by Suhail Seedat
It was the night which saw Liverpool born again. The 25th of May 2005 is now synonymous with the European Cup’s most marvellous and fairy tale. Despite the great lustre and rich history surrounding Liverpool, the side were a distant second best to Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan boasting some of the best world’s greatest talents. Indeed, the route to Istanbul for Liverpool contained enough twists and turns for the Kopites to perhaps feel it was their team’s destiny to march on and claim their fifth European Cup.
The start of the 2004-05 season was a period of change at Anfield. Gerard Houllier was shown the door after another dour season of football and replaced with Rafael Benitez who’s stock couldn’t have been much higher after claiming a La Liga and UEFA Cup double with an incredibly entertaining Valencia side. Michael Owen saw the change of management as an opportunity to seek pastures new as he became the latest cog in the first Galáctico project under Florentino Perez, a switch which added to Benitez’s worries about his average squad making the Champions League. For all the talk of Samuel Eto’o, Fernando Morientes joined as part of the Michael Owen deal and Antonio Nunez was brought in, additions which seemed to underline the lack of attraction surrounding the club.
Benitez’s first test was against AK Graz from Austria. Despite a comfortable win in the first leg after two fine strikes from captain Steven Gerrard (who had had his head turned by Chelsea throughout the summer), the second leg was surprisingly nervy. Despite the tension, Liverpool advanced into the group stages where they were drawn against Monaco, Olympiacos and Deportivo. A group which may, on paper, have lacked quality, made up for any concerns by providing excitement right up till the final game; a game which is now enshrined in Anfield folklore.
In the final game of the group stage, a win by two goals was needed for Liverpool in front of a packed and expectant Anfield crowd against Olympiacos, who themselves needed to avoid defeat to advance through to the knock-out stages. An easy objective, surely? Rivaldo had other plans. A free kick in front of the Kop squirmed through a broken wall to give the Greek side a shock 1-0 lead at half time. Anfield was stunned, but in its sometimes foolishly optimistic manner, roused itself to believe the game – and the result – would be theirs.
Benitez rung the changes and brought on Florent Sinama Pongolle, also deciding to adjust the team’s shape. The substitute made an instant impact, scoring within the first minute of the half. Liverpool sensed something could happen. Chances continued to be created, yet Olympiacos remained stubborn and despite becoming increasingly shaky as they defended in front of a vociferous Kop. Milan Baros was brought off and replaced by Neil Mellor who ten days earlier had scored a magnificent 30-yarder to give Liverpool the win against Arsenal.
Like the Pongolle change, the substitution was a masterstroke as Mellor poked the ball home from a few yards to give Liverpool the lead, but another goal was needed. Prior to the game, captain Steven Gerrard talked of how he would consider a move elsewhere had the team failed in their bid to reach the knock-out rounds. Indeed, in one of the most magical endings to a game ever seen at Anfield, it was Gerrard who half volleyed home an absolute screamer from outside the area with minutes to go. The screams of Andy Gray were as big a part of the goal as the occasion itself, as was the roar from the crowd of both emotion and joy which deafened the viewers. It was a magical night which would set Liverpool up for further amazing nights later in the competition.
Bayer Leverkusen were Liverpool’s opponents in the last sixteen, the Germans having knocked Liverpool out in the competition a few years before, but a 6-2 aggregate victory exorcised those ghosts with Benitez’s men displaying some excellent football and dismantling Klaus Augenthaler’s underachieving side.
In the quarters, Juventus, under Fabio Capello, threw Liverpool their first big test. It was a fast start which caught Juventus off-guard as Sami Hyypia volleyed terrifically from a flick-on at the near post. His effort was eclipsed by the enigmatic Luis Garcia, whose unbelievable strike from twenty five yards caught out Gigi Buffon to double their lead. Juventus seemed shell-shocked, as if they were a child riding a carousel for the first time, dazed by the intense atmosphere and high tempo. In the second half the Bianconeri managed to grab a goal as Scott Carson, in his third appearance for the club, spilled a high ball for Fabio Cannavaro to finish. The result was merited; one which both sides would have accepted heading into the second leg.
