SHOULD ANY TEAM SUCCUMB to a dramatic cup final defeat and be forced to watch on as a precious trophy slips tragically through their fingers, in domestic competition to a common rival at least, some small fragment of solace can be cherished in knowing there will likely come a chance for redemption some day on the next occasion the two teams meet, be it weeks, months, or even years down the line.
But when two clubs hailing from opposing nations compete for a prize of immeasurable magnitude and one finds themselves on the wrong side of history, just as Milan did in 2005, when opponents Liverpool rose seemingly from the grave to claw back a three-goal deficit and claim the Champions League trophy against all expectation, there is no such safety jacket with which to cling onto in order to stay afloat in the swirling waters of regret. The only partial antidote to be prescribed is patience and, even then, waiting does little to numb the pain.
Fortunately for the walls of all tally-making Milanesi, spared after just two short seasons in purgatory, their club’s name was called again as Carlo Ancelotti’s men reached the Champions League showpiece in 2007, destined to conclude another memorable European adventure in the most delectable fashion, with revenge over the very team that had bested them in their last final.
Drawn into a so-called ‘easy’ Group H, after having surpassed Red Star Belgrade in the qualification round, Milan were lined up alongside French side Lille, Belgian champions Anderlecht, and Greek outfit AEK. Consequently it was with few doubts that Milan were expected to ensure their safe passage into the Champions League knockout phase.
Three wins and a draw from their first four fixtures looked to prove early suspicions correct but, satiated by the clear daylight between them and their group stage rivals, Milan saw fit to ease off the gas, to conserve their collective powers for the following round, and in the process fell to consecutive losses away in Athens and at home to their French opponents. Fortunately Milan’s points advantage proved insurmountable and the Italians proceeded to top the group despite the late hiccup.
Onto the next leg of their long-distance race to the Greek capital, as winners of Group H, Milan were tasked with hurdling the runners-up of Group F. Awaiting Milan, having finished beneath Manchester United but above Benfica and Copenhagen, was the cream of the Scottish crop, Celtic.
In Glasgow, despite ample opportunities for both sides, neither team could breach the other’s defence and the game ended 0-0. In Milan a fortnight later, that same story was given a second rendition, this time with the woodwork and Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc’s fingertips playing starring roles, and the tie was forced beyond 180 minutes into extra time. There Milan’s main man answered his team’s desperate call for inspiration.
Three minutes beyond the restart, Kaká received a pass from teammate Massimo Ambrosini just a few paces inside his own half. Controlling the ball on the turn and shrugging off a despairing challenge from Neil Lennon on the halfway line, he surged forward.
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As Kaká bore down on the penalty area, Celtic centre-half Stephen McManus assessed his surroundings and back-peddled rapidly in the hope of shielding his goal from the marauding Brazilian. But his hopes quickly vanished as Kaká’s pace surged into top gear and he breezed beyond McManus before delicately slipping the ball beyond his attempted block and between the open legs of the beaten Boruc. The solitary goal was enough. On his back, Kaká carried the people of his adopted city into the quarter-finals.
The last eight demanded Milan defeat reigning German champions Bayern Munich but allowed them the privilege of hosting the first leg of the tie amidst the home comforts of the San Siro. Home advantage, though, would prove superfluous on the night.
From the unlikely source of Andrea Pirlo’s head, a nonchalant nod beyond the reach of the young Bayern goalkeeper Michael Rensing, Milan were given the lead late in the first half. The score stayed 1-0 until a little over 10 minutes remained, when the home team failed to clear a hopeful cross and Daniel van Buyten swept home a hard-fought equaliser.
Milan re-established their lead on 84 minutes thanks once more to Kaká, who coolly dispatched a penalty he himself had earned, but deep into stoppage time Van Buyten struck again with a back-post volley that left Milan goalkeeper Dida straddling his near post in anguish. Munich departed the San Siro with a confidence-boosting draw that gave them two away goals to treasure.
Eight days later, Ancelotti and his men touched down in Munich and set off in search of a win. Thanks to the scintillating combination of awareness, movement and technique that aided Seedorf in scoring Milan’s first goal and assisting Filippo Inzaghi for their second, Milan found what they were looking for. A semi-final showdown with Manchester United beckoned.
