Prior to the 2005 Champions League final, there was little debate to be had regarding the identity of the favourites. AC Milan had qualified for the competition after winning Serie A by eleven points, and boasted a smorgasbord of world-class personnel regarded by many as one of the finest club football sides ever assembled, led by four-time European Cup winner Paolo Maldini, and spearheaded in attack by reigning Ballon D’Or recipient Andriy Shevchenko. Certainly, it would take something special to topple the Italian giants, and Liverpool were the team to accomplish it, providing one of the highlights in our collection of personalised football books, and what the Mirror’s Oliver Holt would dub “The Greatest Football Story Ever Told”.
Perhaps most worrying for Liverpool beforehand was that the undeniable talent of that Milan team was more than matched by its European pedigree, having won the competition two years earlier. This time around, predictably, “I Rossoneri” would sail through both the group and knockout stages, beating Manchester United and dishing out a 5-0 aggregate hammering to city rivals Internazionale en route to the final.
Liverpool’s journey to Istanbul, by comparison, couldn’t have been more different. Fresh from selling Michael Owen, their top goal-scorer in each of the previous seven seasons, The Reds had qualified for Europe by virtue of coming fourth in the Premier League, consequently being required to go through the Champions League qualifying round to reach the group stage. There, they would find themselves four minutes from elimination in the final game against Olympiakos, before a spectacular thunderbolt from Steven Gerrard sent the Reds through on the head-to-head rule.
In the semi-finals, the opponents were the much-fancied Chelsea, who finished the Premier League season not only as record-breaking champions, but a massive 37 points ahead of Liverpool. At a time before the implementation of goal-line technology, Lady Luck garbed herself in Red; a Luis Garcia chip, cleared off the line at a depth that allowed no naked eye the confidence to attest to its being fully over or not, was given as such. It would be the only goal across both legs of the tie.
Liverpool’s path to the final had been an uphill battle. But in the match itself, they found themselves with a mountain to climb. Less than a minute into the game, the Italians were a goal ahead, captain Maldini, 36-years-young, on the end of an Andrea Pirlo freekick. Liverpool would have to wait until the 39th minute for the chance to retaliate; Luis Garcia, so often the hero of Liverpool’s campaign, appeals for a handball in the Milan penalty area. Not given. Seconds later, the ball is the back of the net at the other end, the result of a devastating counter-attack, finished off by Hernán Crespo, a man ironically on loan from Chelsea, and thus fortunate to be on the pitch. Before the break, Crespo would have another, converting an inch-perfect through ball from Kaká with an exquisite dinked finish over the on-rushing Jerzy Dudek. Half-time, three-nothing, Liverpool all but dead and buried.
“The Greatest Fightback Ever”
One can only imagine what Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez said to his players during the interval. In any case, neither he nor the most optimistic of Liverpool supporters could possibly have foreseen what would happen next. Ten minutes after the restart, a header from Steven Gerrard, not usually considered one of his fortes, would kick off the most incredible six minutes not just in Liverpool’s history, but perhaps in all of European football. Gerrard’s reaction as the ball settled into Dida’s net spoke a thousand words, but perhaps four in particular: “It’s not over yet”.
As substitute Vladimír Smicer banged home a second, Milan’s panic turned from simmering to palpable, ultimately spilling over on the hour; Gennaro Gattuso pulled down Gerrard for a penalty which, although missed, was buried on the rebound by Xabi Alonso.
Almost miraculously, 3-3 was how it stayed, thanks in no small part to a remarkable double-save in extra-time by Dudek, the second coming from point blank range. For many goalkeepers, such a stop would be the highlight of a career. For Dudek, it wouldn’t even be the highlight of the night. That would occur in the obligatory penalty shootout, so often a cruel mistress, but an outcome any right-minded Liverpool fan would’ve snapped a hand off for only an hour earlier. Dudek, channelling Bruce Grobbelaar’s crazy-legs stance, would save penalties first from Pirlo and then, crucially, from Shevchenko. Liverpool, somehow, champions of Europe for the first time in over two decades.
So unexpected was Liverpool’s victory that it prompted a change in qualification parameters; having finished fifth in the Premier League, Liverpool originally should not have even been in the following season’s Champions League. Ultimately, they were allowed to defend their crown, their fifth of six European Cup victories, and all of which can be rediscovered with our bespoke personalised Liverpool book, available now.