PARIS, France, May 24 – Steven Gerrard said Liverpool did not “believe in miracles” and Jamie Carragher thought his “dreams had turned to dust”, but 15 years ago Rafael Benitez’s side pulled off one of football’s greatest heists to beat AC Milan in the Champions League final.
The English side were underdogs before kick-off in Istanbul despite edging out Chelsea in the semi-finals and a strong Juventus outfit in the last eight, but were completely written off when 3-0 down at half-time in their bid for a fifth European Cup.
But, roared on by 40,000 travelling supporters in the club’s first final in the competition since the Heysel disaster of 1985, Liverpool fought back in a crazy six-minute spell before eventually triumphing on penalties.
The much-fancied Milan, who had won the title in 2003 at Old Trafford, took the lead inside 50 seconds through captain Paolo Maldini’s volley — the first time Liverpool had conceded first in a Champions League game since their famous group-stage win over Olympiakos.
It was to get worse for Liverpool as, with defensive midfielder Dietmar Hamann sitting on the bench despite a brilliant performance against Chelsea, winger Harry Kewell hobbled off injured midway through the first half.
“The 2007 (Milan) team was technically inferior to the 2005 team, who remain the best team with the best performance in a final,” then-Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti later said when asked about the teams he took to three Champions League finals, winning the other two, including against Liverpool in 2007.
“The 2005 team were better than the one in 2003.”
That class shone in a blistering first-half display by the Italian giants, as Hernan Crespo tapped in after a rapid 39th-minute counter-attack which started with Liverpool appealing for a penalty after an apparent handball by Maldini.
“The quality of (Andrea) Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Kaka cut us to shreds,” Gerrard later wrote in his autobiography.
– Gattuso ‘thought it was all over’ –
Just when it looked like Liverpool might limp into half-time only two goals behind, Milan delivered what appeared to be the killer blow as Kaka’s defence-splitting pass released Crespo to chip a sumptuous finish over the advancing Jerzy Dudek.
“You could just tell by Gennaro Gattuso’s demeanour that he thought it was over,” said Gerrard. “All I was thinking of then was, ‘How do we get a bit of pride and respect back?’”
Carragher wrote in his autobiography: “My dreams had turned to dust.
“I wasn’t thinking about the game any more. My thoughts were with my family and friends. I was so sorry.”
Liverpool’s supporters at the Ataturk Stadium tried to lift the team with an almost mournful half-time rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.
“It lifted us, but it would be wrong to say that it made us believe in miracles,” said Gerrard.
Benitez rang the changes, bringing on Hamann for injured full-back Steve Finnan at half-time and switching to a 3-5-2 formation.
Carragher said that Liverpool were thinking that if they scored one goal, “pride might be restored”, and captain Gerrard twisted his neck to head John Arne Riise’s cross into the top corner nine minutes after the restart.
What happened next was remarkable. Vladimir Smicer, on for Kewell and playing his last game for Liverpool, collected the ball 25 yards from goal and blasted a low shot past Milan goalkeeper Dida just two minutes later.
In the 59th minute, Gerrard was fouled by Gattuso and Xabi Alonso completed one of football’s greatest comebacks, scoring on the rebound after Dida had saved his initial penalty.
– ‘Let’s just get to extra time’ –
Liverpool’s momentum was shortlived, though, and it was a long road before they eventually reached penalties.
“After that goal I thought, ‘Let’s just get this to extra time and penalties’,” admitted Gerrard.
Djimi Traore’s goalline block to deny Andriy Shevchenko helped the Reds reach extra time, where they needed an incredible double save from Dudek to keep out Shevchenko and two last-ditch challenges by Carragher on the Ukrainian to take the final to spot-kicks.
“We also played very well in extra time,” said Ancelotti. “Carragher told me they couldn’t take it anymore and they wanted to go to penalties.”
Unlike two years before, when Shevchenko scored the winning spot-kick against Juventus, it was not to be Milan’s night on penalties.
Serginho blazed wildly over and Pirlo’s effort was saved by the dancing, advancing Dudek, and although Dida kept out Riise, Dudek palmed away Shevchenko’s tame shot to finish off a memorable final which will forever be remembered as the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but have you ever seen a better Champions League final?,” asks Gerrard. “They were a better team than us but we beat them.”