In the first round of the 2005 Champions League final, Liverpool appeared to count.
A team that has stopped Chelsea twice to punch their tickets to Istanbul was lost repeatedly by Milan in the first 45 minutes.
Paolo Maldini struck a massive blow – the defender’s goal after 50 seconds set a new record for being the fastest in the final of the tournament – but it was one-two of Hernan Crespo that put the Reds in serious trouble.
The striker – on loan from Chelsea – scored two goals before the break, the second goal from a great goal beyond Jerzy Dudek’s breakthrough pass to give Kaka a superb ball.
Referee Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez saved Liverpool from further punishment by ending the first half. Saved by the bell, but still 3-0 to an opponent who has kept five clean sheets in six European matches since the top qualifying group which also includes Barcelona.
But this is the same Milan who sent three away against PSV away in the semi-final second leg, leaving them to score an away goal in the end. They have their English rivals in trouble, for sure, but there are still a few matches left at Liverpool.
Instead of using smelly salt to make them aware, Rafael Benitez galvanized his team with tactical changes. Instead of going into survival mode when it was far behind on the scorecard, the Spaniard looked for the best way to attack.
He still believes. Within 16 minutes of the second half, so did everyone.
The first step in dealing with a problem is acknowledging that you already have it. Benitez left with a 4-4-1-1 formation from the kick-off, giving a surprise by calling Harry Kewell at XI to work behind lone striker Milan Baros.
It did not work. Clear. With an extraordinary Kaka giving time and space to poke and investigate, and with Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko willing to be runners in the back, Liverpool are under control in midfield and over-run behind.
Benitez responded by replacing and changing forms. Off away Steve Finnan who was injured, arrived Dietmar Hamann, a shocking absence from the starting lineup. Originally a sacrificial lamb at half time, Djimi Traore was stopped from change to instead join Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher in a three-man central defense.
Introduction to Hamann is a counter to overcoming Kaka. Germany will sit next to Xabi Alonso, freeing Steven Gerrard to influence the game further ahead.
Of course, this could easily be equivalent to shaking a deck chair on Titanic. Instead, it provided the much-needed platform to produce a six-minute strike that suddenly saw Milan teetering on the ropes.
Relieved from his defensive duties, Gerrard began his recovery by planting one in Milan.
John Arne Riise failed with his first attempt at a cross from Liverpool’s left side, but the second attempt chose his captain, alone in the empty space in the penalty box. Socially distancing himself from the Milan players, Gerrard rose, flicked his head towards the ball and then watched the ball fly past Dida and into the corner of the goal.
It was his last goal for the club – he submitted a transfer request several months later before deciding not to join Jose Mourinho at Chelsea – but also the first to become famous; no Liverpool captain has scored in the previous European Cup / Champions League final.
Vladimir Smicer was called in to act earlier than he thought. Kewell’s time to justify the faith shown to him by the boss only lasted 23 minutes, because the injury cut off his involvement.
So Smicer was called off the bench to play the part in the biggest game of his career at Liverpool – that was also the last.
The Czech, who moved to Bordeaux out of season, was honored to cheat in his time with the Reds, but will forever be remembered with love for his contribution on Turkish soil. Given ownership by Hamann’s square pass, he chose to release a low shot and right foot that hit the target and caught Dida cold, darting past the keeper.
Generalize that Milan is almost avoided. The Serie A side are wide open at the moment, rocking and rolling, unable to understand what happened to them.
Carragher’s zip zipped into Baros’s legs allows the striker to turn the ball inside with a simple flick of a boot, sending it into the running Gerrard track. Gennaro Gattuso could not keep up and, in an effort to survive in the hope of escaping without punishment, pulled an arm to give the punishment.
Alonso went low to his left with a penalty and while Dida guessed correctly to stay out, the rebound was lifted to the roof of the goal despite a desperate lunge from Alessandro Nesta. At 23 years and 181 days, Alonso became the youngest player to score in the European Cup / Champions League final for the club.
From finished and cleaned to all boxes; Liverpool have come down from the canvas, come out swinging and produced a mother of all comeback.
There is more drama to come of course, including penalties, but Miracle of Istanbul happens thanks to an unforgettable 16 minutes of the second half.
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