Scarcely six minutes beyond the referee’s starting whistle, the ball was being already plucked out of the Milan net by their aggravated goalie. Dida had jumped to block Ronaldo’s goalbound header but had conspired only to delay its breaching of his line as the ball was bundled into the goal by a collaboration of goalkeeper, attacker and defender upon its return from orbit.
One-nil down so early at Old Trafford, with the hosts looking hungry for more, Milan needed to respond quickly or risk being swept aside by their opponents. Thankfully for the visitors, their swashbuckling Brazilian also happened to be in devastating mood.
Just as the words “[Manchester United] mustn’t let [Milan] have a sight of goal” were spoken into the microphone of the knowing commentator, Kaká evidenced exactly why. Galloping between three defenders, he fired the ball low and hard into the far corner before Edwin van der Sar could even think to halt it.
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In idiosyncratic celebration, the Milan maestro lifted his hands and pointed to the skies in pious thanks. The footballing gods, if none more noble, witnessed his dedication and 15 minutes later smiled upon him again.
Kaká chased a long pass forward and out-muscled Darren Fletcher to retain possession. Tailed by Gabriel Heinze, Kaká nodded the ball down to the turf only to then quickly flick it up again, over the Argentine defender’s head with the outside of his right boot. On the other side of Heinze, Kaká headed the ball once more, this time to steal in ahead of both Heinze and Patrice Evra, who were left to clatter into one another as the Brazilian strode into the penalty area. With his next touch, Kaká brushed the ball neatly beyond Van der Sar for a second time. One-nil to United had become 2-1 to Milan at Kaká’s humble behest.
But Kaká’s teammates couldn’t match his exploits and United battled back. Wayne Rooney forced his way through a crowded Milan penalty area to smuggle Paul Scholes’ neat flick into the net before completing his own brace, by smashing home a winner from the edge of the box, late into stoppage time.
Kaká’s tricks had been exposed, his magic bested, and Milan had it all to do again in Italy. With Chelsea and Liverpool contesting the other semi-final, anything less than a home win at the San Siro would ensure an all-English final in late May. The Italians were desperate to prevent the rewriting of Champions League history.
In Milan the two teams were made to wait just 11 minutes before learning of the next chapter’s opening scene. Kaká assumed the role of the protagonist yet again.
The ball was sent forward with purpose, from defence to attack in one fell swoop; a searching up-field knock aimed towards the run of = Seedorf, who had stolen a march on = Fletcher and was heading for the United area. Making the ball’s acquaintance just inside the line, Seedorf, with his back to goal and under increasing pressure, headed it back across the box in the hope of teeing up a teammate better equipped to test Van der Sar. The ball dropped to Kaká and before completing so much as its second bounce was sent skidding across the turf by the Brazilian’s left boot. Scarcely a second later it lay motionless, snug, in the far corner of the Dutch goalkeeper’s net. Advantage Milan.
The aggregate score read 2-2. As it stood, by virtue of away goals, Milan were through to the final. But they had little intention of spending the subsequent 80 minutes defending a one-goal lead.
As the half-hour mark approached, Milan’s provider turned goalscorer again, just as he had in Munich, as Seedorf breached the opponent’s backline. The ball was curled into the area by Pirlo only to be bucked away by the head of Nemanja Vidić. Far from extinguishing the danger, though, his attempted clearance became an inadvertent assist as Seedorf brought the ball under control, faked a shot to work an extra yard of space, bundled his way beyond a hopeful sliding tackle and between two United bodies, before thumping the ball into the very spot his teammate Kaká had made use of just minutes before. Milan’s advantage doubled.
If any still dared to doubt Milan’s ability to keep a firm grasp on their tickets to the final with the score at 2-0, when Alberto Gilardino’s finessed strike made it three with barely 10 minutes remaining, all Milanesi apprehensions were allayed in the very moment Mancunian dreams were destroyed.
Six days later, before a capacity Anfield crowd, Liverpool matched their opponents’ exploits from the preceding week in defeating Chelsea by a solitary goal, meaning extra-time and penalties would be required to part the Premier League rivals. On the night, Chelsea’s nerve deserted them and Liverpool triumphed in the shootout, confirming the conclusion many had crossed their fingers for. The unforgettable 2005 Champions League final would have its sequel.
