to face Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final after the teams had drawn 0-0 at Stamford Bridge. Four minutes in, Steven Gerrard flicked a pass over the top, Milan Baros ran on to it and was clattered by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech. The ball fell to Garcia, whose shot was hacked away from the line by William Gallas. It was unclear whether the ball had crossed over, but Slovak referee Lubos Michel awarded the goal, Liverpool won the tie 1-0 and went on to beat Milan in the final.
The incident became known as “the ghost goal”, and Garcia remembers it fondly. “It was probably not the best goal, but probably the most important of my career,” he says. “Everybody spoke about it and discussed it but nobody agreed about what happened. For me, it was in. That is how I celebrated, you can see at that moment I threw my head back as I saw the ball going in.”
10 reasons why Liverpool can still lose the Premier League title race
10 reasons why Liverpool can still lose the Premier League title race
1/6 Chelsea could well win at Anfield
The next game for Liverpool is against title rivals Chelsea. While Liverpool showed in the 3-2 win over Manchester City that they can win the big games, the visit of the team from west London is another proposition. Quite simply, Jose Mourinho is a genius when it comes to the big games. Against the other current top-four sides, Chelsea haven't lost. They beat City home and away, beat Arsenal 6-0 at Stamford Bridge and drew at the Emirates and won 2-1 against Liverpool. If Liverpool lose on Sunday, Chelsea will be just two points behind. If City win their remaining games and Liverpool win their other two, they will finish the season equal on points; City currently have a better goal difference.
2/6 Changes at the top
What now seems a long time ago, Arsenal were well clear at the top of the table. A little later in the season, Manchester City were leading and supposedly invincible. Liverpool, were, of course, the Christmas No 1, but sat in fourth place on New Year's Day. Chelsea had a spell at the top too. It's been a season of change, it'd be folly not to think there could be another one before the season is out.
3/6 Manchester City should not be discounted
This is a team who were two points behind Manchester United with just two minutes remaining in 2012, Sergio Aguero then scored in the 95th minute, and the rest is history. Should it go down to the final day, City will have had the experience of being in such a tense situation before, Liverpool have not - at least not for many years. If City win their remaining games and Liverpool win two and lose one, they will finish the season equal on points; City currently have a better goal difference.
4/6 Newcastle come last
Should it come down to the last day of the season there are few more fitting opponents than Newcastle. Liverpool have played out some of the classic games of the Premier League era against the Magpies, most notably the 4-3 thriller won by the Reds during the 1995/96 season. That win for Liverpool seriously damaged Newcastle's title ambitions - could the Magpies return the favour?
5/6 Liverpool's defence is awful
The Reds' defence has been as leaky as a half-built vessel in Liverpool's shipyards. They've got away with it thanks to the goals flooding in at the other end but will their luck hold out in the final couple of games? Crystal Palace, one of the remaining games, have a particular tight rear guard, making it all the more important that Liverpool hold at the other end. Liverpool have conceded more headers than any other side.
6/6 Kolo Toure
How a player of such limited ability as Kolo Toure could become the first to win the Premier League title with three different teams is unfathomable.
That was a magical night at Anfield. Garcia remembers it as “the most exciting game” of his career. “It is the game that I remember the most, and remember the feelings.” Chelsea striker Eidur Gudjohnsen’s volley that flew across the face of goal in the sixth and final minute of added time is still particularly clear for him.
Those were the days when Liverpool were Champions League regulars, reaching two finals, another semi-final and another quarter-final during Benitez’s tenure. Their last Champions League match, though, was a dead 2-1 home defeat by Fiorentina in December 2009, towards the back end of the eras of both Benitez and American owners George Gillett and Tom Hicks.
After four years in the relative European wilderness – they were beaten in the 2010 Europa League semi-finals by Atletico, and had two more low-key campaigns – they are back in the big time from next season. Liverpool’s excellent form this season has already assured them a place in next season’s Champions League group stage, and Garcia is delighted for them.
“It is a different atmosphere at Anfield on Champions League nights,” he says. “We enjoyed it for a few years when I was there, and when the game arrives, it is a different atmosphere. All the people are missing that, all the supporters deserve another year like that one to enjoy the Champions League.”
Liverpool have a title to win before then, and Garcia is especially keen that they do it. “They have shown that they are a proper team, and with people up front who can kill you at any moment.”
Garcia knows how much it would mean to everyone associated with the club but especially the man who captained him for three seasons, Gerrard. “All of them, the people and the fans of Liverpool, deserve it. But Stevie is the player who deserves it the most, he has been at the club for so many years, waiting for this kind of trophy and I think he deserves that. Hopefully we can enjoy it and we can be happy and enjoy it for the city of Liverpool.”
The club, clearly, made a deep impression on Garcia, just as it did on Xabi Alonso, Pepe Reina and the other former players who still tweet about Liverpool whenever they are playing. “When we were all there, we mixed with the people at the city and at the club and to all of us it means something having been at Liverpool.”
Liverpool winning the league would be a triumph for Brendan Rodgers’ coaching, just as an Atletico title – their first since 1996 –would be for the organisational and motivational skills of Diego Simeone. Asked to compare the approaches of Rodgers and Simeone, Garcia sees more of Mourinho in the Argentine’s intensity. “Simeone is a manager that likes to put all the players under pressure, likes to show them how to go until the end, and how to take 100 per cent of every player in every game. So he is more like Mourinho than Rodgers.”
Simeone and Rodgers could well meet in next year’s Champions League, freshly crowned as champions of their own leagues. For Garcia, this season could not end any better. “Both of them are trying to reach a new title,” he says. “Liverpool has been many years waiting for this trophy, and Atletico Madrid is the same. All the players know that and they are showing their best every game.”
Only on Sky Sports can viewers enjoy both the Premier League and La Liga title races