Champions League Final Special
By Quazi Zulquarnain Islam
History repeats itself. Or so they say. The last time Liverpool FC won the Champions League, in 1984, a new Pope had been elected, Prince Charles had just gotten married, they had finished fifth in the League and they had faced an Italian team in the final.
Fast forward to 2005. Liverpool FC wins the Champions League in a stirring match, which will ultimately go down in folklore as perhaps the greatest comeback in football history. It is also a year when a new Pope has been elected and one where Prince Charles has yet again decided to walk the aisle. And of course, they also finished fifth in the league. Oh! And if you were not watching, they were competing against an Italian team.
The final itself was one of the greatest spectacles of modern times. While every pundit across the land predicted a tight final with both teams canceling each other out, 1-0 seemed to be the score-line preferred by most. After all, both teams had reached this far based on solid defenses. While Steven Gerrard had been inspirational for Liverpool, their main strength lay in the back where Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyppia had developed a solid understanding. Milan had without doubt the best defense in the world. Cafu, Maldini and Nesta to name but a few. A scoreless draw looked a high probability but either team edging it in normal time looked the likely result. So 1-0 it would be, right? Wrong.
The one goal that most experts predicted would come, did so within the very first minute. Paolo Maldini, of all people, directing a right footed volley goal-wards from a Pirlo free-kick. 1-0 to Milan, and a minute had not been played. Milan then proceeded to play out possibly the most one-sided half in a final of this magnitude in history. It was men against boys as Kaka and Andrea Pirlo ran riot in midfield, making a mockery of usually tactically astute manager Rafa Benitez's decision not to play a holding midfielder.
The Brazilian Kaka was everywhere, spraying balls to every corner of the pitch and gliding past players with the ease of a ballet dancer. Liverpool were chasing shadows and looked likely to concede any minute. It took some time in coming but the second duly arrived in the 39th minute. Kaka, in another rampaging run forward teased the defense before playing in Andriy Shevchenko. The Ukranian dragged the ball back from the byline for Argentenian, Hernan Crespo to knock home into an open net. 2-0 to Milan and the writing was on the wall. Just when it seemed like it could not get any worse, Kaka produced a moment of magic. With a breathtaking turn, he nutmegged Steven Gerard before playing in a delicious 30 yard pass to the feet of Crespo, who duly obliged with a neat dink over the goal keeper. 3-0 at half time and the Milan contingent were already celebrating.
But what most did not realize was that the drama had only begun. If the first half epitomized Milan's technical virtuosity, the second showed Liverpool's fighting spirit. Dietmar Hamann came on at half time to shore up the midfield and provided the platform for the greatest comeback in modern times. Talismanic captain Steven Gerrard bought Liverpool level with a towering header in the 54th minute. Two minutes later Šmicer, playing his last game for the club, finished off a move involving Alonso and Hamman with a sweetly struck right-footed shot that Dida could only help into the far corner. Liverpool were on an irresistible wave and it came as no surprise when they equalized on the hour, Alonso scoring at the second attempt after Dida had saved a penalty given for a foul by Gattuso on the marauding Gerrard.
The match understandably slowed down after the spurt of energy and Milan assumed control but were still unable to make any headway in the goal scoring department. Normal time finished on the unbelievable score-line of 3-3. Extra time was a somewhat dull affair and only spurted to life in the last minute when much maligned Jerzey Dudek pulled off a remarkable double stop to deny the oddly subdued Andriy Shevchenko.
So to penalties it went.
Serginho fired Milan's first penalty into orbit and then some before Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek saved regular taker Andrea Pirlo's spot-kick. German, Dietmar Hamann and Djibril Cissé nervelessly converted their spot-kicks to leave Liverpool with a two-goal advantage. While Dane Jon Dahl Tomasson smashed his spot-kick home, John Arne Riise had his brilliantly saved by Dida. In the end, Andriy Shevchenko had to score his to keep Milan in the game. But the man who had won the Champions League for Milan, two years ago with a penalty kick, spurned his chance by hitting it straight at Jerzy Dudek, who had resorted to similar antics to that to legendary goalie Bruce Grobbelar. That completed an astonishing victory for Liverpool who had completed a remarkable turnaround.
It was glory for Liverpool and heartbreak for Milan. For the record, Liverpool will have the keeping of the European Champions League trophy and joins the likes of Real Madrid, Ajax, Bayern Munich and final opponents AC Milan who have received similar honors.
In the end it was a victory of spirit over body. The Merseyside team had heart and used it to spectacular effect. It is a final that will be remembered for all the right reasons. Istanbul will forever more be held as a benchmark for all other finals and the Kemal Ataturk stadium will earn a mention in the hallowed halls of football history.
Granted, compared to the sparkling Liverpool teams managed by Paisley and Fagan, who were favorites in most European finals they played in, Rafa Benitez had a side with an element of rag, tag and bobtail about them. This has been part of Liverpool's charm this season. On quality, they had no business even getting to the final let alone winning it. Yet, to have beaten Leverkusen, Juventus, Chelsea and Milan, I think, makes them worthy European club champions.
So for now, let us make a toast to the Liverpool FC- European Champions of 2005.