Liverpool and the defiant heroics of Istanbul

Liverpool and the defiant heroics of Istanbul

“We were walking towards the dressing room at half-time and the Milan players were already celebrating. We could see them and hear them singing.” 

At the interval, the Liverpool players think they’re done. It’s an occasion dripping with emotion. It’s the club’s first Champions League final since the Heysel disaster and it’s over already; after only 45 minutes, they find themselves 3-0 down. It’s the first final of this magnitude since Liverpool stood almost peerlessly as the best team in the world. It’s the first since their era of dominance came to a tragic end. 

The tears of history remember the 39 people who needlessly lost their lives in 1985, and yet Heysel is somehow simultaneously a footballing tragedy lost to history for many and a watershed moment that transformed football culture in Britain forever. Years later, Belgian authorities were accused of incompetence but at the time, blame was laid squarely at the feet of the Liverpool fans.

Not to belittle the role a minority of fans played, but the fact British fans as a whole paid the price for the actions of a few rankled with Liverpool supporters. Their counterparts were banned from European competition indefinitely, while the Reds were shout out for an additional three years to whatever eventual ban UEFA decided on.

More recently, getting to the 2005 final had been anything but easy. There were last-minute heroics from captain Steven Gerrard against Olympiacos in the group stages, a debatable goal against Chelsea and the unlikeliest of victories against Juventus. This final was an opportunity to reconcile with history.

At the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, their opponents were AC Milan, and this Rossoneri team was nothing like the modern-day incarnation. This was football royalty managed by a European expert in Carlo Ancelotti, and they’d won five trophies in four years under the Italian.

On the other hand, and on the other side of the pitch, Liverpool, a club still considered a giant but a shadow of its former self, stood in hope. Aside from their European odyssey, it had not exactly been a vintage campaign. Terrible away form – 11 losses on the road – led to a disappointing fifth-place finish in a competitive Premier League for Rafa Benítez in his maiden season at the club. To top it off, there was the embarrassment of finishing behind bitter rivals Everton for the first time since 1987. 

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To combat this irrepressibly good Rossoneri side, featuring a who’s who of greatest players to ever play the game, Liverpool had Djimi Traoré, scorer of one of the most comical own goals in FA Cup history earlier that season against Burnley, and a front line of some incredibly inconsistent forwards in Milan Baroš, Harry Kewell and Luís Garcia. Liverpool, for many, didn’t stand a chance on paper. 

And to begin with the final stuck to that script, getting off to the worst possible start for the Merseyside outfit. It took Milan 53 seconds to take the lead. Pirlo clipped a free-kick to an unmarked Paolo Maldini who happily volleyed the ball into the ground and past Jerzy Dudek. 1-0. 

Next came Kaká. The future Ballon d’Or winner was given the freedom of Istanbul to showcase that he was ascending to greatness. It was the Brazilian who won the free-kick that resulted in Milan’s first goal. It was he who delightfully chipped the ball through to Andriy Shevchenko who subsequently teed up Hernán Crespo for the second. 2-0. 

And it was Kaká who pierced the Liverpool defence, leaving Jamie Carragher sprawled on the Turkish turf, with a magnificent defence-splitting pass for Crespo’s second. 3-0 – and Milan were every bit as good as the world knew. It was an imperious first-half by the Italian side, Kaká especially, barely giving Liverpool time to breathe. 

For many, half-time would be about damage limitation, attempting to avoid any more embarrassment, but not for Benítez. “We are Liverpool, we have so many fans, we are not going to be slaughtered. If we can score a goal quickly we can push on from there.”

With Steve Finnan limping, Benítez opted to change formation to a 3-5-2 and brought on Dietmar Hamann to specifically mark Kaká. In hindsight it was an obvious substitution, but it turned out to be an absolute masterstroke by the Spaniard. With Kaká shackled, Gerrard was allowed to push-on and give Milan something else to think about. What followed remains the greatest passage of playing in a Champions League final.

Xabi Alonso flashed a shot past the post from 30 yards. But the Rossoneri didn’t pay attention and, mere minutes later, Liverpool were level. First, John Arne Riise had the time to whip a cross into the box, where Gerrard was waiting to float a header past Dida. 3-1. 

Next, Hamann slid a pass to Vladimír Šmicer who let fly, his shot sneaking into bottom corner under the Brazilian ‘keeper. 3-2. As Dida picked up himself from Turkish turf and the camera zoomed in, his face betraying his emotions, he knew something special was happening. Milan were in trouble. 

Soon after, Carragher stormed forward and fired a pass into Baroš. The Czech striker nudged it beautifully towards the onrushing Gerrard and Gennaro Gattuso had no choice but to bring him down in the box. Alonso stepped up and saw his effort saved but fired the rebound into the top corner. 3-3.

It was six minutes of carnage. Now it was the Milan fans in the crowd holding their heads in their hands. What exactly was happening? 

Their team managed to recover themselves but couldn’t find a way past Dudek. The Polish goalkeeper made a succession of stops including a sensational double save to deny Shevchenko in the second half of extra-time. Whether Dudek knew much about it is beside the point; it was a heroic display to help push the game towards penalties where, on advice from Carragher, he took inspiration from Bruce Grobbelaar’s spaghetti legs antics in the 1984 final. 

The next day, kids across the playgrounds of England were all doing the Dudek, wobbling and shaking their legs to put off opposing strikers. And it worked. Serginho shanked one and Dudek saved two. And with the second, preventing Shevchenko for the umpteenth time, Liverpool were the most improbable champions of Europe. 

Teenagers would’ve heard stories about how Liverpool once ruled Europe, but here was their glimpse into the past. The win ushered in a new era of Premier League dominance on the continent. Before this landmark final at the Atatürk, only Manchester United had competed in a Champions League final since Heysel. And after Istanbul, the next eight seasons saw English teams dining at the top table, with Chelsea and United both becoming champions of Europe.

And for Liverpool? This had been 20 years in the making. Never before had a team overcome such an insurmountable obstacle at this stage and never under such emotional circumstances. Finals are usually tense, cagey affairs, but Liverpool blew the proverbial doors off with this comeback. It signalled a return to the big time for them, a chance to lay the ghosts of Heysel to rest and compete for big honours once more. And it all started with a miracle in Istanbul.

By Matthew Gibbs @Matthewleuan

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