2045 – ~2230 BST 25 May 2005
(Click here for Part I)
But the European Cup! Oh my . . .
All the gloom on the previous page seems incredibly churlish in the light of the heroics in Istanbul. While gorging on the superlatives being spun by various hacks in the days after the game, a little birdie whispered in my ear that it was utterly futile to try and capture the emotions of that night, that the moment had been lived and attempts to relive it would only result in a disappointingly bland facsimile. This, like my mother-in-law, is a bit of a bitch, what with florid, pompous colour pieces being my speciality. So, for one night only, we’ll attempt to deal in the cold, hard football facts rather than getting all weepy over the sheer emotion of the occasion.
Nothing happened as it should have happened. The team selection caught everyone by surprise, but the fact that Benitez did something outlandish was not. Well aware of the limitations of his team, Rafa has been forced to be creative. Milan were preparing for a cagey, defensive Liverpool so it made perfect sense to think outside the box and play Kewell in the hole. I remember – honestly! – thinking at the time that it would have made more sense to play Smicer, who has been as outstanding in Europe throughout his Anfield career as he has been rubbish in the Premiership.
Not that it would have made any difference whether it would have been Harry or Vladi, because Plan A played right into Milan’s hands, their midfield pulverising Gerrard and Alonso. The criticism of Kewell, while understandable given his lamentable record, was unfair. Some have suggested that he should have fought through the pain barrier like any good Scouser would have. In reality, the brave thing to do was come off and face the music. If Jamie Carragher had pinged his groin muscle, he would not have been doing anyone any favours by staying on and been pulled apart by Shevchenko. So two cheers for Harry for having the cop-on to walk away from the biggest match of his career – we’ll take away one cheer for less-distinguished withdrawals throughout the season.
So the gameplan failed abysmally. Top marks for bravery, Rafa – it would have been easier to have utilised one of the systems that worked so well in previous rounds – but nul points for application. I don’t think it takes a great leap of logic to assume that Benitez spotted the biggest failing when the third goal went in, Kaka’s glorious pass sliding around the outside of the two-man central defence. Thankfully there was a Plan B . . .
It’s hard to know what was the cause of what happened next. The only thing I can divine with certainty from repeated viewings of the video is that Milan did ease off the gas. Victims of giant-killings will always deny that they underestimated their opponents, but this is what Milan did as they permitted Steven Gerrard the freedom of the penalty area to get the first goal back. Apart from that though, nothing else made sense. Was it Liverpool’s funky Plan B confusing the hell out of them? Was it Hamann shackling Kaka? Was it the inherent brittleness of Milan, so spectacularly brought to the fore in La Coruna last season? Or was it just a bundle of events that all took place too quickly to assign any pattern to them?
Sorry to be boring, but it was bit of all of the above. Milan suddenly found resistance where previously there was none. Hamann defended better on his own than the other two had done together, allowing Gerrard to get forward and Alonso to start spraying the passes around. Milan did bottle it, and memories of the Riazor were probably all too fresh in their minds, as was Liverpool’s barnstorming comeback against Olympiakos – how many times must a team turn over a three-goal deficit before they stop being labelled ‘lucky’? No sod knows, it’s not simply not done in European competition. And Liverpool had three magic moments right next to each other; Gerrard’s piston-like heading of Riise’s superb cross, Smicer’s powerful strike sliding past Baros’ hand and out of Dida’s line of sight, Carragher and Baros’ delightful interplay to put Gerrard in the clear and Alonso beating Pirlo to the ball (who was a good three metres inside the area when Xabi took the pen) – in each of those moments, the team got it exactly right in a manner unrelated to each other. Just a bunch of stuff happening.
