A phrase like “Hernán Crespo may just have won the Champions League for AC Milan … Liverpool were all over the place there”, or “They don’t come much simpler than that … Crespo’s 32nd Champions League goal of his career has Ancelotti running like a teenager down the touchline,” sum up the 2005 Champions League final.
Perhaps the line that encapsulates the power of football’s emotional pendulum came at minute 44. “I think we can say with almost certainty now that AC Milan are going to win the Champions League.”
Football is the stuff of dreams, and the Istanbul final was like some sort of Shakespearean tragedy appropriately penned in iambic pentameter; Queen Mab must have visited every supporter of Liverpool Football Club and carried out her cruel trick – compelling people to experience dreams of wish-fulfillment. Or maybe, for AC Milan supporters, this was a euphoric experience suggestive of Aristotle’s assertion that “hope is a waking dream”.
Pinch yourself. Make sure you’re awake because we’re about to go back ten years to a night that seems like a dream – or nightmare – depending on how you view the world in footballing terms.
Istanbul: the commercial and historical transcontinental city of Eurasia. Strategically placed on the historic Silk Road, this city ensured the flow of trade and culture between East and West. Istanbul stands as an agglomeration of commerce, religion, culture, and politics. The roads of antiquity that carved their way through Istanbul have been plodded over by the Chinese, Persians, Greeks, Syrians, Mongols, Romans, Armenians and Arabs whose effervescent empires oscillated between secular and sacred rule, mercantilism and gunpowder. But ask any football fan about Istanbul and they’re likely to skip the history lessons of empire and Byzantine rulers, instead opting to discuss one night of footballing mayhem in Istanbul.
Ten years ago, it happened at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. AC Milan and Liverpool played arguably one of the most exciting and surreal finals in history. The route each team took to reach the game itself was impressive. AC Milan finished first in their group ahead of Barcelona and defeated Manchester United, archrivals Internazionale and PSV Eindhoven. Liverpool finished second in their group and bested a loaded Bayer Leverkusen, a strong Juventus, and defeated José Mourinho’s Chelsea in memorable yet equally controversial circumstances.
Milan, rightly the heavy favourites, boasted a star-studded side assembled by Carlo Ancelotti comprising of Dida, Cafu, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso, Kaká, Andriy Shevchenko, and Hernán Crespo. Rafael Benítez’s Liverpool took the pitch with a starting line-up nowhere near as impressive on paper that featured the ever-present and blue collar Jamie Carragher, a Steven Gerrard deflecting rumours of a Chelsea move, a talented and oft-loaned Blaugrana product in Luis García, Xabi Alonso, Harry Kewell, and the streaky Milan Baroš, along with a respectable supporting cast of Jerzy Dudek, Steve Finnan, Sami Hyypiä, Djimi Traoré, and John Arne Riise.
The match began the way it should have on paper – and in the first minute when a beardless Andrea Pirlo served a ball into the box for Paolo Maldini the night’s fate seemed set for a one-sided demolition of the team from Merseyside. The man who played more matches than anyone for i Rossoneri smashed the ball into the ground and into the net passed a flailing Jerzy Dudek.
1-0, AC Milan. A kick in the teeth for Liverpool, a side that in 2005 hadn’t won a Champions League for 21 years (then the European Cup). The air held the aroma of an imminent shellacking at the hands of AC Milan. On paper, this was supposed to happen.
AC Milan played through the magnificent Kaká and kept Hyypiä, Carragher, and Traoré on their heels. Liverpool’s Norwegian left back, John Arne Riise, calibrated his cannon-like left foot but Dida remained resolute and secure in the Milan goal. AC Milan’s imposing Dutch stalwart, Jaap Stam, fancied his chance on goal. The match turned into a shooting gallery for even the defenders.
Liverpool continued to test Dida with early services and long-range shots. Luis García thwarted Hernán Crespo’s attempt off the goal line and Kaká threatened to rip the match open with his surging runs that again placed the Liverpool backline in a constant state of backpedaling panic. A through-ball from the Brazilian playmaker to Shevchenko who calmly slotted the ball into the goal only to be called back for offside reaffirmed Milan’s dominance as did commentator Rob Hawthorne’s proclamation: “Liverpool are in dire straits.”
The action continued as Milan Baroš and Luis García both skied shots into the Turkish night. Their frustration was palpable as was the growing sense that AC Milan was toying with Liverpool. Rafael Benítez’s men opted for long, diagonal balls and early service from the wings with a cadence of desperation resulting in flicked passes that led to flubbed shots from distance. Meanwhile, the trio of Kaká, Shevchenko, and Crespo continued to put Carragher and Traoré on their heels as the Brazilian playmaker seemingly had carte blanche to run at the Liverpool backline. In the 39th minute Kaká threaded a through ball to Shevchenko who crossed the ball for Crespo. 2-0, AC Milan.
