Liverpool 3 - 3 AC Milan (Liverpool win 3-2 on penalties)
by Anthony Jones at Talklfc
There is a very simple problem with having dreams, the fact that some don't come true. With forty five minutes played Liverpool were not only faced by the reality that the dreams might not come true but also the fact that it had been replaced with a nightmare. Yet the Champions League has never seen a comeback like this. This was no fortuitous two minute moment of madness. Liverpool's became masters of their own destiny in a show of character that will not be understood many years into the future. Dreams sometimes don't come true - but if you're prepared to believe in them, sometimes, spectacularly they do.
It was maybe not quite a surprise that Harry Kewell started - the suggestion in the build up to the final was that he would get the knock. Yet his selection did mean that the duo of Biscan and Hamann, so pivotal in Liverpool's march to the final found themselves on the bench. The suggested selection of Cisse ahead of Baros also failed to materialise - arguably the more sensible selection given Cisse's miraculous recovery from a major leg break. The rest of the team picked itself with Traore, Hyypia, Carragher and Finnan across the back four. Dudek in goal, with Alonso, Gerrard, Garcia and Riise in midfield.
In a first half that AC Milan dominated from the first kick to the last they got off to a dream start. The brilliant Kaka drifted past Traore with dismissive ease forcing the big defender to bring him down. Andrea Pirlo's delivery was low, and probably mishit but with Milan players charging into the six yard box, the ball behind them tricked the Liverpool zonal marking system. Maldini who had held back found himself unmarked and volleyed home right footed to give his side the lead in the very first minute. Even in his worst nightmares, Benitez surely couldn't have expected this start.
Liverpool were visibly shell shocked. Milan passing the ball around with the ease of a side who are no strangers to this level of football. Without Hamann in midfield, Liverpool were missing both his bite in midfield and his simplistic use of possession. Liverpool were guilty of showing no respect to the ball, giving it away with alarming regularity. There were guilty parties across the park, though Milan had clearly targeted Djimi Traore and he was duely obliging with a shocking performance. Shoddy in possession, is positional play was also some way short of the required level, and with players of the quality of Shevchenko, Kaka and Crespo it was showing.
Every time Milan had the ball they threatened Kaka and Shevchenko alive to every possibility. Pirlo was enjoying the wealth of space he was being afforded. Liverpool fans will argue in Alonso that they have a player with a range of passing as good as anything in the world - Pirlo represents his equal. Liverpool were nowhere to be seen - the only player making any visible impact on the match in a red shirt was the robust figure of Milan Baros who chased every lost cause.
Yet for all their possession, Liverpool nearly equalised. Garcia suddenly found space in the Milan penalty area, cutting inside he looked set to shoot, only to see the ball blocked. It was blocked by Nesta. If you were being generous you could say ball to hand, but this was an Italian defender, there is no room for naivety. Nesta clearly rolled to position his arm in the way of the ball. The ref played on though. Liverpool players claimed the penalty, Milan attacked. Within seconds any controversy around the penalty was intensified as Milan doubled their lead. It was a lesson in quick, direct, quality football. The ball was quickly moved through midfield, Kaka attacked the three Liverpool defenders protecting the goal, Traore allowed himself to be dragged inside, and the ball was played into the vacant area. Shevchenko accepted the pass and then played the ball across the area to Crespo who scored.
The Liverpool fans were stunned, the Milan fans delighted. The penalty decision aside, Milan were well worthy of their lead. It was only going to get worse. Liverpool continued to look completely outclassed against a Milan side intent on winning the game early. It had been suggested that this was a tired Italian side, there was no evidence of that. Liverpool's passing was nowhere near the class of the opposition and there was no better illustration than the third Milan goal. A clipped ball from Gerrard was cut out deep in the Milan half. The ball was quickly worked to Kaka who ghosted past Gerrard before playing the kind of through ball that so few people in the world are capable of. Crespo strode clear of the defence and calmly chipped Dudek. With seconds until half time, it seemed the final nail in the coffin.
Somewhere amidst the bedlam, Benitez had been forced to make a change in the half as Harry Kewell's groin gave way. He was strangely replaced by Vladimir Smicer who's last appearance for Liverpool would be this final. A second enforced change arrived at half time, with Finnan forced to retire from the match. With a direct replacement available on the bench, Benitez made a crucial change, introducing Hamann and switching to the back three that worked so well against Juventus.
