It is regarded by many as the greatest game of football every played. The 2005 UEFA Champions League Final pitted the team that finished fourth in the Premier League that year, Liverpool against the Italian powerhouse that was A.C. Milan. For many the result was a foregone conclusion, A Milan team containing the likes of Kaka, Crespo, Pirlo and Shevchenko against a feeble Liverpool team who had rode their luck to the final. There was simply no comparison. Milan set up in a 4-3-1-2 formation with the dangerous Kaka in attacking midfield, in front of him the two of the most deadly strikers in Europe, Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo. Milan would defend compactly with Pirlo sitting in front of their back four and would focus their attacking through Kaka’s runs and deadly through balls. Liverpool opted for the 4-4-1-1 formation with Harry Kewell acting as a playmaker behind the lone striker, Milan Baros. Liverpool’s two center midfielder’s, Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso would sit deep and attempt to prevent Kaka’s dangerous forward runs and starve him of the football. Doing this would also largely take their two strikers, Crespo and Shevchenko out of the game. Two Liverpool players marking one Milan player, how hard could it be right? Wrong.
Football is lamented as a game of two halves and never was this description more accurate than in Istanbul that night. The first half certainly belonged to AC Milan who scored within a minute when Paolo Maldini got on the end of an Andrea Pirlo free. To make matters worse for the English side, Harry Kewell, Liverpool’s playmaker, hobbled off injured in the early minutes. Vladimir Smicer replaced him. The main danger posed by Milan was, as expected, Kaka. Numerous times during the first half Kaka exploited the space in behind Lliverpool’s midfield pairing and wreaked havoc on the Liverpool defence. This exploitation payed its dividends in the 39th minute when Milan doubled their lead as Kaka broke in behind Gerrard and Alonso to set up Crespo who fired home. Five minutes later the same thing happened again
Tactically, Liverpool needed a change of plan. Manager, Rafael Benitez knew this too. Liverpool needed to nullify Kaka and also add more of a threat going forward. Benitez opted for a change in formation, to the 3-4-2-1. Traore, Hyypia and Carragher in defence. His answer to the problems that Kaka was posing was Dietmar Hamann. Hamann was a much more experienced and defensive minded midfielder. Him along with Alonso would sit even deeper than in the first half and prevent Kaka’s runs in behind by leaving no space for him to run into, thus nullifying Milan’s threat. This change freed up Gerrard and allowed him to focus more on his offensive duties. He was to make sweeping runs in behind Pirlo and into the penalty area to get on the end of passes and crosses from the wings. 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. These changes gave Liverpool a more dynamic attack as well as a better supported defence and ultimately were the changes that won the European cup for the Reds.
The seesaw that is football turned and Benitez’ plan kicked into action in the 54th minute when John Arne Riise crossed to the now attack minded Gerrard who powerfully headed past Dida in Milans goal. 3-1. Two minutes later Liverpool were celebrating again when Smicer, who been instructed to play higher up the pitch, smashed home from distance, making it 3-2. Barely giving their fans time to breathe Liverpool leveled the game just three minutes later when Gerrard marauded into the opposition penalty area again, liberated from him defensive role, this time winning a penalty which was put away by Alonso on his second attempt. 3-3. The comeback was complete. Liverpool’s reformed plan and tactics had been too much for the Italian side.
However the job was not done, the match was not over, it was only 3-3 and both teams were beginning to tire. Liverpool began to tighten up defensively to ensure they would not concede a fourth. Hamann and Alonso did not venture forward and the two wing backs focused on their defensive duties more so than when they were behind. Liverpool looked to catch Milan on the counter attack. Hamann and Alonso controlled Kaka well, preventing his dangerous forward runs for the remainder of the game and as a result Milan’s two star forwards could not get into the game. For the remainder of normal time the game was somewhat of a stalemate. Normal time ended 3-3.
Extra time presented Liverpool with a fresh problem. Milan had introduced their speedy winger, Serginho. Liverpool now fully focused on defending, counteracted this by swapping Gerrard to the wing back role instead of Smicer. Gerrards defensive capabilities seen to be more than them of Smicer’s. He kept the Brazilian winger relatively quiet, limiting Milan to one or two chances. Milan failed to score and the game went to the ‘lottery’ that is the penalty shoot out.
The penalty shootout is said to be a thing of luck. But in Liverpools case it was more than that. Benitez who had instigated a Liverpool comeback just an hour earlier would also hold the knowledge that would win this penalty shoot out. Benitez and his background staff had analysed the penalty taking habits of Milan’s players as part of their preparation for the match. They saw that each taker had a tendency to favour one side of the goal over the other thus they knew where the Milan players were likely to place their penalties and they were right. Both Pirlo and Shevchenko placed their penalties as expected and Dudek saved both. Serginho ballooned another over the bar. Milan missed 3 of 5 penalties, Dudek saving 2 of them. Liverpool only needed to take four penalties, scoring three, to win the Champions League.