Four minutes later, the inevitable third goal came and it was a master-class of skill and finishing ability. A Kaká pirouette and a slipped pass to the foot of a surging Crespo bisected the Liverpool defense. The finish from the Argentine should look familiar – a clinical flicked looping ball in stride over the outstretched arms of Jerzy Dudek. We’ve come to appreciate these finishes before from Argentine strikers: Maradona, Crespo, and most recently, Messi.
3-0, AC Milan.
The commentator, speaking the obvious said, “The Champions League is on its way to Milan again … the contest is as good as over.” One has to imagine if Liverpool’s players heard that phrase as they trudged off the pitch at halftime, they would have believed it, too. Walking off the field, the faces of the AC Milan players looked so assured and calm. In pubs around the world the familiar anthem of hope and optimism made famous by Liverpool supporters could be heard, singing in defiance and lifting the spirits of the beleaguered men clad in red. AC Milan supporters were right to relax and deserved to cheer such a superb performance with assured confidence.
This was reality, right? If not, it certainly was about to become a very real affair. A fresh-faced Xabi Alonso began the seemingly impossible task of turning the tide as he fizzed a shot in from distance. He dared challenge the script as the ink was drying. Calibration. A sense of resolve began to swell through Liverpool after Dudek denied a powerful free kick from Andriy Shevchenko, whose blast stung the Polish goalkeeper’s palms. Where Crespo and Kaká where having their way with Liverpool, Sheva couldn’t buy a goal.
Then it happened. Six minutes of resurgence and resolve – the stuff footballers and fans dream of, the stuff that sobers you up after far too many pints and turns your fingernails into mincemeat.
In the 54th minute, John Arne Riise’s early service was blocked by Cafu and collected the ball again and served the ball into the box for Steven Gerrard to score a captain’s goal. How Steven Gerrard found himself open amongst such astute defenders like Stam, Nesta, and Maldini is beyond explanation. A powerful and opportunistic header that, for some reason, reminded me of Roy Keane’s header against Juventus in the 1999 Champions League semi-final.
Steven Gerrard’s gee-up caused his captain’s armband to fall down his arm. The symbolic part about this is he could have so easily let it go – the armband and the match – but there’s an image of him hoisting it up his arm, tucking his sleeve underneath it to secure the armband in place. Fitting for the skipper, literally and figuratively.
Two minutes later, another surge by Liverpool saw Dietmar Hamann (subbed on for Steve Finnan) combine with Harry Kewell’s replacement, Vladimír Šmicer, whose shot from 35-yards out, which threatened to hit Milan Baroš on the arm, found its way past Dida.
Four minutes later, Steven Gerrard enters the AC Milan box and clipped by Gattuso. The Spanish referee points to the spot. In real time, people aren’t sure if Gerrard is being called for simulation or a penalty kick has actually been awarded. Manuel González, the referee, sticks to his decision. Penalty. Up steps Xabi Alonso whose penalty shot is well saved by Dida, but the Spaniard buries his own rebound.
“What a match, what a night – Turkish delight for Liverpool. They have come back from the dead. The unthinkable is happening.”
And it was unthinkable. AC Milan continued to attack and a visibly exhausted Jamie Carragher and a disciplined Djimi Traoré kept il Diavolo at bay. The performance by the Liverpool backline and goalkeeper was as much heroic as it was one of desperation. However, a double save by Dudek to deny Shevchenko yet again confirmed this whole match was something ethereal.
The penalty shootout was over before it started. Liverpool had already stomached the reality of defeat. Liverpool had survived the nightmare of being throttled by three goals in the first half. It was Liverpool whose nerves were so frayed at one point that they simply cauterized them and felt nothing but hope. The Liverpool fans sung You’ll Never Walk Alone and the refrain, “walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart…” echoed throughout the Atatürk Olympic Stadium willing the team on.
It almost didn’t seem real when Serginho skied his spot kick and Hamann converted his, or that Pirlo fell victim to Dudek’s Bruce Grobbelaar impression that should have resulted in a retake as the lanky Pole was far off his line before the kick. Djibril Cissé’s conversion, Jon Dahl Tomasson’s conversion, Riise’s miss, Kaká’s conversion, Šmicer’s conversion, and true to the theme of the night, Shevchenko’s miss – it was all lost in a haze of disbelief.
Ten years on, it’s nearly impossible to find fault in AC Milan’s game. They were magnificent. Ten years on and much has happened to these iconic football clubs. Perhaps what is most impressive is not the match result, but the way that match proved that football really is the stuff of dreams. And on one night in Istanbul, for a team from England, that dream came true.
By Jon Townsend. Follow @jon_townsend3