Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The decade's greatest footballing moments (6) - The Miracle of Istanbul

How on earth did Liverpool even get to Istanbul in the first place? 2004-05 had, otherwise, been a pretty miserable year for the red side of Scouserland. So much for the arrival of Spanish coach Rafa Benitez; the club expected Gerard Houllier’s successor to lead them into a title race, but instead Liverpool finished fifth in the table, missing out on a place in the following year’s Champions League. To add to the ignominy, they were pipped to the critical fourth spot by none other than their local rivals Everton. The new arrivals brought to Merseyside by Benitez never came close to becoming Anfield legends (with the notable exception of Xabi Alonso). The marquee signing, £14million French forward Djibril Cisse showcased a range of ridiculous haircuts, but precious few goals – even before he broke his leg mid-season. The motley crew of Spanish signings included such mediocre players as Josemi, Luis Garcia, Antonio Nunez and Fernando Morientes. And out the door had gone Emile Heskey and Danny Murphy, who were a damn sight better than their Iberian replacements, and the talismanic Michael Owen had gone too. It had all gone a bit Pete Tong.

Except for the Champions League. Benitez’s safety first tactics, heavily criticized domestically (even five years on, and with some justification), were remarkably successful in two-legged European matches. And while domestically the Reds lost to the likes of Bolton, Birmingham (twice), Middlesbrough, Southampton and Crystal Palace, in Europe they saw off Olympiakos (with two late goals), Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus (then champs of Serie A) and Chelsea (Premier League champions-elect) through Luis Garcia’s so-called “ghost goal” – of course, if it hadn’t been given as a goal the referee would have given a penalty and sent Petr Cech off. In Istanbul they met another side with a wonderful European heritage, Milan. The Italians could boast a defence including the evergreen Paolo Maldini, chasing a winner’s medak at 37, plus Alessandro Nesta, Jaap Stam and Cafu; all top players at their peak, but all a few years past that point. Midfielders Andrea Pirlo and Gennaro Gattuso would form the backbone of Italy’s World Cup triumph a year later, whilst the strike force of Andriy Shevchenko (before he became crap) and Hernan Crespo (before he also became crap!) played in front of Kaka, already Serie A’s outstanding player. Milan, unsurprisingly, were favourites.

Only about 70 seconds into the game, Milan seemed destined for victory, for Maldini himself scored the opening goal, as Liverpool failed to defend a long throw. Goals from the veteran were rare; one on an occasion such as this was like a fairytale. In contrast, the first half resembled a hammer horror show for the English side; a gamble on the hamstring of Harry Kewell lasted 23 minutes before he had to be subbed. Milan’s savvy coach, Carlo Ancelotti (now of Chelsea), recognised the lack of pace in Liverpool’s back line and exploited it to the fall. In the last few minutes of the Liverpool defence was split open by incisive midfield passing not once, but twice. Both times Crespo found himself clean through. Both times he beat Jerzy Dudek in the goal. At half-time the score was 3-0. It was embarrassing.

Perhaps Milan thought the game was already won. Benitez probably thought the same, but pride required Liverpool did not give up. On came Didi Hamann into midfield, to finally stifle Kaka’s space. Liverpool went 3-5-2. They needed an early goal to stand a chance of a comeback, and step forward Steven Gerrard to lead by captain’s example, bulleting in a header. Were Milan shaken? Before we could work it out, they had conceded again, only two minutes later. Vladimir Smicer, a Czech forward much maligned during his career at Anfield, had a speculative go from twenty yards. Every other time he had worn the red shirt, those shots seemed to end up in the stands. But on that fateful night in Istanbul, he kept his head down, and his shot low, and it rifled into the bottom corner. 3-2. Of course Milan were shaken now, no doubt about it.

All in all, less than six minutes passed between Gerrard’s strike and the equalizer from Xabi Alonso, a rebound from a penalty which had been given away by a panicked Gattuso tackle. At quarter to nine UK time, Liverpool had been done for. At the hour, they were level and on top. All credit to Milan, who found some backbone and recovered to push for a winner; the stunning reflex save from Dudek to deny Shevchenko at the death was simply wondrous. But to go from being 3-0 up to facing a penalty shootout would surely feel like a defeat to anyone, and Milan were no exception.

Dudek, Liverpool’s Polish goalkeeper, had never lived up to expectations at Anfield, and would be displaced by the arrival of Jose Reina in the coming summer. But on this night he would be the ultimate hero. Whether he had much knowledge of a previous incumbent of his shirt, Bruce Grobbelaar, is not known, but his technique of bizarre movements and waving of arms and legs on the goalline, to put the taker off, was reminiscent of the Zimbabwean. Serginho bottled it, and skied his spotkick; so to did Pirlo, who was denied by a save. Last up was Shevchenko, needing to score to keep Milan in it at 3-2 down. Inexplicably, his penalty was hopeless; soft and down the middle, and an easy save. Truly, it was a miracle – or, from Milan’s point of view, a catastrophe.

Would it be unfair to say that Rafa Benitez has lived off Istanbul? Only once in the succeeding seasons have Liverpool challenged for the title, while they got back to a Champions League final once more in 2007, where Milan got revenge with a 2-0 triumph. But Liverpool have not really moved on from then, always seeming a step behind Man Utd and Chelsea, and forever playing the same old conservative Benitez tactics. Istanbul was a glorious battle to win, but, had it been a defeat, Benitez might have been forced out soon after, and just perhaps, a better replacement might have gone on to win the Premier League war which Liverpool constantly lose.


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