Many regard this game as the greatest match of all time. The 2005 UEFA Champions League Final featured Liverpool, who finished fourth in the Premier League that season against the dominant force that was A.C. Milan. Before the game, many people thought Liverpool had no chance with a Milan team containing the likes of Shevchenko, Kaka, Seedorf, Crespo and Pirlo expected to carve apart a Liverpool team with less fashionable names such as Djimi Traore, Smicer, Finnan and Baros.
Milan set up in a 4-3-1-2 formation with a team which was dripping with quality. From the imperious defence of Maldini, Cafu, Stam and Nesta to a midfield containing legendary figures such as Seedorf, Pirlo, Gattuso and Kaka. This star-studded line up was completed by two strikers that were renowned as being among the deadliest in Europe, Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo.
To counter this Liverpool went with a 4-4-1-1 formation with Harry Kewell acting as the advanced playmaker behind the lone striker, Milan Baros. In the heart of Liverpool’s midfield was Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso, who were initially instructed to sit deep to nullify the danger posed by Kaka’s forward runs.
Everybody has heard the cliche ‘It’s a game of two halves’ but if you were to looking for a definition of this in your football cliche handbook then this game would be it. The first half certainly belonged to AC Milan who scored within a minute with a Paolo Maldini header. To make matters worse for Liverpool, Harry Kewell, Liverpool’s playmaker, hobbled off injured in the 23rd minute, with Vladimir Smicer replacing him.
Milan were imperious in the first half exerting almost embarrassing domination, stunning Liverpool with two strikes in the last six minutes of the opening period. Shevchenko broke away down the right flank, and crossed for Crespo to turn home from close range. Milan then added a third when Kaka, who was by far the most influential player in the first 45 minutes, unlocked Liverpool’s defence again with an inch-perfect pass that released Crespo for a clever chip over the onrushing Dudek.
Tactically, Liverpool needed a change of plan. Rafa Benitez knew this too. Liverpool needed to nullify Kaka and add more of an attacking threat. Benitez did this by changing to a 3-4-2-1 with Traore, Hyypia and Carragher in defence. Benitez decided that his answer to the problems that Kaka was posing was Didi Hamann, who replaced Steve Finnan. Hamann was a much more experienced and defensive minded midfielder and acted as a shield to the defence. Hamann along with Alonso would sit even deeper than in the first half to prevent Kaka’s runs in behind.
This change freed up Steven Gerrard and allowed him to be more attack minded. Gerrard was instructed to get into the penalty area and get on the end of passes and crosses from the wings. John Arne Riise and Smicer, now acting as wing backs, were encouraged to push forward and support the midfield when Liverpool had the ball. They were also instructed to find Gerrard and Liverpool’s other attacking options with crosses and through balls.
Rafa’s plan came into action in the 54th minute when John Arne Riise crossed for Gerrard who leapt to powerfully head past Dida. 3-1! Two minutes later Liverpool were back in the game when Smicer, who been instructed to play higher up the pitch, rifled one into the bottom corner from 20 yards. 3-2! Liverpool were given a penalty when, just four minutes later Gerrard surged into the opposition penalty area again and was brought down by Gattuso. Xabi Alonso stepped up and had his initial penalty saved by Dida, but dispatched the rebound. 3-3! The comeback was complete!
However, the job was not done, there was still half an hour to play. The game was 3-3 and the emotional energy expended meant both teams were tiring. Liverpool began to tighten up defensively to ensure they would not concede a fourth. Hamann and Alonso became more contained and the two wing backs become more focused on their defensive duties again. For the remainder of normal time the game was somewhat of a stalemate, with both team nullifying each other. Normal time ended 3-3.
Extra time presented Liverpool with a new issue. Milan had brought on Serginho, with pace to burn which meant that Liverpool pushed Gerrard to the wing back role instead of Smicer. Liverpool brought on Djibril Cisse for Milan Baros, hoping that Cisse’s pace would trouble Milan’s tiring and aging backline. Both substitutions had little effect. Milan dominated possession in extra time and they were denied a winner by a miraculous double save from Jerzy Dudek on Shevchenko with three minutes remaining. Dudek blocked Shevchenko’s header then somehow diverted his shot over the crossbar from only a yard out. The match went to penalties!
Historically penalty shootouts were said to be pot luck. Benitez and his background staff had analysed the penalty taking habits of Milan’s players as part of their preparation for the match to try and disprove this old adage. They saw that each taker had a tendency to favour one side of the goal over the other and predicted where the Milan players were likely to place their penalties and their predictions came true.
Both Serginho and Pirlo missed the first two penalties for Milan, while Hamman and Cisse converted theirs for Liverpool. John Dahl Tomasson put Milan back in contention with John Arne Riise then missing for Liverpool. Kaka scored for Milan, and after Smicer scored for Liverpool, Shevchenko’s spot kick was saved by Dudek to spark wild scenes of celebration. Dudek was the hero saving two penalties, taking inspiration from Bruce Grobbelar’s spaghetti legs that won Liverpool the European Cup in 1984. Liverpool against all odds had won the Champions League.