My favourite match: Liverpool 3-3 A.C. Milan

Continuing our latest feature, Sam Buckett, co-founder and editor of Get the Mott and Buckett, recalls the greatest final of all time and his favourite ever match: the 2005 Champions League final, between Liverpool and A.C. Milan.
Born and raised in Oxfordshire, my love for Liverpool, whilst not geographically responsible, was inherent from the very beginning; full responsibility of which falls with my Dad. Although we don’t mention it now, he did once turn up to Rush Common Primary School circa. 1974 with a freshly knitted Leeds United bobble hat. However, soon after his persuasive elder brother introduced him to all conquering delights of LFC as European matches began to be televised more regularly. By the time he arrived at Fitzharrys Secondary both of the Buckett boys were firmly Red, and so have been every one since.
As the season of 2004-2005 kicked off, things were looking good. I’d finally become a teenager and Liverpool had finally replaced Houllier with the exciting Rafa Benitez. Within days, a boyhood hero, Michael Owen, was shipped out and two promising signings made in Alonso and Garcia. The season ahead promised to be a good one, and having passed through puberty some time before, my full hopes for the year were vested in football rather than just balls.
However, domestically, Liverpool were no more impressing than the season before, blowing hot and cold as Benitez instilled his first changes at the club. Eventually they would finish fifth, the first time since 1987 that Everton would finish higher.
But it was in Europe where the real excitement was, however similarly to the league, it didn’t start well. After a disappointing group stage, Liverpool found themself needing to beat Olympiacos in their final  game by two clear goals. As much as I want to detail the ins and outs, the two brilliant substitutions, the strike, the steward embracing Benitez, and a catchphrase which until recently Andy Gray was most famous for, I shan’t. Liverpool went through 3-1, and both my Gramps and I did a little bit of wee as they did so.
On that note, I’m going to jump to the final. Between here and there we saw off Bayer Leverkusen, Juve’ and of course, Chelsea. And by the way, it did cross the line.
For twenty-one days following the victory over Chelsea, all I could think was “25th May 2005”. I’d written it over all my school books. I couldn’t sleep. Finally, Liverpool were in a European Cup final in my lifetime. I couldn’t have been more excited.
As tradition ruled, European nights were and still are spent (when at home) round my grandparents’ house, where my Granddad, Dad and I take over the lounge, served by my Nan. Usually burger and chips are on the menu, but on this occasion I was too nervous, I’d settle for a roll at half time if things were looking good I decided.
Before the three of us had got comfortable there was already a shock, Harry Kewell was to start. In and out of the team with injuries, he’d failed to impress all season, but had somehow managed to convince Rafa to pick him ahead of Dietmar Haman, meaning Gerrard and Alonso would make up the central partnership with Riise and Luis Garcia either side. Most, including myself, had expected Hamann to start in the middle allowing Gerrard to play off the forward, Milan Baros.  The back four was as strong as possible, Finnan, Carragher and Hyypia with the weak link of Traore picked at left back. The decision to play John Arne Riise in front of him was made to give as much protection as possible to the Malian.  Jerzy Dudek was of course between the sticks.
Opposingly, Milan seemed to have no weak links, progressing top of a tough group (Barcelona, Shakhtar and Celtic), and coasting past Man Utd, Internazionale and PSV to reach the Ataturk Stadium, Istanbul. Their line up on the evening needed no introduction: Dida, Maldini, Nesta, Stam, Cafu, Seedorf, Pirlo, Gattusso, Kaka, Crespo and Shevchenko. You’d have struggled to find a better player in any of their eleven positions, particularly in the diamond formation which so suited their four midfielders.
As the teams emerged, the stadium was noticeably rocking. Of the 70,000 seats, Liverpool fans had managed to gain the overwhelming majority, walking, running, and in some cases climbing into the ground.  It was going to feel like a home game.  Gattuso though thought not, nonchalantly caressing the trophy on his way to the pitch.
As the home team, Liverpool kicked off. By now excitement had merged into terror, and the heart of a young Sam Buckett strained to believe it had started. This was it. This was really it. Within seconds the ball was pumped long as Liverpool tried to expose the ageing Milan fullbacks, not to be, at least not yet. A composed Milan start earned a free-kick left of Dudek’s box, conceded by the man they planned to target, Djimi Traore. Andre Pirlo presided over the dead ball as the Rossoneri set up their first attack within the opening minute. As the ball curled in front of Liverpool’s new zonal marking system, they failed to attack the ball and Milan captain, Paolo Maldini, met it with a sweet right foot volley. Less than a minute had been played, and in what seemed like slow motion, the ball cannoned off the ground and past the helpless palm of Dudek. Disaster.
