Image courtesy of The Daily Mail
May 25, 2005. After a difficult path, Liverpool Football Club (Liverpool FC) and Associazione Calcio Milan (AC Milan) found themselves in the final in one of the most prestigious tournaments in football, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Champions League. While Liverpool FC were certainly a class squad, featuring stars such as Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard, the AC Milan squad they were to face were leagues above in talent. AC Milan fielded a legendary team with superstars such as Kaka, Paolo Maldini, and Andrea Pirlo, with Dida, one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, guarding their net, while Liverpool had backup keeper Jerzy Dudek in theirs. Prior to the match, AC Milan were regarded as heavy favorites to win the competition due to their experience, most notably, Maldini and Clarence Seedorf, who had won the competition previously - Maldini four times, and Seedorf three times (with three different teams). With Liverpool finishing in fifth place in the league (and ironically failing to qualify for the next edition of the competition), beating AC Milan looked to be an absolute mountain to climb for them.
What happened that night was one of the greatest feats of all time.
Coming out of the gate guns blazing, AC Milan won a free kick just outside Liverpool FC’s box. Pirlo whipped in a cross that found the foot of captain Maldini, who volleyed it past two Liverpool FC players and their goalkeeper, to make it 1-0 in just 50 seconds. The game stayed relatively back and forth, with both teams having serious penalty shouts, and AC Milan having two huge chances called offside. That is, until the 38th minute, when Kaka played a nice through ball, threading two defenders, to Andriy Shevchenko, who then cut the ball back to Hernan Crespo, cleanly slotting the ball into the bottom left hand corner to make it 2-0. Five minutes later, Milan countered beautifully, with Kaka beating his marker just outside his side’s center circle, and then distributing a magical through ball, leaving the Liverpool defenders out in no man’s land, as Crespo turned on the jets and left his marker in the dust. One-on-one with Liverpool FC’s keeper Dudek, Crespo gave the ball the tiniest of chips to lift the ball over Dudek’s shoulder and into the back of the net, making the game 3-0 just before half.
As the referee blew the whistle signalling the end of the half, AC Milan headed back to the locker rooms joyous, while Liverpool FC headed back in despair. It was at this point where fans and analysts effectively called the game settled. AC Milan had just ripped the Liverpool defense to shreds in such a dominant fashion, and AC Milan weren’t known as the type to concede goals - Maldini and Nesta were guardians of the backline alongside Brazilian fullback defender Cafu.
But all hope was not lost. Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez made a radical decision to change into a “3-5-2” - three central defenders, five midfielders (the two outermost tracking back to defend and bombing forward to attack), and two forwards. It was a “high risk, high reward play” - Liverpool were able to launch forward attacks constantly, but were exposed on the counter attack if their play failed. And reward it did, as in the 54th minute of play, John Arne Riise sent an inswinging cross into the box, and found the head of Liverpool captain, Gerrard, who directed the ball into the top right hand corner catching Dida flat-footed. With the deficit now down to merely two goals, the Gerrard’s goal lit a spark into the Liverpool team, and into the fans as well.
Just two minutes later, Vladimir Smicer receives the ball from Alonso, and, from well outside the box, absolutely smashes the ball into the left side of the net, just barely outside the reach of Dida. The eruption from the fans and English commentators alike proved that, despite being counted out at the half, Liverpool were still very much in the game. Milan started to look dazed, as they had just suffered a quick one-two punch. The dominant team that controlled the first half were now at a loss for words. Then, in a moment of desperation, Gennaro Gattuso brought down Gerrard inside the box after Gerrard received a layoff pass from teammate Milan Baros, causing the referee to award a penalty in favor of Liverpool. Alonso stepped up to the penalty spot as the crowd went silent. The tension filled the stadium. Milan fans were stricken with fear and anxiety. A successful conversion of the penalty, and the comeback was complete. 45 minutes of world-class football thrown away by six minutes of madness. Liverpool fans were clutching their jerseys in anticipation, for them, the conversion would mean that mission impossible was possible.
Alonso stood up at the penalty spot with the composure of a mountain lion going in for the kill. Alosno ran up, kicked it low and left, and failed. Dida had gotten his hand to it, and saved the penalty. However, the ball landed back at Alonso’s foot and he made sure to kick it into the roof of the net, away from the hands of Dida. The Liverpool crowd erupted in cheers, while silence wafted over the Milan fans. After the equalizer, the game stayed end to end, with both teams missing crucial chances, and both Dida and Dudek producing world-class saves to keep the game tied at three a piece. In penalties, the world watched in anticipation. Milan’s Serginho kicked first, however, he was thrown off by Dudek’s distracting antics in goal, and shot over the crossbar. Liverpool’s Hamann scored his penalty with a broken toe and all. Pirlo then went up for Milan and had his penalty saved by Dudek. Cisse scored for Liverpool to put them 2-0 up in the shootout. Milan’s Tomasson then scored their first penalty of the night. Liverpool’s Riise then had his shot saved to leave the score at 2-1 in favor of the English side. Kaka and Smicer scored for their sides respectively, leaving Shevchenko to step up to keep Milan in the game, at least for one more kick. Shevchenko kicked the ball straight down the middle, but because Dudek didn’t commit to a side, he was able to stop the shot, and win the title for Liverpool with the final score of 3-2 on penalties.
The game shocked the football world - Liverpool had done the impossible against one of the strongest teams in history and were giving the utmost praise from football analysts and legends alike. The comeback is known around the world today as “The Miracle of Istanbul”, and is widely accepted as one of the greatest finals of all time. And while Milan were shell shocked, they would eventually get their revenge, as they beat Liverpool 2-1 in their 2007 Champions League final rematch.