The European Cup Final 2005 - The Proverbial Game of Two Halves
What are the qualities that produce a match of excellence, distribution, highs, lows, and passion that enthral an audience, be they neutral or otherwise? Goals, near misses, skill, great shots, superb defending, last gasp saves....the list, perhaps, could go on. Did yesterday's final have those qualities? Questionable. There were goals, near misses, some skill but not much expected from such players with flair, not great shots but nonetheless they were there too, some good defending.....and Jerzy Dudek's double stop against Andriy Shevchenko in injury time.
It was a game of two halves, literally. The task ahead of the teams were daunting. AC Milan were the clear favourites, 6x winners and the stature of Kaka, Paolo Maldini, Dida, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta alone walking out against Xabi Alonso, Jamie Carragher, John Arne Riise, Luis Garcia was for me formidable. In the air and defensively, Milan looked far better stacked, and on the field with Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo, the running of Cafu, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, the writing seemed on the wall, as it did before the semi-final 2nd leg at Anfield. Harry Kewell started with Milan Baros, whereas I would have started with Baros and Djibril Cisse, not Kewell at all. His exit through injury didn't surprise me.
The goals were awesome from Milan. Conceding the freekick in 50 seconds, not one Liverpool player marked around the edge, Maldini steps up and scores a fitting volley to gain the lead. Too easy and very lapsing.
Liverpool should have had a penalty award when Nesta went down in the box and the ball touched his elbow but the ensuing counter found Kaka, who found Shevchenko easily once Traore remained ball-watching and the Ukrainian made his run. The ball across the goal should have been stopped, Crespo finishing well.
That wasn't enough, as Kaka once again skilfully twisted away and thread a sweet through ball to Crespo, Carragher couldn't reach the ball, Steve Finnan pulled up on chasing Crespo, the Argentinian finished with a touching dink up and past Dudek's left shoulder. Gerrard picks up and then punches the ball towards the centre circle in some despair. Liverpool had looked promising enough 1-0 down but when Crespo struck twice, we were hit for the knockout. Andy Gray said the game was "well and truly over." I was shocked, and begged for the half time whistle, Liverpool needed some respite.
But at this time, as I watched through the adverts, I felt we could actually turn it around. We did so against FC Basle, Rick Parry mentioned in interview afterwards that he too reflected on that game for some hope. We needed three against Olympiakos in the second half. And now, we had 45 mins to do it. It wasn't impossible, it seemed a very high task to complete. I would have even taken losing 3-2 but at least Liverpool must show some sign of fight to not give up. At least we would have come close, Rafael Benitez deserved that at least, and the fans, if not the team. We were 3-0 down and yet the fans were still singing, some were saying '4-3'.
What happened in the first 15 mins of the second half was something that wouldn't have been plausible on the cinema screen. Liverpool didn't look broken, down, despondent, instead they aimed to get at Milan. Key was the change of Finnan for Dieter Hamann and playing with three across the back, four in midfield, Steven Gerrard and Garcia behind Baros. Possession in the midfield for Milan was suddenly restricted but Gerrard's presence alongside Garcia inserted more energy and drive. Riise's first cross attempt was blocked but he tried again, and Gerrard stepped in and rose, unchallenged and looped his header past Dida.
Something, at last.
Two minutes later, Liverpool came on the attack, the linesman flagging strenuously for offside, ref Mejuto Gonzalez possibly played on advantage as Milan had the ball but Clarence Seedorf cleared it out of touch. Riise got it back in with a throw, the ball reached Hamann, he found Smicer and the Czech midfielder aimed a shot that skimmed past Baros and got a touch by Dida before going in. Liverpool had by now almost crept back into the match.
Something more, at last.
And then the capping of an unbelievable comeback. Link-up play with Smicer and Garcia found Baros in the box being marked by Stam. Baros' touch off his right heel went into the path of the oncoming Gerrard, who seemed very clear on to shoot and possibly score. But a slight touch by Gattuso brought the Liverpool captain down. Penalty was given, and the Milan players argued they felt a foul had occurred earlier for which play should have been stopped. Mr Gonzalez was adamant of his decision. Alonso stepped up, looking edgy but eager for the whistle, stroke the ball to Dida's right, which was saved, and then followed up immediately to strike the ball high into the goal's net.
We had done it. We had come back against AC Milan from 3-0 down to 3-3.
Yet while some may wish to have remained stunned in jubilation, there was the matter of 30 mins left to settle. Milan held onto possession, probing, going this way, that way, looking for a weakness, a gap, a lack of concentration in which to infiltrate, something they were still very capable of doing. Liverpool were tiring, particularly Carragher. The player emtypified the guts and fight that Liverpool had to get level. Dudek failed to easily gather a cross-shot from Cafu which prompted Carragher to convey some choice words to the Pole in order to better his awareness. Another ball across the box saw Dudek flap again, Shevchenko's shot guided away from the goal by Djimi Traore. The game from then ran out into a stalemate and extra-time, where it was still difficult to find a breakthrough in either side. And yet, as Serginho, on for Seedorf, teased down Milan's left, he stopped and crossed a curling ball that evaded Hyypia and was headed goalwards by Shevchenko, only to be saved by Dudek. The striker followed up with another effort that had more to do with luck for Dudek than ability, as the ball miraculously came off the keeper's hand and up, away from goal.
Eventually, the game closed to a stop, at which no more play would occur. The penalties would take place now, that which some refer to as football's Russian roulette. There is little that could be done otherwise, 120+ of football which has seen one side storm in one half, the other side coming back in the other. The two skippers flicked to see who started first, the two keepers spoke briefly to each other moments before in mutual consideration of good luck for the other. AC Milan were 3-0 up in the first half, to be dragged back to 3-3 and taken into penalties. It was truly amazing to watch and now we would have to endure penalties, as if we had not had enough tension already.