Although it seems a strange thing to say, the goal almost settled my nerves. We liked to do things the hard way and surely now Milan would sit. They’re Italian after all. Well, apparently not. A mad twenty minutes passed, with chances for both sides. Both Riise and Hyypia came close for Liverpool, with Luis Garcis clearing a Hernan Crespo header off his own line. Harry Kewell was removed on the twenty-fourth minute, a thigh injury to the Aussie meant that Vladimir Smicer would get the chance to make his final appearance for the club.
If the first twenty-five minutes had been anything to go by, then there was sure to be more chances for both sides. And there was. Shevchenko had a goal disallowed for offside and squandered another opportunity moments later. At the other end, Liverpool had looked a lot less threatening, the biggest hope of an opportunity turned down by referee, Manuel Gonzalez, as Alessandro Nesta handled inside his own area.  Within seconds of the appeal, Kaka was carrying the ball deep into the Liverpool half, a cheeky chip on the inside of Traore left Shevchenko the easy task of squaring to strike partner Hernan Crespo, who duly delivered a second blow on the thirty-ninth minute.  If my nerves had been settled by the first goal, they’d been shattered by the second. Milan’s front three were overwhelming any defence Liverpool tried to stand up. The only hope now was to get to half time, regroup and try and find Robbie Fowler.
The thought of being two nil down at half time to a side with thirteen European Cup winners medals between them was a daunting one, and what happened next was devastating. As Kaka once again picked the ball up inside his own half, he played what I consider to be one of the greatest; if not the greatest pass I’ve ever seen, slicing the Liverpool back four open like a knife through butter. Once again Hernan Crespo finished the move with an equally delicious finish. “Game well and truly over” said Andy Gray.
As the half time whistle was blown, moments after the third goal, Milan had not only broken the hearts of millions of Liverpool fans worldwide, they’d proceeded from the very first minute to cut it into tiny pieces and embarrass us on the biggest stage in football . As the tears began to roll down my face, I’d seen enough. I even refused my Nan’s advances of a marmite roll. I couldn’t stomach it. As the fifteen minutes passed all I could hope for was perhaps a goal, a bit of respectability. Very little was said between the three of us, two cups of tea and one can of coke drank in an atmosphere which can only be compared to that of a wake. It felt like someone had died, at thirteen I’d have probably taken that over the impossible task ahead. At nineteen, I'd still take that now.
Meanwhile in Istanbul, something special was happening. Nearly every report you read differs, but one thing is for certain, something happened in that Liverpool dressing room at half time, something that would go down in legend. One thing I’m sure about is that Steve Finnan, the Liverpool right-back was replaced by Dietmar Hamann. The Irishman was adjudged to be injured by the physio and unable to carry on, despite his protests. As he slumped into the shower, Didi was given his final instructions, and a new shape was to emerge for the second half. If they were to achieve the impossible, they’d need to go for it, forget throwing the sink, they’d literally have to remove all white goods.  Hamann was tasked with protecting the new back three, quelling Kaka’s creativity and allowing Gerrard and Alonso to go forward without inhibition. Milan inevitably believed they had it won.  As both teams appeared for the second fourty-five, the Liverpool anthem bellowed from around the stadium; surely more in pride than hope. It was at this moment that I was reminded by my Dad to not give up the faith, “when you walk through a storm” and all that.
As they kicked off, the new shape of the Liverpool side allowed a much freer, interlinking midfield to stretch the game as Milan sat on what would surely be more than enough to see them through. Liverpool continued to dominate as Alonso sent a thirty yard effort inches wide of the post, it wasn’t happening yet, but the belief that we could at least gain something from the match was starting to warm slightly. By now the more advanced role of Alonso was causing Milan problems, and as he played the ball wide to John Arne Riise, we had an extra man in the box. His cross was met by Steven Gerrard, and as if by sheer will, the captain forced his header into the far corner of the net, sending the Ataturk stadium, Merseyside and my Nan’s front room into raptures. As he ran back to his own half, waving hands aloft in encouragement to players and fans alike, Gerrard embodied the spirit of Liverpool.