The second leg didn’t provide much in terms of entertainment. Benitez opted to play a surprising 3-5-2 system to mask his injury ravaged side, and it was the defensive display of the team which got them through the quarter final stage of the competition as the game ended goalless. Remarkably, fifteen minutes from time, Djibril Cisse – who broke his leg in two places against Blackburn earlier in the season – managed to get some game time and wpuld play a key part later in the campaign.
Obstructing Liverpool’s path to the final were a Chelsea side who, under their new manager José Mourinho, were destroying the Premier League and had themselves dismantled Barcelona impressively. Chelsea, with their millions, were regarded as the favourites having beaten Liverpool thrice already that season in the league and a cup final. However, Liverpool felt that in a two legged game they could prevail.
Much like the game against Juventus, Liverpool showed very little in attack against Chelsea in the away game. With no goals to show as both teams tactically nullified each other, the stage was set at Anfield where Liverpool were confident of using the crowd in their favour one last time.
A sea of red shirts reflected the late spring sun as Liverpool entertained Chelsea, the teams led out of the narrow, low tunnel underneath the Main Stand by Gerrard and John Terry. The booming sound of the fans rang loud as both teams began a night of football which no Anfield pilgrim would ever forget.
Chelsea seemed strangely in awe of Anfield; in complete amazement at the volume of sound, the intense pressure, the flags and banners being waved in unison, the scarves raised during the rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. Mourinho’s team had entered the lion’s den. Anfield on European nights seemed like a myth to this generation of players and fans, a myth which had become reality.
Liverpool revelled in the atmosphere and flew out of the traps causing Chelsea to panic. Within four minutes, a clipped ball from Steven Gerrard allowed Milan Baros to scurry free from the usually resolute and militant Chelsea defence. Baros knocked the ball over his international team-mate Petr Cech, but went down after some obstruction from the goalkeeper. Luis Garcia’s instincts were always under-rated and, in this instance, first-rate as he rushed to tap the ball over the line despite William Gallas’ efforts to clear.
The onslaught which the then champions were expected to make failed to materialise. Liverpool’s defence was firm and soaked up whatever Chelsea threw at them. All was left was the kitchen sink, Chelsea adopting a direct approach as they threw their defenders up field. The Reds centre-backs, Hyypia and Jamie Carragher thwarted everything until the last minute of the surprising six minutes allotted by the fourth official.
A knock-down from a high ball which Jerzy Dudek failed to collect fell into the path of the usually cool Eidur Gudjohnsen who stood six yards in front of an open goal. Time stood still as the Icelandic striker took a swing with his right foot, the ball eluding all the flying defenders only to slide past the other side of the post. Anfield breathed a collective sigh of relief. It was Chelsea’s best chance in the game and it had been blown.
A minute later, Anfield erupted as their team’s passage to the final was confirmed, a glorious new chapter written into Liverpool’s rich history books. The crowd celebrated long into the night as if they had just won the trophy itself. The adulation and joy of this night, however, would not be matched by what would happen twenty two days later in Istanbul.
It was a matter of planes, trains and automobiles for Liverpool supporters travelling to what seemed like the other side of the world. It had been twenty years since Liverpool had been to a European Cup final and since then, Liverpool had not reigned supreme as it used to. The side could never compare to those of Bob Paisley and Joe Fagan, sides which managed to get to five finals between 1977 and ‘85. The opposition couldn’t be tougher. Considered to be arguably the best club side in the world, Milan boasted the talents of Shevchenko, Kaka, Crespo, Pirlo, Maldini and Nesta. The bulk of the Rossoneri side remained from their Champions League triumph two years before. On paper, this was no match. Liverpool were on for a pasting.
The Italians strode into the Ataturk with an arrogance which all great sides possess. The Merseysiders turned up with stagefright. Traore fouled Kaka in the first minute. The resulting free-kick led to a Paolo Maldini goal. The work Benitez had done to keep the defence tight and compact, drawing Milan into being suckerpunched on the counter, had been undone by lax marking. Dudek could only shout ‘come on’ weakly whilst the side trudged back to restart the game.
