With Liverpool set to do battle with Bayern in the Champions League last 16 next week, in the first competitive meeting between the two sides since 2001, it’s natural to reminisce about some of the ridiculously good players who have played for both sides over the years.
Pepe Reina; Dietmar Hamann; Markus Babbel; Christian Ziege; the list goes on.
If you ask any Reds fan who has followed the team since the turn of the century to name one player who has crossed that particular picket line, though, the first answer will be Xabi Alonso, because Xabi Alonso was a different level of good. He was Spain’s answer to Steven Gerrard…only cooler.
It only seems right, then, that with that meeting coming up on Tuesday, we take a second to reflect on the transcendent, yet still somehow underrated career of one of the best midfielders ever.
You could argue that he spent the best part of his playing career never really being ‘the man’ at any of his respective clubs. At Liverpool he partnered Steven Gerrard, before arriving at a Real Madrid team around the same time as Cristiano Ronaldo, and then was later thrown intoBayern midfield packed with the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery.
He also had the misfortune of never playing in a once-in-a-generation side like his compatriots Xavi and Andres Iniesta, who hit their peak in virtual parallel to that of his own. Alonso, then, had quite the crowd to stand out from.
From the day he arrived at Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool, and even prior to that with Real Sociedad, however, he did just that.
Arriving as one of Benitez’s first signings alongside the likes of Luis Garcia and Fernando Morientes, he consistently made his presence felt with some dominating performances and important goals throughout the 2004/05 campaign, but it was in Istanbul later that season that the world truly took notice.
Famously, an Alonso-inspired side came back from three goals down in the Champions League final to take the tie to penalties – with the man himself scoring the all-important equaliser – and the Reds went on to pip Milan to their fifth European Cup, in what is thought of as perhaps the greatest result in the club’s history.
The Alonso mythos continued to build throughout the following season, as he became a bona-fide first team regular.
Things would get needlessly dramatic in a 5-3 FA Cup win over Luton, but Alonso cooled nerves with casual 45-yard pearler and a strike from his own half – the first of two goals he’d score beyond the half-way line at Liverpool.
Such was the influence he would exert in his five years on Merseyside, in fact, that his eventual departure in 2009, attributed to differences with Benitez, preceded a dip that Liverpool took years to recover from. The Reds soon-after entered the dark days of Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish that we won’t bother going into for the sake of my mental health.
Alonso, though, as only Alonso could, left with his head held high and an almost untainted relationship among the Anfield faithful, and strolled right into a Real Madrid team that picked up a club-high of 96 points, but somehow still wasn’t enough to beat a ridiculously good Barcelona side to the title.
Earning himself the fantastic nickname of La Barba Roja (The Red Beard) in the three years to come, he would outlast Pellegrini to hold down a first-team place under Jose Mourinho, and started greedily claiming trophies.
He won La Liga once, the Spanish Cup twice, and another Champions League in 2013/14, and had also claimed three consecutive international honours with Spain by this point.
From there, he would join Bayern, and his reputation already well established, he would continue to just be Xabi Alonso. He won everything German football has to offer in three successful years, before bringing his storied playing days to an end in 2017 – retiring to join the Real Madrid coaching set-up.
His career, really, had everything. World Cups, Champions Leagues, domestic titles, individual accolades, memorable goals, the absolute lot. He was always a consummate, respectful professional, without showing the sort of blind loyalty that you could argue hampered the development of some players in his generation.
He’ll be watching Liverpool vs. Bayern Munich, wherever he is, quiet yet confident in the knowledge that even at 37, he could probably still improve either midfield.