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AC Milan crowned European champions
Matthew Schneeberger | May 24, 2007 02:17 IST
Last Updated: May 24, 2007 11:10 IST
A season that began with embarrassment and shame will end in jubilation for AC Milan, as they captured the Champions League final 2-1 over Liverpool last night in Athens' Olympic Stadium.
AC Milan, one of Europe's most accomplished and recognised clubs, found themselves embroiled in a match-fixing controversy that rocked Italy's Serie A last summer.
Like the Italian national team, winner of the 2006 World Cup, Milan finds redemption from the scandal through performance, securing the club's 7th Champions League trophy.
Filippo Inzaghi's scored two opportunistic goals (45, 82); the first coming off his shoulder from an Andrea Pirlo free-kick, and the second by beating Jose Reina one-on-one after artfully knifing through three Liverpool defenders.
Dirk Kuyt managed to put the Reds within one after an 89th minute header, but it ultimately proved too late as Milan played keep away until the controversial final whistle.
The much anticipated rematch of the 2005 Champions League final, a 3-3 stunner that went Liverpool's way on penalties, became almost the diametric opposite of the remarkable comeback in Istanbul.
In that game, Milan absolutely dominated the first half, roaring out to a 3-0 lead at the break before faltering down the stretch and allowing the Reds to mount a miraculous charge.
Last night, it was Liverpool's turn to fall short despite thoroughly controlling the proceedings from the outset.
Most pundits anticipated a slow game from Liverpool, focused on the "long-ball" and impregnable defence. Surprisingly, however, Coach Rafael Benitez installed an aggressive attack that had Milan reeling for the better part of the first half.
Led by Captain Steven Gerrard's spirited effort and extraordinary play, the Reds looked utterly dominant at times before the break. Liverpool controlled possession, had better offensive sets and took far more shots in the first 45 minutes.
Inability to finish promising opportunities, a problem that has hampered Liverpool for the better part of three seasons, manifested itself in a most sinister way last night.
Jermaine Pennant, Boudewijn Zenden, Xabi Alonso and Gerrard each had fine looks at the net in the first half, but errant passes, mistimed crosses and wayward shots denied the Reds an early goal.
Pennant and Gerrard, in particular, caused myriad problems for Milan, feeding one another through the air and on the ground, creating numerous close misses.
Then, in a demoralising blow, Liverpool's Xabi Alonso foolishly fouled Brazilian midfielder Kaka in the 45th minute just outside the box.
Kaka, who has dominated the tournament, struggled with Javier Mascherano's relentless marking all night. In a rare moment free of the dogged Argentinian, Kaka controlled a loose ball and turned towards goal as Alonso recklessly crashed into him from behind.
Pirlo, a free kick specialist, didn't let Milan's first serious opportunity of the half go to waste. He expertly sliced the ball between Liverpool's wall and towards the right side of the net.
Reina never lost sight of the shot, reading it correctly and pouncing to his right. Unfortunately for Liverpool, the ball caught Inzaghi's shoulder, directing it back towards the middle of the net, where Reina had stood just seconds earlier.
The controversial goal, Liverpool supporters will swear that Inzaghi intentionally used his arm to alter the shot, gave Milan a commanding lead despite being thoroughly outplayed.
After the break, the Reds stormed the field, spurred on by the famous, "You'll never walk alone" pouring forth from the Liverpool fans.
The second half opened like the first, with Liverpool controlling the action and Milan withstanding the onslaught. Milan's formidable defensive back, which includes Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini, played sloppy and porous for the majority of the game.
In the 47th minute, just after the break, Gerrard was seemingly fouled in the penalty area after racing past Nesta and Maldini down the left side. The referee allowed action to continue, however, awarding Liverpool a corner kick that was batted harmlessly away and controlled by Milan.
Liverpool wasted another brilliant opportunity in the 62nd minute when Gerrard, after deftly stealing the ball from Nesta in Milan's back, tried to push a shot past goalkeeper Dida. Uncharacteristic of Liverpool's home-grown super star, his blast lacked power and was deflected away and back to a defender.
In an effort to generate offense, Benitez exchanged Mascherano for lanky striker, Peter Crouch, in the 77th minute. This decision, however, backfired when Kaka used his new found freedom to connect with Inzaghi in the 82 minute.
Kaka, controlling the ball deep in Liverpool territory, attracted four defenders while waiting for Inzaghi to start his run. The teammates demonstrated tremendous chemistry, as Inzaghi expertly found his way to the soft spot in Liverpool's back line, making them look apathetic as he received the pass in full stride, dribbled past Reina and softly touched the ball home for his second goal and a 2-0 lead.
Desperation and frustration mounted for Liverpool, as Milan packed in the defense and refused to allow Liverpool any more chances. The exhausted Reds, worn out by their attacking strategy, had little of the energy needed to mount another historic comeback.
By the 85th minute, cries of "MILAN, MILAN!" cascaded onto the pitch from frenzied supporters. But Liverpool added a touch of apprehension to the excitement when Dirk Kuyt directed a header home in the 89th minute. Off a Pennant cross, the ball was first met by Daniel Agger, then a Milan defender, before finally reaching Kuyt who stood perched near the right post.
No matter, however, Milan controlled possession for the final few minutes of regulation and the two and a half minutes of penalty time. It was announced as three minutes over the loud-speakers at Olympic Stadium, but referee Fandel blew his whistle with 30 seconds to spare, signalling the start of the celebration with Liverpool players still attempting to level the score.
UEFA Champions League 2006-07: The Complete Coverage