Never were a team more psychologically broken than Milan were when penalties arrived. They had weathered a series of potentially knockout blows, survived another one when Garcia missed a sitter – a fact routinely forgotten in the rush to ascribe Liverpool’s recovery to six minutes of madness (© Carlo Ancelotti) rather than a half-hour of sustained pressure at the top of the second half. Then they had suffered the trauma of landing a sledgehammer riposte of their own only to watch the opponent bounce back off the ropes and give them their finest ‘is-that-the-best-you-can-do’ grin. I’ve always defended Dudek to the point of idiocy, choosing to remember his invincible opening season at Anfield and forget the clunkers against the Mancs. But by full-time I was ready to kick his arse all the way back to Warsaw, so coronary-inducing were his fumbling of two routine saves. When Traore is heroically saving your hide, then your hide ain’t worth the saving. So having finally obliged me to stop sending prayers to God via his departed countryman formerly resident in the Vatican City, he goes and does THAT. Put on a pair of goalie gloves then get a friend to boot the ball at your upturned hands from point blank range. What are the odds that the ball will ricochet straight up into the air? You’d probably be doing well if he/she doesn’t break your wrist. But Jerzy somehow managed to bounce back up off the floor and keep his hands firm enough to block Shevchenko and a team visibly wilted in front of us – once the resulting corner had been cleared, at least. Even the world’s greatest pessimist (© deiseach) knew we’d win the shoot-out.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
So how did it happen? How did a team of inadequates earn the title of Kings of Europe? Rafael Benitez, so unfairly traduced mere days before the final by some semi-anonymous Irish non-entity (mea culpa etc), stands alone among mere mortals as a recipient of praise. His transfer record still seems a little, shall we say, spotty. His interest in Peter Crouch will eat up a lot of the kudos he earned in Istanbul. Time will tell whether his success at Valencia was a consequence of inheriting an excellent team, one he couldn’t have built had he been required to do so himself. But as a tactician, he bows to no one. His rotation policy was routinely pilloried in Spain, so much so that it was almost as if the chattering classes refused to believe Valencia had won La Liga even when it happened. Twice. Lacking the knowledge of English football, and shorn of players willing to burst blood vessels when playing Crystal Palace, it all went horribly wrong. But give him a high-profile Continental side and he’ll create a Manstein-esque master plan to disarm each and every one of them. Better still, the European Cup final showed that there’s always a backup plan, and not just some hare-brained stick-the-goalie-up-front gimmick so beloved of the impetuous. Liverpool are the only club to have a manager who has won three European Cups – a remarkable statistic when you consider how Real, Ajax and Bayern have all won the trophy five, three and three years on the bounce respectively. Add in Rafa, who has not lost a knockout tie in Europe for quite a while, and the omens are pretty good that we could be the only club to have two managers to have achieved this feat. And that is a pleasing thought indeed.
Ultimately though, what won it for Liverpool is that we are Liverpool. When the Mancs produced their day of glory in Barcelona, no one suggested it was because they were Manchester United. Rather, it was because they were Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, and it was his implacable will that horsewhipped them over the finish line. So robust is Liverpool’s European pedigree that you get the feeling Erik Meijer could have been in charge and we still might have won it (incredibly, our European and Uefa Cup victories make us the most successful English side in the post-Heysel era). The ghosts of St Etienne beat Olympiakos. A team of wanabees, has-beens and never-will-be’s produced forty-five minutes of genius against Juventus because they were wearing the famous red shirt. Chelsea and their bulging wallets were put to the sword not by dint of superior skill or athleticism but by 40,000 nutters putting the fear of God into them. And Milan showed – God help me for saying this – that professional footballers, despite all being putas, can be made to care. When John Arne Riise said after beating Chelsea that, had Gudjohnsen scored that equaliser, he would have shot himself and retired (presumably not in that order), he really meant it. I’ve denounced Steven Gerrard from the highest mountain all season for not taking Chelsea’s shilling and ridding us of his moaning presence, but when he lifted the European Cup – man, does it feel good to say that – he threw it in the air like any of us would have, sheer, unrestrained joy tattooed onto his features. It was utterly unprofessional and all the better for it.
As Liverpool progressed through the tournament, more and more articles began to appear from neutral observers querying what it was that made Liverpool special, akin to that famous Panorama programme back in 1965 (“they seem to be in communion with Whacker, the spirit of Scouse”). Most of them seemed complete cobblers, my rational self questioning why we should be different to any other club. Yet you can’t now avoid the notion that Liverpool FC is a little bit different, a little bit special. Phil Thompson may be a tad biased (ahem), but if you need evidence to support his assertion that “Liverpool FC is the greatest club in the world”, just remember the incredible journey that was our European Cup win in 2005.
(Click here for Part I)