No strangers to the occasion, the Athenians had played host to a Champions League final once before, in 1994, on the night Milan defeated Barcelona 4-0 to claim their fifth European Cup. As such, it appeared the omens may well have pointed in Milan’s favour.
Despite being drawn as the home team on the night, Milan chose not to don their famous red and black stripes but instead their lucky kit, their maglia fortunata; the all white strip. Though they had lost European Cup finals on two occasions while wearing it – most recently in their ill-fated loss of 2005 – they had been crowned European champions on five occasions while adorned in white, so it was decided they would wear it once again.
As German referee Herbert Fandel attempted to sound his whistle above the deafening roar that seemed to be lifting the Olympic Stadium from its foundations, the game was given life.
Having been absent from the 2005 final – forced to relinquish all influence and instead watch on from the sidelines as his team appeared to have all but encased the trophy in the Museo Mondo Milan only to give it away – this particular occasion meant more to Inzaghi than most. The look in his eyes as he watched the ball’s first journey across the pitch told you he would be the one to decide the game and he gifted Milan the game’s opening goal just before the first half’s conclusion.
When Xabi Alonso bundled Kaká over on the edge of his own penalty area, conceding a free-kick within shooting distance, the prospect appeared, to Liverpool, all the more perilous as it became clear either Pirlo or Seedorf would take it. Pirlo elected not to lob the wall, or bend it around its right side away from Pepe Reina’s corner of the goal, but instead to hit it towards the Spaniard. Before it could reach the Liverpool ‘keeper, though, it had cannoned off of Inzaghi’s chest and redirected into the unguarded centre of the goal.
The deflection had about it more than a hint of serendipity but, given the experience, prestige and aptitude of the striker responsible, there is good reason to believe it was entirely intentional. Pirlo may not have been aiming for Inzaghi’s chest when he struck the ball, but the forward’s movement was made with purpose. From the moment it connected with him the ball was destined for the net. Inzaghi had drawn first blood, and Milan led.
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The game was without a second goal for almost 40 minutes more as both sides toiled without reward. Both ‘keepers were tested but neither goal was breached until eight minutes from time when the ball was played to Kaká in a world of space in the Milan midfield. He took two touches then appeared to be preparing an explosive effort from distance. But instead of unleashing a shot, the Brazilian fed a cunning pass through the lines, between defenders and into the path of the advancing Inzaghi.
The pass would prove an artful assist as Inzaghi beat a belated offside trap, took a single touch to steer Reina just a little wider of his goal, before dismissing the tight angle and prodding the ball underneath him into the far corner of the goal. If Inzaghi’s first goal had been auspicious, his second was immaculate.
The Italian hitman ran to the corner flag, turned to face his teammates scattered throughout the pitch, and fell to his knees. Kaká joined him on his knees and cupped his head in his hands, embracing each other all the while shouting. Together, it seemed, they had done it.
The strength of Milanesi hearts was tested once more when Dirk Kuyt nodded a Liverpool corner beyond the outstretched arm of Dida and into the Milan goal shortly before stoppage time. The Dutchman grabbed the ball from the net and sprinted back to his half, he and his team desperate to beat both Milan and the clock, but on this occasion there would be no twist, no collapse, no thrilling comeback. The final whistle sounded.
Kaká lifted his shirt to twirl it joyously above his head, revealing the vest he so often wore beneath his jersey. In bold black lettering it read: ‘I belong to Jesus’. Fans of Milan across the globe sighed, beholden to the Brazilian, in the delight of knowing that he too belonged to them. Without his 10 Champions League goals, this dream would have remained just that.
Stood triumphantly in the Guest of Honour’s box, UEFA President Michel Platini handed to Milan’s captain, Paolo Maldini, the immense trophy who in turn thrust it into the air. Number seven; better late than never.
After the heartbreak of two seasons before, when vast swathes of the footballing world had come together to laud Liverpool’s unfathomable comeback and toast the making of history, while Milan sat on the periphery of the memorable tale, awkward and sore, I Rossoneri had earned their redemption.
In the city of ruins, to that day still bearing the weight of their failure in Istanbul, Carlo Ancelotti’s men were able to pick up the pieces and together build a landmark equal in stature but unmatched in significance. From the rubble they had risen, and Milan were champions of Europe again
By Will Sharp @shillwarp