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AC Milan follow Italy's footsteps
May 24, 2007 13:52 IST
AC Milan lifted the Champions League trophy after grinding out a 2-1 victory over Liverpool on Wednesday that bore all the hallmarks of Italy's World Cup triumph last year.
Both Italian teams had gone into their competitions under the cloud of a match-rigging scandal that had tarnished their reputation and standing in the world game.
Just as Italy's players said at the World Cup in Germany they wanted to show a different image of their country, so Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti said the club's points deduction for their part in the scandal had made them all the more determined.
In both cases, the Italian sides rarely played to their full potential but were ruthless when it counted and enjoyed a slice of good fortune when they needed it.
A stoppage-time penalty earned Italy a 1-0 victory over Australia in the second round and Andrea Pirlo, the architect of his country's World Cup triumph, made the most of a 45th minute free kick against Liverpool in Athens.
Pirlo's shot took a wicked deflection off lone striker Filippo Inzaghi, leaving goalkeeper Jose Reina diving in the wrong direction as the ball hit the back of the Liverpool net.
The free kick was conceded by Xabi Alonso, who had been the best midfielder on the pitch and whose shoulder challenge on Kaka might well have been ignored in the English Premier League.
It proved to be the turning point of the game, inflicting a demoralising blow on Liverpool as they headed in for the break and forcing them to leave fewer men at the back while they pushed forward in search of an equaliser in the second half.
Inzaghi, a hugely-experienced predator in the penalty area, made them pay in the 82nd minute, rounding Reina after being put through by a great defence-splitting pass from Kaka.
Though Dutchman Dirk Kuyt headed a consolation goal for Liverpool in the dying minutes, there was no way Milan were going to be denied their revenge for having lost an amazing Champions League final to Liverpool on penalties in 2005.
In Istanbul, Liverpool had roared back from 3-0 down at the break to draw 3-3.
This time, Milan had learned their lesson and there was to be no repeat in Athens, as the defence marshalled by 38-year-old captain Paolo Maldini withstood Liverpool's final challenges.
Maldini won club football's biggest trophy for the fifth time and not just because his team had kept things predictably tight at the back and made the best of their chances up front.
Liverpool simply failed to deliver the kind of attacking threat that had taken them to the final at the Olympic Stadium.
Their Spanish manager Rafa Benitez had built a resilient 4-4-2 formation led up front by Kuyt and a choice of either Peter Crouch or Craig Bellamy.
However, faced with Milan's 4-5-1 lineup and the clear threat of being overrun in midfield, Benitez opted for a single striker by trade in Kuyt, chaperoned up front by captain Steven Gerrard.
The Liverpool skipper is widely recognised as being one of the best footballers in Europe, but even Gerrard cannot fill the boots of a striker at this level.
His only chance was saved by Dida in the 63rd minute and his presence added little to Liverpool's attack, which was mainly driven by the workaholic Jermaine Pennant on the right flank.
Dutchman Boudewijn Zenden, who lacked any guile, pace or attacking bite on the left, was replaced by Harry Kewell just before the hour mark but the Australian tried in vain to turn the game around.
A glimpse of what might have been for Liverpool came at the very end when late substitute Crouch unleashed a shot from outside the area which Dida did well to tip over the bar.
It was too little too late for Benitez's men who were beaten by a Milan side that had drawn on their experiences over the past year, good and bad, to clinch their seventh European Cup.
UEFA Champions League 2006-07: The Complete Coverage