Hamann's introduction proved critical in an unbelievable second half. In fourteen second half minutes Liverpool not only turned the match around but turned the whole world on it's head. As Milan attacked in the opening minute of the half there was no clue as to what would follow. Jerzy Dudek failed to catch a ball that bounced infront of him but Liverpool managed to escape. Alonso struck the ball with some venom in the Milan half, a shot which Dida had covered though it went wide. Right back down the other end, Dudek saved well from an equally powerful Shevchenko strike.
Then suddenly, dramatically the come back started. It was no surprise that Liverpool's captain was the man to drve Liverpool forward. Freed from his defensive toils with the introduction of Hamann he timed his run to perfection. The move started with Alonso and Hamann finally holding onto the ball, before working it wide to Riise. His cross was delivered with quality and Gerrard ghosted into the box, rising above everyone and looping a perfect header into the area. Suddenly Milan's defence were showing their age. Yet the restoration of pride was the most even the more optimistic of fans could hope for that is until Smicer popped up two minutes later. From some thirty years from goal the Czech player, who has struggled to win favour at the club and was playing out his final game delivered the greatest gift possible to the fans. His shot across Duda arrowed into the bottom corner. Disbelief was slowly being passed from Liverpool fans to their Milan counterparts. Controversy surrounded Liverpool's second as it did Milan's - a flag earlier in the play when Baros had been caught out off-side.
On 59 minutes it was suddenly all square - the barmiest six minutes football has ever seen. Alonso's drilled ball to Baros received the perfect touch from the striker and Gerrard rampaged forward. Ready to strike, he was brought down by Gattuso. The Milan player could have seen his game earlier, but having given Hyypia a second chance earlier in the half, the official granted the same to the Milan players. Alonso calmly took the kick but saw it expertly saved by Dida, but laying prone the keeper could do nothing to stop the second strike.
The remainder of the half saw Liverpool hunt for a winner, though the quite outstanding Shevchenko remained a constant menace. Both teams probed and changes were made. Cisse on for Baros who had been quite outstanding. Crespo withdrawn, preventing him the chance to complete a hat-trick with Tomasson coming on. Serginho also came on, replacing Seedorf, the least effective of the Milan midfield in an attempt to stretch the Liverpool back three.
The most amazing thing was that there was no more goals before the end of normal time. Extra time saw another tactical change from Benitez. Gerrard was switched to a right back position, a move designed to control the threat of Serginho down the left. It also had the affect of giving the initiative to Milan. They needed no second invitation as extra time was reduced to the attack versus defence training session that is seen at most clubs. Milan pressed and probed looking to win the game outright - Liverpool seemed happy for the draw, with confirmation coming after the final whistle that the players were dead on their feet. No player gave more to the defensive effort that Jamie Carragher who nearly wrecked his own body with his usual heroic last ditch defending. Despite cramp he battled on, with his fellow Scouser tackling hard alongside him.
As time slowly ticked towards penalties, the best chance to win the game arrived at the game's outstanding player. When Serginho finally escaped Gerrard and whipped in the perfect cross, it seemed destined for Shevchenko to win the cup. The European Player of the Year, imitating Gerrard earlier ghosted onto the ball and headed goalwards. Dudek made the save, only to see Shevchenko react and fire back the rebound. Somehow though, and maybe not knowing much about it, managed to block the ball and it drifted over the cross bar and to safety. Liverpool occasionally ventured forward through Cisse but it was little more than a token effort.
The game finally went to penalties. Serginho blasted over whilst Pirlo saw his effort saved. Liverpool held a two goal advantage through Hamann and Cisse. Tomasson ensured the shoot out continued and Riise saw his penalty brilliantly saved by Dida. With Kaka converting the best penalty of the lot the pressure was at unbelievable levels. Vladimir Smicer stepped up to take his last kick of a ball as a Liverpool player and scored his second goal of the night. Shevchenko, so brilliant tonight, all season in fact. Stepped up. Dudek unveiled the Jerzy Jive as he danced along the line and diving to his right he managed to react to Shevchenko's straight shot and kept the ball out.
The celebrations began. Few people even dared dream that Liverpool would be in the final at the beginning of the season, even more so after GAK embarrassed an understrength side at Anfield. But slowly people have started to believe, with Gerrard's goal against Olympiakos hinting at the possible. Victories over Chelsea and Juventus were near impossible. There is nothing to describe the come back the world has witnessed tonight. Five times European Champions - Liverpool have made there mark. For anyone associated to Liverpool football club, the party has just begun.