It was good for AC to start first, Serginho skying his effort as Dudek mimicked Bruce Grobbelaar's movements against AS Roma in 1984, on advice from Carragher. Hamann stepped next for Liverpool and coolly scored, Dida just missing the ball with his following left hand.
Pirlo stepped up next for AC, and Dudek seemed to be further from his line than allowed, but the referee took no action and Pirlo's effort was denied. Cisse followed this with a firm drive down the middle to make it 0-2 on penalties.
Jon Dahl Tomasson, on earlier for Crespo, dispatched Milan's first scored penalty to make it 1-2. Riise's effort for Liverpool was stopped by Dida, as Milan looked to creep back.
Kaka stepped up to bring the penalties level 2-2, as Vladimir Smicer, in his last game for the Reds, having scored Liverpool's second, followed after to restore Liverpool's advantage.
Arguably the world's best striker, I heard being said about him, stepped up for AC Milan's 5th penalty. Shevchenko, involved in a number of attacks that came to nothing, denied a goal via offside, denied chances via offside, struck a hard freekick that Dudek did well to see in time, much less save away from danger, and who missed practically the best chance to seal victory for Milan with a double effort in injury time, had to score to keep alive Milan's route to the crown of European Champions, again. He didn't seem at ease when he stepped up, but there is hardly a player who does in such a situation. His effort was sent down the middle, to which Dudek, diving to his right, stuck out his left hand and leg to deny. As a result, AC Milan were beaten.
Liverpool are now the European champions of 2005.
The back page of the Guardian Sport captures the moment on the faces of the Liverpool players, when Shevchenko's penalty was saved. Against the odds, against Olympiakos when we looked to be going out again so early, against the Serie A champions, against the Premiership champions, and now against a side who are one of the best in Europe, if not the best. We appeared to be destined to win, the coincidences between now and the previous wins. In 1978, Wales won the Grand Slam and Pope John Paul died. In 1981, the Royal wedding between Charles and Diana. This year all three events occurred again, and Liverpool were once again in the Champions League Final, and once again they emerged winners.
No, I don't see this as down to coincidences, it's down to having the spirit and bottle to pick yourself up and hit back at the opposition. It's called having belief. I had that belief for the second half because it could be done, it was possible, it wasn't down to money, it was down to effort and commitment going up to a higher level, making the effort to create and if fortune opens up for you, taking it. Players could easily let their heads bow, or pick up and give their best effort, at least let the opposition work harder if they want to go on to victory. Milan didn't play in those 15mins, while Liverpool did.
Talk of six minutes. After Maldini's opener, Liverpool looked promising until Crespo scored twice from the 39th minute, so Milan had their six minutes too, which is yet another factor about the game which made it an amazing game. Would I be saying these same words if Liverpool lost? That would depend on how. As I said, if Liverpool lost 3-2, at least that would depict a closer game than the first half actually showed. At least Liverpool would have scored their goals to give some chance, some hope, and then pushed for the equaliser that would have made the game more enthralling. We would have lost but would have done so with more passion, and therefore a better game to swallow than a 3-0 crush that could have gone on to more for the Italian side. The League Cup Final defeat was easier to swallow because of the scoreline.
AC's vice-president Adriano Galliani has been stated to have said he felt Milan deserved better because Liverpool played for penalties while Milan played to win, and that Shevchenko's disallowed goal should have stood. If these were his very words, the vice-president is in error. Milan may well deserve to win because of their playability but a win is gained not on merit of a team's play but on merit of who scores the most. It is about time now that such notions are firmly considered when in defeat. There have been games that Liverpool were clearly the better but have resulted in a draw or a defeat to us. Games are not decided on who is the best team or better team prior to the start of a match, it's who scores the most.
Yesterday's final clearly emphasises the point. At 3-3 apiece, Milan missed 3 penalties out of 5, Liverpool missed 1 out of 4 with one still to go. Milan were 3-0 up at half-time, did they need any more incentive to win? Even at 3-2, Liverpool were allowed through. Milan should have stopped Liverpool's creativity after 3-1. Shevchenko had his moment in injury time. Yet Liverpool scored the most, and now are European champions. Milan were the better team, without doubt, and I feel for the Milan fans as I would be inconsolable to see my team go in front so well to lost it in the end. I would look at our players and be furious that they allowed the opposition to infiltrate them like that.
Now Liverpool have won the battle, they know the completion of the war is in the hands of others. The club seek an answer from UEFA and the English F.A. as to whether Liverpool can defend the trophy this coming season. One association is passing the buck to the other when in fact, in accordance to UEFA rules and precedent, the F.A. should make the decision. The fact that they will appear to go back on that which they stated earlier last year on their web-site shows how hypocritical they are, particularly since that they hastily withdrew the statement in question. An official decision is due next month after a UEFA meeting in Manchester.
However, I've spoken deeply on this already. I'm happy for the win, and if we have to go into the UEFA Cup, so be it. The F.A. do not wish to recognise how Liverpool have yet again contributed to marking English football as a significant force in Europe, that is on their conscience. The immense numbers of Liverpool fans last night made the Ataturk stadium come like Anfield. Milan's touches were greeted as if playing at Anfield. We possibly outnumbered Milan's fans by ratio 2:1. Liverpool fans are now getting back their voices that made us the 12th man, something which has been referred to by a number of past players who have come as opponents to Anfield. Even in Istanbul, Liverpool supporters are in numbers. They, along with the team and the management, guided the club to a 5th European title, one which meant we keep the trophy in our cabinet.