Liverpool Vs. AC Milan, UEFA Champions League Final, 25th May 2005, Ataturk Olympic Stadium, Istanbul
Ballsy Banter are very happy to introduce to you our on-going classic match series. Louis Baxter will be taking a trip down memory lane for Ballsy Banter and re-visiting some of the best games of our generation. If you have any suggestions for Classic Matches you can email us, Tweet us or get us on Facebook.
First up Louis looks at that unforgettable night in Istanbul back in 2005.
Off the pitch, Steven Gerrard has always cut a less than enigmatic figure. He seems to have a permanent look of dissatisfaction on his face, a look that implies annoyance at having to be anywhere doing anything ever. He carries out press conferences and interviews with the charisma of a 10×10 ton of bricks, answering every question with such rigid, militant disinterest and boredom that hearing him talk about playing in the quarter finals of the world cup is equivalent to hearing a neighbour discuss their feelings regarding mowing their lawn. He rarely has opinions about anything, most notably footballing matters, where he chooses to speak in tried and tested clichés with fragmented eye contact until Gabriel Clarke finally leaves him the fuck alone. He is not a rock star, like almost every other top class English player of his generation, keeping his personal life out of the headlines and perhaps as a consequence becoming less of a ‘celebrity’. You get the sense that Gerrard is just another boring, average guy who just happened to be the best British born player of my lifetime.
I do not say that lightly. There are players with more flair and perhaps more god-given talent, but throughout the last decade, when Gerrard put on his Liverpool jersey and stepped on that pitch, he was a force like no other. He’s a player that’s always deserved more, deserved to be part of a team that would set the world alight, but instead he chose to play for the club he loved and spent his whole career swimming upstream because of it. Dragging a misfiring, uneven and often inadequate series of Liverpool teams, kicking and screaming, to glory in what should have been their darkest years. This is a team that didn’t have a chance in hell of winning the league in this period, but in the 2005 Champions League, a tournament Liverpool joined in the earliest qualifying round in August and ended as champions in May, he did exactly that, forcing by sheer strength of will a team that had no business getting anywhere near silverware all the way to the final. A game which to my mind is certainly the greatest final the Champions League has ever seen and was the crowning moment for one of our generation’s greatest.
Now on paper, Liverpool seemed to be outclassed in every department here. Cafu Vs. Steve Finnan, Paolo Maldini vs. Djimi Traore, Andriy Shevchenko vs. Jamie Carragher. Everything about Milan’s team read class, composure and experience. They were a great team with world class players, where almost everyone would carry a 20 million price tag and creativity was in abundance. Liverpool were at best at team with strong aspects and promise but glaring holes all over the pitch, particularly in their defence, where an ageing Sami Hyypia and a plucky but unathletic Jamie Carragher were going to be expected to deal with Kaka, with Rui Costa… I mean Xabi Alonso was solid and Luis Garcia or Milan Baros could have their day but it just seemed like a respectable result here was going to be not getting embarrassed. And it half time, it looked that even an embarrassment was something Liverpool were going to have to get on their knees and beg for. Their presence here felt like a joke, with Milan passing the ball sublimely, taking every chance they got and looking like worthy European champions through and through. An expert volley by living legend scorer of one goal every three seasons Paolo Maldini and two pieces of sublime finishing by Hernan Crespo (On loan from Chelsea, and looking nothing like the awkward, disappointing player he was at Stamford Bridge) His second in particular was world class, pouncing on an inch perfect through ball by Kaka to deftly chip it past a helpless Jerzy Dudek.
When the half-time whistle blew, even Gerrard looked like he had no answer and it looked like it was going to be the best night of Everton fans lives. Liverpool were the clueless, ill-disciplined and mediocre team we all knew they could be and it seemed like it could only get worse. But then a couple of things changed. Rafa Benitez brought on old head Dietmar Hamann for Steve Finnan, plugging the central midfield and freeing Gerrard from all defensive responsibilities and essentially giving him the freedom to go forward, almost daring him to save a day that couldn’t be saved. Surely. Well almost from the whistle he became the player Zidane was talking about when he called him the best in the world. He was involved in everything. Every pass, every tackle, somehow everywhere on the pitch all at once. He scored a deceptively difficult header on 54 minutes, which on paper looked like a mere consolation, but to someone watching the game it was something more. Milan had so much time on the ball in the first half, it appeared effortless. But now they could barely touch it, and running didn’t seem to suit them. You got the sense that Liverpool were again going to defy the laws of nature and pull something out here, and the minute you got to the end of that thought, it was 3-2 thanks to a long range effort from Vladimir Smicer. Vladimir Smicer. If there was a single player to single out Liverpool’s early 00’s failings it would be Smicer. He was a winger who couldn’t run, a striker who couldn’t finish, if you were to ask me what exactly his strengths were I’d stare at you silently until you got bored and walked away.
But Liverpool were on fire, their fans roaring, the will of the world behind them and suddenly Smicer was fucking Ronaldo. The third seemed inevitable, and it came 4 minutes later where an explosive Gerrard run into the box could only be stopped by a cynical trip from Gattuso, an act which seemed to define Milan’s response. They had nothing. All they could do was blankly stare while this infinitely inferior team bulldozed past them on the back of a world class player playing the best and most important game of his career. Alonso took one of the worst penalties ever taken, but luckily got the rebound and Liverpool were level. In fifteen minutes. What would have looked impossible for even the greatest of teams, had happened with time to spare. Of course Liverpool let reality creep back in and the rest of the game was played as an edgy stalemate, all the way up to penalties. But it felt like it was written, and you knew what was going to happen before it did (Smicer by the way, buried his penalty without a sweat) and there Liverpool were, European Champions.
People under-rate the achievement because of all Liverpool’s success in the past, but Liverpool came 4th in the premier League the previous year. They came 5th in this very season; they had played the highest amount of games it was possible to play in the tournament. They wouldn’t have broken the top 15 teams competing in terms of quality, nor the top three even from England. The jury was undecided on Benitez and Milan Baros wasn’t exactly prolific. Gerrard had pretty much won the champions league by himself, and I honestly don’t think there’s been a more impressive feat performed in football in my lifetime. This match served as a testament to just how bad the Liverpool team around him could be, but also to the way Gerrard could inspire them, the way he could pull them up by their bootstraps and seem almost superhuman on the pitch. He was a great player not just for the passes he made and the goals he scored, but because he had that incredibly rare ability to rise to the occasion, something he could never quite replicate for England, to make no excuses and just be extra-ordinary. And what he did in the 2005 Champions league with Liverpool, is a feat that could be matched by very few in the history of the game. A truly classic game because in the increasingly elitist world of the Champions league, evidence that the underdog could have his moment inspired by a normal guy who became anything but for this club.