The Kop is set to conjure a cacophony not heard since 2005 to unsettle City and inspire Liverpool's surge to the league title
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Manchester City have prepared meticulously for Anfield but a sizable stone will be left unturned if Manuel Pellegrini does not show his squad a DVD of Liverpool's 2005 Champions League semi-final defeat of Chelsea. They don't have to watch, just listen. That wall of noise is coming their way on Sunday afternoon.
No supporter ever scored a goal and the power of the crowd is mythologised too often, even at Anfield. But not on 3 May 2005, when Liverpool's desperate longing for a first European Cup final appearance in 20 years affected José Mourinho's Premier League champions-elect. The Kop was unusually busy over an hour before kick-off that night, a throwback to the days when you had to arrive early for a decent spot on the terrace, with the volume turned up to 11 when Frank Lampard and co stepped out for the warm-up. Stretches and shuttle runs have never provoked such venom. "That was a frightening noise," Steven Gerrard said afterwards. "I feel it made Chelsea nervous."
By the time kick-off arrived Anfield was a frenzied mass. An awe-struck Roman Abramovich applauded the rendition of You'll Never Walk Alone and four adrenalin-fuelled minutes into the game the referee, Lubos Michel, awarded Luis García's infamous and decisive "ghost goal". Mourinho lamented: "I felt the power of Anfield, it was magnificent. Maybe that interfered with the result."
"So what," one might ask, "City have run this race before?" Not with an obstacle like Anfield in their way. Sunday promises to be the old stadium's most raucous act since that Chelsea game and what daylight may detract from the spectacle, poignancy and Liverpool's 24-year wait for a 19th league title will add. Online vendors are asking almost £5,000 for a pair of £52 tickets to the truest test of City's nerve, character and championship credentials. "Anfield won't have hosted a bigger league game for a quarter of a century," wrote John Aldridge in his Liverpool Echo column this week. "It's not quite on the same scale as when we played Arsenal in our final game back in 1989 but it's not far off."
As with Arsenal's last-gasp title triumph in 1989, City will present a wreath of flowers to Liverpool before the game, now to mark the impending 25th anniversary of Hillsborough. A mosaic reading "96 – 25 years" will appear on the Kop during the minute's silence before kick-off which, as with all matches this weekend, has been delayed by seven minutes. The referee, Ray Lewis, stopped the 1989 FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at 3.06pm.
On Tuesday, the Hillsborough families break from fresh inquests into their relatives' deaths for the annual memorial service at Anfield, with readings this year from Brendan Rodgers and his Everton counterpart, Roberto Martínez. The roar when the referee Mark Clattenburg's whistle breaks the silence on Sunday will carry raw emotion. Tom Werner, the Liverpool chairman over from Boston for the game and Tuesday's service, will get all the confirmation he needs that Fenway Sports Group is right to rebuild Anfield and not relocate.
City will be facing the Kop and the mosaic in the moments before kick-off. They possess title-winning experience, audacious talent and men of stature, yet two members of the Chelsea camp in 2005 who now ply their trade at Liverpool believe Anfield did exert an influence over Mourinho's men and could do so again. Glen Johnson was an unused Chelsea substitute for that semi-final second leg. Having witnessed the scenes before Liverpool's recent home win over Sunderland, when flags, smoke-bombs and thousands of fans greeted the team coach as it snaked along Anfield Road, he is confident City will be disadvantaged.
"The atmosphere that night was incredible," the Liverpool and England right-back recalls. "If it's your fans making that noise it does give you an extra boost when you are tired. It does help when you have got to dig in. On the other hand, when you're the away team, you can be thinking: 'Here we go again.' It is tough.
"I didn't know what Liverpool was like as a city back then as I was in London but now, sitting on the other side of the fence, I can see the excitement around the place. You always meet people who want to wish you luck throughout the season but in the last few weeks I've had people shouting it from across the street and everywhere. You can see the excitement in people's faces and we saw it on the coach before the Sunderland game. I remember playing against Benfica in one of my earlier games for the club and that was similar, with the crowd starting 200 yards down the road from the stadium as we approached. When you turn up for a football match you can't wait to play but when you see the excitement on everyone else around you it gives you an extra buzz."
Also sitting in the opposition dug-out in 2005 was Chelsea's then youth-team coach, Rodgers. The Liverpool manager has consciously avoided talking up his team's title prospects in recent months, even during their current run of nine consecutive Premier League wins, while promoting the importance of Anfield at every opportunity. Earlier in his reign, Rodgers said: "I was here for the first Chelsea semi-final, for the 'ghost goal'. For me, it wasn't a goal. That was the sheer force of the crowd that got the goal. José spoke at that time of how he didn't think it was over the line but the bottom line is that the referee gave it. It was under massive influence, there is no doubt about that. The atmosphere was as good as you will ever get."
At his unveiling as Liverpool manager in June 2012, Rodgers spoke of turning Anfield into the longest 90 minutes of an opponent's life. The quote has been rekindled many times since, against Rodgers during the difficult first six months of his tenure and in his favour as the vision took shape with startling speed and results. The full quote, his goal for Liverpool, was shaped by that visit to Anfield in 2005.
"With Chelsea in the Champions League the players said they had never experienced support like that," he said. "That was ultimately what won the game and that is what I want to do here. I want to use the incredible support to make coming to Anfield the longest 90 minutes of an opponent's life. That's the idea. I want to see this great attacking football with creativity and imagination, with relentless pressing of the ball."
Liverpool's fulfilment of that wish has generated a belief at Anfield comparable to the 2005 Champions League campaign. Then, as now, there is momentum behind tournament outsiders with an ability to rise to the occasion and acts of Gerrard escapology, albeit now enhanced by the excellence of Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge. The unforeseen opportunity to clamber back on to the perch only a year after Sir Alex Ferguson retired, confident in his belief Liverpool needed eight top-class signings to challenge again, sweetens the incentive.
There is the feel of 2005 at Anfield and also remarkable similarities with Bill Shankly's first title-winning campaign as Liverpool manager 50 years ago. Suárez and Sturridge are the first two Liverpool players to score 20 goals or more in a league season since Ian St John and Roger Hunt in 1963-64. That season, as this season, Liverpool beat Manchester United 1-0 and 3-0 and went to the top of the table after beating Tottenham Hotspur at home on 30 March, a position they never relinquished as they ended their 17-year wait for the championship. Also, on the past two occasions Liverpool have played Manchester City on Boxing Day before this season, 1981-82 and 1985-86, they lost both fixtures but went on to win the league. Omens everywhere.
What matters more are the championship-like performances that Liverpool have produced frequently this season, from the 5-1 demolition of Arsenal to the last-gasp 3-2 comeback at Fulham. City need one of their own to puncture a critical mass 24 years in the making at Anfield. And earplugs.