What happened next, can only be described as impossible. Substitute Vladimir Smicer, the man making his final appearance for the club, received the ball thirty yards from goal. As the Czech pushed the ball in front of him, I knew he’d score. He hadn’t looked particularly lively; he hadn’t in fact looked that lively for the last few seasons, but as he unleashed a thunderbolt from twenty-five yards, I knew it was going in. I don’t know why, but before the ball had hit the back of the net I was celebrating. Three minutes before we we’re three goals behind, somehow we’d gone from wanting to save face to one goal behind. To say Milan looked shell-shocked is an understatement, the Italians were startled and showed little sign of regaining composure. And then, for some reason, unknown to all including himself, Jamie Carragher was unleashed in the Milan half. Perhaps he knew what was coming, his pass sent Gerrard into the box, only for Gennaro Gattuso to bring the skipper down. If I’d leapt with excitement at the first goal, I nearly put myself through the ceiling this time. Penalty. Disbelief set in, here was the chance to draw level after being three goals behind to arguably the best team in Europe. I couldn’t watch. As I peered from behind a cushion, I was pleased to see Gerrard give the ball to Alonso, the captain’s penalty activity of late had not been up to usual standards and the Spaniard had been ably replacing him for much of the season.  Seconds later I was regretting my decision as Dida provided a strong hand down to his right, the ensuing milliseconds seemed like decades as Alonso chased down the rebound, finishing high into the net at the second opportunity. Three-Three.  The commentator screamed “It’s wonderful, it’s marvellous”. It really was. As I flew around the front room, embracing any family member I could grab, I realised that I would never forget the last six minutes. The best three-hundred and sixty seconds of my life (don’t tell the missus).
To say the next thirty minutes were strange, is once again, an understatement. Both teams were in shock. Neither knew whether to press or to sit. Both had chances and both squandered the best of them.  As the final whistle blew, I still couldn’t quite believe that I wasn’t in the car on the way home.
So to extra time, both teams were visibly tired, leaving chances few and far between. Ragged shape on both accounts meant that at points Gerrard was playing as a right back, centre mid and playmaker, such is the man.  Pirlo and Tommason the only two players with any view on goal in the first fifteen.  As the clock ticked towards penalties Jamie Carragher made two important interceptions whilst visibly suffering from cramp, throwing himself on balls like a good soldier on a bomb. Then with seconds to go, a lofted ball into the Liverpool box was met by the head of Shevchenko, only for Polish keeper Dudek to push the chance away. As the Ukrainian’s momentum carried him forward the opportunity to place Milan’s name on the trophy presented itself as the rebound landed at his feet inches from goal. If the night hadn’t of been outrageous enough already, the save produced by Dudek was nothing short of world class. As he recovered, standing to his feet, he turned and nodded his head; “you might as well start engraving Liverpool on this trophy now” rang from the commentary box. Full time in extra time: penalties.
As the players regrouped, I was confident. Even more so when I saw Carra reminding Dudek of Grobbelaar’s exploits in ’84. Milan to take first, and substitute Serginho blasted horribly high. Advantage Liverpool, and in such situations who else could you call upon than Dietmar Hamann? The German had almost singlehandedly, without scoring albeit, turned around Liverpool’s game. He finished coolly as I knew he would. Next for Milan, Andrea Pirlo. Wobbling on the line, Dudek read the Italian’s stuttering run and dived to his right to push away a soft effort. At which point I was ordered to calm down. It’s not over yet.  It wasn’t, and as the Lord of Frogham Manor (Djibril Cisse) stood up, I understood my Dad’s cynicism. He needn’t have worried as the Frenchman sent Dida the wrong way, 2-0. Charismatic Dane, John Dahl Tomasson sent my heart racing once again as he scored for Milan at the third attempt, only for Riise to miss the following spot kick. Next up, Kaka, back then he didn’t miss from inside the box, and he made no mistakes smashing the ball past the keeper. Up rolled the Czech, as if he hadn’t done enough on his final appearance for the club, here was the opportunity to give his side the advantage going into the final two pens. Dida stayed put, and Vladi signed off with a strike into the bottom corner. One penalty left each, and if Shevchenko missed there would be no need for Gerrard to step up, the trophy would be in his hands.  As Shevchenko stepped forward, he looked shocked. How could this be happening? They were celebrating as champions at half time and now he needed to score from the spot to keep his side in with a chance. Dudek shifted on the line, diving to his right as the Ukrainian dispatched the spot kick. Time stopped, for me anyway, as the Pole left an outstretching left hand in its path. Saved.
Liverpool had produced the greatest come-back since Lazarus and won the European Cup. Finally, Steven Gerrard joined the likes of Emlyn Huges, Graeme Souness and Phil Thompson. Never had it been more deserved. As my Dad drove me home, scarf out of window, tooting supporters in the street, the tears that rolled down my face only a few hours ago couldn’t have been farther from my mind. What a bloody night.


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