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I was sacked in blunt meeting in manager’s office after costly Liverpool mistake

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John Arne Riise’s Liverpool career came to an end after a costly mistake against Chelsea – but the seeds might have first been sown against Luton Town three months earlier.

Liverpool welcome Luton Town to Anfield for the first time since January 2008 on Wednesday, as they look to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League table.

The Reds were held to a 1-1 draw by the Hatters at Kenilworth Road back in November as they required a Luis Diaz last-minute equaliser to earn a share of the spoils. But with Wednesday marking a year since they last lost at home (5-2 to Real Madrid in the Champions League), they’ll be hoping things are a little more straightforward against Luton at Anfield.

Jurgen Klopp’s side have won 23 and drawn four of their 27 home matches over the past year, winning 16 of their 20 Premier League games at Anfield. Meanwhile, only Arsenal and Manchester United have stopped Liverpool from winning at home this season.

In truth, they found things rather simple the last time they hosted Luton too, running out 5-0 victors in the FA Cup third round 16 years ago. Ryan Babel opened the scoring just before half-time, before the Reds ran riot in the second half as Steven Gerrard netted a hat-trick and Sami Hyypia also scored.

While Gerrard started that day, he didn’t actually captain the side. Instead, Jamie Carragher wore the armband as he made his 500th appearance for the club.

Meanwhile, the midfielder was withdrawn instantly after scoring Liverpool’s fifth goal in the 71st minute. But he had to beg Rafa Benitez to leave him on earlier in the game as he went in search of his hat-trick.

“The manager called me over and said he was about to take me off,” Gerrard revealed at the time. “I pleaded with him to give me five minutes more because I wanted to get my hat-trick. I’m made up he let me because it’s always nice to get three goals.”

Yet while the Reds enjoyed a comfortable night at Anfield, they hadn’t when first facing Luton nine days earlier. Their 5-0 victory was a third round replay, with Liverpool held to a 1-1 draw in the initial meeting at Kenilworth Road.

Peter Crouch had opened the scoring in the 73rd minute in the original tie, only for a John Arne Riise own goal three minutes later to set up a replay. And in truth, the strike was perhaps a forewarning for the Norwegian as he navigated what would prove to be his final months at the club.

Attempting to defend Drew Talbot’s cross from the Liverpool right-side at the near post, Riise unwisely attacked it with his stronger left foot, under pressure from David Edwards, and ended up diverting it past goalkeeper Charles Itandje.

Three months later the left-back would make a similar error but in much more costly circumstances as the Reds faced Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals.

Leading 1-0 thanks to Dirk Kuyt’s opener, they were closing out a valuable win when Salomon Kalou sent in a searching cross from Liverpool’s right-hand side in stoppage-time. While Riise would this time avoid attacking it with his stronger left foot, his preference to avoid using his weaker right foot, which would have been a safer decision in an attempt to clear upfield, would again prove costly.

Stooping low under pressure from Nicolas Anelka, he ended up beating Pepe Reina with a diving header to give Chelsea a valuable, and ultimately decisive, away goal.

Starting the 3-2 second leg defeat a week later, it would prove to be his final appearance for the club as Benitez called him into his office to bluntly tell him he would be sold and wouldn’t be involved for the remaining games of the season.

“He smiled at me from behind his desk. Then he said: ‘I think it’s time we go our separate ways’,” Riise recalled in his 2018 autobiography. “‘You could benefit from new challenges and we’ve bought a new left-back that we intend to rely on’…

“Liverpool had purchased Andrea Dossena from Udinese for £7million, but that kind of thing had happened before. On each occasion I had accepted the challenge and emerged victorious from it.

“So I hadn’t expected this. I just sat there, half in shock…. ‘You’re a big name, you can play anywhere at all. We’ll help you find another club if you like’.

“‘Can I play the last matches?’ was all I could say. For some reason it was important that I reach 350 matches and an exact average of 50 per season. Benitez just shook his head… I’d got the sack, plain and simple…”

In truth, the left-back’s standards had arguably slipped in his final two seasons with Liverpool as he fought with Fabio Aurelio for a starting role, with only the Brazilian’s injury record ensuring he didn’t retain the position permanently.

Ultimately forced out by Benitez in the summer of 2008 at the age of 27, he ended up joining AS Roma in a £4m deal. In truth, Liverpool would arguably end up regretting Riise’s exit, with Dossena, Paul Konchesky, Jose Enrique and Alberto Moreno all struggling as left-back became a problem position for the Reds for the best part of a decade.

Fortunately the arrival of Andy Robertson in 2017 at least saw Jurgen Klopp solve such a dilemma, with James Milner, Kostas Tsimimas, and Joe Gomez all proving to be most capable deputies.

Riise remains a firm Liverpool fan-favourite, having won the Champions League, FA Cup, League Cup, and the European Super Cup during his seven seasons at Anfield after signing from AS Monaco. But such exploits weren’t enough to stop Benitez from losing patience with the Norwegian.

While his costly own goal against Chelsea would prove to be the final nail in the coffin for Riise’s Reds future, seeds were perhaps being sown in his manager’s mind long before. Not learning from previous mistakes, his own goal against Luton was potentially the beginning of his Liverpool end.

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