The Polish goalkeeper would be beaten again twice before the interval. The midfield duo of Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso were mesmerised by the sublime movement of Pirlo, Seedorf and, in particular, the dazzling Kaka. The Brazilian’s grace in possession left the Liverpool defence statuesque with delicate and accurate passes slicing them apart. It was his incisive pass for Shevchenko which created Milan’s second as the Ukrainian squared for Hernan Crespo to finish. Milan and Kaka weren’t done yet. A minute before half time, Kaka’s raking ball was pinpoint for the Argentine’s boot as he dinked over the hapless Dudek to give Milan a deserved three nil lead at half time.
The Ataturk, which was three quarters filled with Liverpool fans, was stunned. A twenty-year wait had resulted in a shabby, nervous performance, yet that didn’t deter the supporters as they let their voices be heard in that distinctive Liverpool way. They sung You’ll Never Walk Alone loud, proud and with immense emotion. It was used as the driving force to motivate this poorly constructed Liverpool side who Benitez had miraculously managed to drag into the final of the Champions League.
Apparently Benitez was so numb and disheartened at the situation that he lined up with twelve players on the whiteboard in the dressing room at half-time. Conversely, the AC Milan players were singing in the dressing room with the feeling the victory was theirs. That feeling of elation would turn to bitterness after six crazy minutes in the second half.
Dietmar Hamann appeared out of the dressing room and raced into the centre of the midfield with encouraging cries of ‘Let’s go!’ as he pumped his fist after the start of the second half. He replaced Steve Finnan who picked up a knock in the first half. Hamann was the second substitute for Liverpool as the largely ineffective Harry Kewell was replaced by Vladimir Smicer in the first-half having pulling up with an injury. The selection of the Australian had been a risk which failed to pay off for Benitez on a stage where he felt he needed to play a trick against a very formidable Milan side.
It was a case of damage limitation for Liverpool and the restoration of pride for those who spent hundreds and thousands to come and see their club play on the grandest stage. Yet damage limitation, little by little, turned to hope.
There was no better player to cajole the team than its captain, Steven Gerrard. Earlier in the campaign Gerrard had dragged Liverpool out of the abyss with his storming goal against Olympiacos. He wanted his hometown club to go kicking and screaming if they were to be defeated. His leaping header from a John Arne Riise corner gave Liverpool a lifeline after 53 minutes. It was the most untypical of goals from the club captain, but at this point that didn’t matter. The Liverpool fans on the other side of the stadium roared as Gerrard flagged his arms in encouragement for them to get louder, if that was possible.
Like a boxer being caught by a surprise right hook, Milan were taking the count and dazed by what had just happened. For the first time in the game, Liverpool had a sense of purpose and life in the game and gained control, passing the ball with intent and looking to hurt this flailing Milan side. Minutes later, twenty five yards from goal, Smicer decided to shoot in the hope of testing this usually stern Milan defence. His hopeful shot turned into a goal. Dida could only parry the rather tame effort into the net. Liverpool were alive again.
Milan had been knocked down for the second time within minutes. This greatly assembled side started to doubt themselves and their credentials, a perfect illustration of what momentum can do in sport. Despite Liverpool’s clear weaknesses throughout the side, they had hope and a sense of belief that they could achieve the impossible dream. Liverpool’s dream became Milan’s nightmare when minutes later, Gerrard broke free of Gennaro Gattuso who had no option but to pull him down in the box. Manuel Mejuto, the Spanish referee, could only point to the spot. Mejuto incidentally, had been the referee for the game against Olympiacos.
Xabi Alonso looked on nervously at the ball and the large frame of Dida in goal. Alonso’s side-footed effort to the bottom left corner was saved excellently by the Brazilian, but he hadn’t done enough. The influential Spanish midfielder followed up his shot to score the rebound. Liverpool, having looking down the barrel of the gun, had seen the Rossoneri shoot themselves in the foot. The feeling of desolation and heartbreak turned into ecstasy for the massed ranks of Liverpool fans.
