Xabi Alonso's Liverpool departure precipitated a fall
Influential midfielder will retire this summer16:49 Thursday 9 March 2017, 16:49 9 Mar 2017
"He was, by some distance, the best central midfielder I ever played alongside."
That's just a small snippet of the tribute paid to Xabi Alonso by his ex-Liverpool team-mate and captain Steven Gerrard long before the news that the Basque player will call time on an excellent career in the summer.
The Bayern Munich midfielder won it all as a player at club and international level... World Cup, European Championships, Champions League, La Liga and Bundesliga.
He was also Spanish Player of the Year in 2003 while at boyhood club Real Sociedad prior to his 2004 transfer to Liverpool.
Immediately, Alonso was part of the famous Istanbul final, scoring the third goal in Liverpool's famous comeback from 3-0 down against AC Milan, showing presence of mind at the second attempt after missing a penalty.
While that Champions League final will always go down in history much in the same way that Barcelona's 6-1 victory over PSG last night will, it was by no means the best Liverpool team Alonso played in.
The 2008-09 campaign pushed Manchester United close in the Premier League and were only missing two or three parts from being a truly title winning side.
Just think back. Fernando Torres was still at his peak up front, Jamie Carragher was at the heart of the defence in front of goalkeeper Pepe Reina.
Liverpool's Xabi Alonso, second left, celebrates his goal with his teammates during their English Premier League soccer match against Hull City at the KC Stadium, Hull, England, Saturday, April 25, 2009. (AP Photo/Scott Heppell)
But it's the midfield that added some brilliance to that strong spine. Steven Gerrard led the side from there and Javier Mascherano who has since become a defensive linchpin for Barcelona played the holding role well.
But Alonso was arguably the key man with his vision, long range passing and ability to shoot from range as a deep-lying playmaker.
Who knows what could have happened if Rafa Benitez's side had been kept together for the 2009-10 season, with the addition of one or two more players capable of advancing the level of the squad?
As we all know, 2009-10 was the season which saw Liverpool fall from their Top 4 pedestal. That campaign, the Reds fell back to 7th with a very similar team to the one that finished four points off the top the previous campaign. They also got knocked out at the group stage in the Champions League, falling behind Fiorentina and Lyon in their group - unthinkable when Alonso anchored and guided the midfield.
The big difference? Alonso and Benitez's differences had led the Spain midfielder to depart for Real Madrid in the summer of 2009. Underwhelming Italian midfielder Alberto Aquilani would prove to be an inadequate replacement.
The decision to sell Alonso incensed Gerrard who later wrote in his autobiography, "Rafa Benitez, who had been so clever to buy him in the first place, was equally stupid to sell him to Real Madrid five years later."
Gerrard continued: "I blame Rafa entirely for the loss of Alonso. He could still have been playing for Liverpool six or seven years after he left in 2009."
And lest we forget, Alonso did not push to leave as he revealed in a book by Simon Hughes, saying: "Rafa came to me and was very clear. He said, ‘Xabi, we need the money to sign other players that I want’. In order to make that money, my name was the first on the list to be sold."
That was a year before the 2009 departure and Alonso also added: "I was ready to leave, because the manager wanted me to leave. It did not happen, though. So the next year, the situation was different.
"I went to Rafa: ‘OK, a year ago you wanted me to leave and I accepted it. Now I want to leave’. In the end, there was an agreement but it was not easy because he wanted me to stay by that point."
Alonso went on to win Champions League title with Real Madrid in 2014 and was also part of the Spain in the 2010 World Cuo win, famously getting a kick in the chest from Netherlands' Nigel De Jong in the final.
The fact Pep Guardiola brought him to Bayern Munich as a key player in a deep role was also indicative of his enduring influence and to echo Gerrard, it was a ludicrous decision for Liverpool to sell him as his game was built around vision and strategy rather than pace and physicality.
And while Alonso has enjoyed success and influence since leaving Anfield, Liverpool have only re-entered the Top 4 at season's end once since he left. It's not the only explanation for Liverpool's drop from prominence but certainly the difference between 2009 and 2010 has strong ties to the summer he left.
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