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Saturday, May 28, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Liverpool's win shows miracles do happen


LONDON -- I now believe I will marry Julia Roberts. I now believe I will win the lottery triple rollover. I now believe I will win the Tour de France, the Olympic 100 meters and climb Mount Everest, possibly all in the same year.

Christopher Davies

The next time I look in the mirror the image will make George Clooney seem like the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

After Liverpool's remarkable Champions League final triumph over AC Milan on Wednesday, which went as close as anything to proving the impossible can be achieved, anything is possible.

On April 23rd I was at Crystal Palace when Rafael Benitez was again left scratching his head after another dismal away defeat in the Premiership for Liverpool.

Benitez experienced that losing feeling 15 times in Liverpool's travels in 2004-05 yet somehow they went on to win the Champions League.

The fifth best team in the Premiership are Champions of Europe. Three-nil down at the interval in Istanbul and seemingly down and out. Anyone mad enough could have got 150-1 at halftime against Liverpool winning the Champions League final. If only . . .

What the success of FC Porto in 2004 and Liverpool in 2005 says about the Champions League will be debated through the summer.

By no stretch of the imagination could either side claim to be the best team in Europe despite winning the Champions League -- the nature of what is essentially a knockout competition means the luck of the draw and performing on the night can see "instant" success, whereas, sustaining it week-in, week-out over a season is more difficult.

The wonderful thing about Liverpool's penalty shootout win over Milan is that in may ways not even the most experienced coach or observer can really explain how they did it.

As Sir Alex Ferguson remarked after two last-gasp goals gave Manchester United victory over Bayern Munich in the 1999 final: "Football. Bloody hell."

Benitez started against Milan with the more attacking Harry Kewell instead of Didi Hamann -- who provides midfield solidarity -- but all tactics went out of the window when Paolo Maldini gave the Italians the lead inside a minute.

Kewell gave way to Vladimir Smicer after 23 minutes because of a groin strain, but Hernan Crespo, on loan from Chelsea, scored twice to make it 3-0 at the interval. Game over, thank you and good night. The faces of the Liverpool fans in Ataturk Stadium told their own story.

Then a combination of luck and inspired tactical changes kicked in.

Right-back Steve Finnan's thigh strain meant he could play no further part in the final. Benitez switched to a three-man defense with five in midfield, Hamann shadowing the dangerous Kaka who had run riot during the first half.

But Milan does not throw away three-goal leads and Liverpool had scored three goals in a game only twice in the previous six months.

Silvio Berlusconi, Milan's president and Italy's premier, remarked after the game: "Football is like politics -- when you think you've won, you lose."

Steven Gerrard headed what appeared to be a consolation goal in the 54th minute. Two minutes later, referee Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez ignored a linesman furiously flagging for offside and Smicer beat Dida with a low shot from 20 meters.

In the 59th minute Rino Gattuso brought down the outstanding Gerrard. Penalty and it should also have been a red card for the Italian for denying an opponent an obvious goal-scoring opportunity.

Dida saved Xabi Alonso's penalty but the Spaniard was first to the loose ball to smash home the rebound.

"Six minutes of madness" as Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti called it. "I can't explain it." Maybe not but Ancelotti will never forget it.

Two minutes before the end of extra time Jerzy Dudek pulled off an extraordinary double-save to deny European Footballer of the Year Andriy Shevchenko.

"After that, they may as well start carving Liverpool's name on the trophy," said Sky Sports' Andy Gray at the time.

And so to the penalty shootout with Dudek copying Bruce Grobbelaar's famous elastic legs antics which proved successful for Liverpool when it beat Roma in the 1984 European Cup final in the same circumstances.

"Jamie Carragher told me to do what Bruce did to put them off," said Dudek.

Serginho's opening penalty was high and wide and thanks to the leniency of Mejuto, Dudek was able to save Andrea Pirlo's second spot-kick, the Liverpool goalkeeper two meters off his line when he blocked the shot.

Had Dida done the same and Liverpool lost, rest assured all hell would have been let loose by the Merseysiders.

For all Mejuto's generosity, full credit to Liverpool and Milan, which switched off at halftime and has only itself to blame. The final was lost rather than won. But what a final.

Excuse me, I think that's Julia Roberts at the door.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.



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