The remainder of the game tailed off into a non-entity. Both managers decided to close shop in an attempt to gain control and shake the cobwebs from what previously occurred. As cramp and fatigue set in, Gerrard was forced to play at right back to shackle the rampaging Serginho from causing havoc, demonstrating how resolutely the players wanted to defend what they had miraculously fought for. Milan’s domination in extra time nearly turned into something tangible. Shevchenko had an opportunity to win the Champions League trophy in the last moments of the game when he went one-on-one with Dudek. Either a lack of serenity on behalf of Shevchenko or divine intervention on behalf of Dudek meant that the goalkeeper performed a stunning double save from point blank range. The Ukrainian looked astonished, Dudek used it to boost himself for what would happen moments later.
Like Liverpool’s last European Cup triumph, this game headed to penalties.
As Benitez asked his players to volunteer whether they had the courage to step up and make history, Carragher waved his arms like a child after having too many sugary sweet at a confused looking Jerzy Dudek. The message was to mimic what Bruce Grobbelaar managed to do in psyching out the Roma penalty takers in the 1984 final. It seemed the message was fully understood.
Serginho, who scored in the penalty shoot-out two years prior, stepped up. In this instance, Dudek’s attempts of sportsmanship were not needed. The Brazilian skied his penalty so high that it probably met David Beckham’s penalty from Euro 2004. Hamann, in a very nonchalant manner, stuttered his run and perfectly placed his penalty above the long reach of Dida to give Liverpool the lead 0-1.
The passmaster Andrea Pirlo was next for Milan and received the ball in the hands from Dudek in a ploy to psyche the Italian. His ploy, as much as his poor Grobbelaar impression, worked as Pirlo struck poorly into Dudek’s palm. Liverpool doubled their lead as Cisse strode powerfully forward and struck his kick impeccably. 0-2.
Jon Dahl Tommasson walked to the penalty spot as if there was no pressure on his shoulders. His resulting penalty sent Dudek the other way. John Arne Riise, usually a very sweet striker of the ball, didn’t do enough to beat Dida as the goalkeeper guessed correctly and well. 1-2.
Kaka stepped up knowing he had to score to keep Milan in touch with Liverpool. In typical Kaka fashion, his penalty was calm and very assured, placed into the roof of the net. Liverpool’s riposte came from Smicer, who missed large parts of the season through injury and was on his way out of the club. This would be his final contribution for the club. His long run up to the spot was then met with a perfectly executed penalty to give Liverpool match point in the penalty shoot-out. 2-3.
Andriy Shevchenko knew his penalty had to find the back of the net. In the final against Juventus, he scored the winning penalty at Old Trafford to give Milan their sixth European Cup. He knew pressure and there was no way the finest striker in the world at the time would miss. Looking very stern and almost boyish, the striker scampered to the ball without real conviction and his penalty was such.
Without much power and straight down the middle, Dudek’s left hand pushed the ball back into his path. Liverpool had won the European Cup.
Dudek ran away in celebration, punching the air in delight to be joined by his team-mates as Liverpool somehow found themselves victors of a match which was truly dead and buried at one point. The Russian roulette of the penalty shoot-out provides some cruel results, but this was a fitting end to Liverpool’s magical journey; a true underdog story which not only evokes incredible emotion and memorable scenes, but also a narrative of how grit, honour and pride in any walk of life can lead to success.
This was the fifth Liverpool conquest in the competition and perhaps the most unforgettable of them all. It was the night when Liverpool became part of the upper echelons of world football yet again. The magic of the night is still etched onto most football fans’ memories for being the most entertaining and unpredictable of finals. It was a triumph which is still astounding, particularly when we consider the relatively low calibre of some the players on that victorious side. Rafael Benitez cannot be given enough credit.
There has always been a romance between Liverpool and the European Cup. This final was like two lovers falling into each other’s’ arms after a twenty year absence. What had begun with a struggle had later led to eternal bliss and happiness.
Suhail currently writes for Well Red Magazine, Late Tackle Magazine, Football Italiano, TwoFootedTackle and Scheidt’s Football Miscellany. You can also follow him on Twitter.