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Six minutes that saw Liverpool change history
Mike Collett |
May 26, 2005 13:16 IST
On a night that served as the perfect metaphor for the last 20 years of their history, Liverpool rose from the depths of despair to the pinnacle of European soccer on Wednesday.
Trailing 3-0 at halftime and looking totally outclassed in the Champions League final against a rampant AC Milan, Liverpool fought back with three goals in six astonishing minutes at the start of the second half before winning 3-2 on penalties.
It was a remarkable turnaround on the night and represents a complete transformation in Liverpool's fortunes too.
On the corresponding Wednesday night 20 years ago, Liverpool supporters brought shame on club and country when they charged at Juventus fans before the European Cup final at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels causing the deaths of 39 people, mostly Italians, as a wall collapsed.
Liverpool have had plenty of ups and downs since but had never reached another European Cup final since that fateful night.
However, on the very edge of Europe, just miles from where the Old Continent meets Asia, in the 50th European Cup final, the first to be held in Turkey and the first to start on one day and end after midnight on the next, Liverpool regained their old place as European champions for the first time in 21 years.
In the same way that the club's fortunes have risen since the nadir of Heysel, so the team came back from the depths of despair to win this match after being utterly outclassed, outplayed and almost out for the count after 45 minutes.
By the end, though, they had rewritten the history books with the greatest ever comeback in a European Cup final, lifting England to the top of the all-time European club trophy table with a 28th national victory and became European champions for the fifth time meaning, ironically, they can keep the trophy.
For under current Champions League rules, they cannot defend their title next season as they finished outside the four automatic qualifying places in the Premier League.
Liverpool were fifth and will take part in the UEFA Cup unless European soccer's governing body decides otherwise when its executive committee meets in Manchester on June 16.
At one stage on Wednesday the problem, which has vexed the authorities since Liverpool reached the later stages of the competition and progressed with wins over Bayer Leverkusen, then Juventus and Chelsea, appeared to have disappeared.
Milan were utterly in control, had scored in the first minute through 36-year-old skipper Paolo Maldini, appearing in his seventh final, and then cut Liverpool to ribbons.
Argentina international Hernan Crespo, on loan from Chelsea, scored twice at the end of the first half to put Milan in sight of their seventh European Cup victory.
At that stage it looked like Liverpool's Spanish boss Rafael Benitez had made a major tactical error, leaving out midfielders Dietmar Hamann and Igor Biscan and giving mercurial Australian forward Harry Kewell a place in his starting lineup instead.
Without Hamann and Biscan in midfield, Milan's extravagantly inventive Andrea Pirlo had time and space to operate almost as he wished and that is exactly what he did, creating chances and opportunities at will.
If it was not Pirlo finding Crespo or Andriy Shevchenko it was Kaka or Clarence Seedorf or Gennaro Gattuso as Milan forced Liverpool back.
The Italian side's three first half goals were testimony to their dominance. Kewell, who limped off injured after 23 minutes contributed little and was replaced by Vladimir Smicer.
But it was a second enforced substitution that was crucial.
An injury to defender Steve Finnan ended his involvement at halftime and Benitez switched to a three-man defence with Dietmar Hamann coming on in midfield.
The move worked. Suddenly Milan had less space to exploit and Liverpool began to play some football at last with the impressive Xabi Alonso and captain Steven Gerrard trading passes and wresting the initiative from the Italians.
Fittingly it was Gerrard, the man who kept his team in the competition when they were four minutes from elimination at the end of the group stage, who gave Liverpool renewed hope with a 54th minute header.
Two minutes later Liverpool really were back in contention when Smicer rifled home and after 60 minutes they were level when Gattuso brought down Gerrard and Xabi Alonso fired into the roof of the net on the rebound after Dida saved his penalty.
While Liverpool were rising Milan were stumbling, none more so than Shevchenko, European Footballer of the Year and Milan's hero when they won the European Cup two years ago and he scored the decisive penalty in a shootout with Juventus at Old Trafford.
Oddly in that match he had a goal disallowed on a marginal offside call -- his fate again after 29 minutes here.
He also saw Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek defy him in the last minute of extra time with an extraordinary double save when he looked like clinching the match for Milan.
But worse was to follow.
With Milan trailing 2-3 in the shootout and Shevchenko needing to score to keep their hopes alive, he shot weakly at Dudek who saved. It was the last action of the night.
Most of the 70,000 in the stadium were singing the Liverpool anthem while Milan supporters seemed too stunned to move. On Wednesday, in the end, Liverpool really did not walk alone.