Barcelona gave Manchester United a footballing lesson last night in the Champions League final, but nothing can compare to the 2005 final. In the final installment of this three-part series I look at Liverpool's greatest triumph: Istanbul.
The build-up to the final was amazing. I couldn’t believe I was about to see my team in the Champions League final! The usual doubts came from all my friends and family.
“You won’t win against AC Milan.”
I let them doubt, I believed we could win it. I was wondering how Milan Baros was going to get anything against Maldini, Nesta, Stam, and Cafu, four of the best defenders of their era, but I thought we could do it.
Looking back at the teams, it was a mismatch of epic proportions. Dida vs. Dudek, Cafu vs. Finnan, Stam vs. Carragher, Nesta vs. Hyypia, Maldini vs. Traore, Pirlo vs. Alonso, Gattuso vs. Luis Garcia, Seedorf vs. Riise, Kaka vs. Gerrard, Shevchenko vs. Kewell, and Crespo vs. Baros.
Between them, the Milan starting line-up had won 13 European Cups. Liverpool had won none. As I sat down in my lounge, curtains drawn, lights off, and volume up, I was cautiously optimistic.
I couldn’t wait for the start.
Then it came, and I was soon wishing it hadn’t started. Maldini put Milan ahead after just 42 seconds.
I was absolutely gutted. It had taken less than a minute for my sheer excitement to be turned into utter despair.
My mind wasn’t thinking “we can get back into this” it was thinking “how much will it be?”
This feeling was calmed somewhat by the next half an hour. We were holding out and had come close through Sami Hyypia and Luis Garcia.
Milan had also come close, however. Garcia cleared a Crespo header off the line and Shevchenko had a goal disallowed.
Liverpool were certainly skating on thin ice.
Harry Kewell’s inclusion was a surprise one and one of the best things that happened to us on the night was him getting injured. It sounds harsh but it’s true.
He looked off the pace after a long time out and was giving the ball away cheaply. As the half-time interval was approaching, I knew a goal at this time would be huge for Liverpool.
Then there was a penalty appeal against Nesta. I was up screaming for it and couldn’t believe the referee had turned it down.
This feeling was to be made ten times worse just seconds later, however, as Milan went up the other end and scored through Crespo.
I was heartbroken.
It was game over and, for the first time in the match, I became subdued. Then Milan scored again. In hindsight, this was a wonderful goal, but I didn’t need my dad telling me that at the time.
Crespo’s little chip over Dudek came just before half-time and when Liverpool fans were still mourning the loss of the second goal. When the whistle went, my brother and dad left the room adamant that Milan had won it.
For some reason, however, I felt we still had a chance. I felt we could do it. I don’t know why or how, but I thought we could.
All the talk of ‘fate’ came back to me, and the coincidences between last time Liverpool won a European Cup and this time. Everything from a new pope being appointed to the colours of the kit.
I was taking no chances, however. For the first time in my life, I prayed. I wanted it that badly.
I remember praying numerous times through half-time and the second half, thinking of something different every time to make sure there was nothing I had missed out. No loopholes God could find.
Yes, it sounds ridiculous now, but I think this gave me the faith that Liverpool would win. The overriding theme of my prayers was “if you let Liverpool win, you’ll make a lot more people happy.”
It was a mixture of praying and begging really.
Now, I don’t want to sound like some sort of reformed Catholic, but that half-time interval was the first and only time I have actually believed God exists.
Even before the teams had come out, I was confident we could overturn it. I really felt the divine intervention.
Liverpool fans in the Ataturk Stadium played their part as well. A stirring rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ when 3-0 down in a Champions League final showed why they are the best fans in the world.
I joined in at home, convinced I was making a difference, as I’m sure thousands, if not millions of people around the world did.
I mentioned that Kewell coming off was one of the best things to happen for us, but I think the best thing, short of the goals of course, was Dietmar Hamann coming on.
Pirlo and Kaka in particular had been dictating the game, and Gerrard couldn’t release his full attacking potential with those two looking to pounce on any chance of a counter-attack.
Hamann quickly sorted that problem out.
Alonso came close early in the second half before Riise collected the ball on the left, cut back, and put the cross in for Steven Gerrard to header home.
It was no doubt considered an early consolation goal for all non-Liverpool fans, but for Liverpool fans it signalled hope.
I remember jumping up in celebration and shouting “I’ve seen my team score in a Champions League final, no-one can take that away from me.”
I said this because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever see it, but also to ensure my brother and dad had no bragging rights.
I was delighted we had scored, of course, but I pretended I was content with just seeing my team score so, if they made fun of Liverpool’s loss, I could come back with the point that I had seen them score in a Champions League final.
I wasn’t content with just a goal though, I wanted two more, and I believed we could get them.
I never dreamed they’d come so quickly, though.
When Smicer got the ball two minutes later, all I was thinking was “don’t shoot, don’t shoot!”
But to my surprise and delight, he scored! My celebrations were muted somewhat by the realisation that we could might actually do this. Celebrating Smicer’s goal in the same way I celebrated Gerrard’s would just be celebrating a prelude to the big show.
I’d rather wait to celebrate the big show itself.
And I didn’t have to wait long.
Just three minutes after Smicer’s goal, Gerrard was hauled down by Gattuso. He should have been sent-off. Gerrard was without doubt in a goal-scoring position and he was pulled down from behind.
As much as I liked Gattuso, I wanted him to be sent-off and for his smug smile at the end of the first-half to be well and truly wiped off his face.
I had to make do with the penalty, the single most nervous moment in my life. I can’t even begin to imagine what Alonso was feeling.
He missed. I didn’t have time for despair, however, because he followed up and slammed the ball into the roof of the net under immense pressure.
I was ecstatic.
We had done it! We had come back from 3-0 down against one of the greatest defences ever assembled in just five minutes. It doesn’t get much better than that.
As the match went on, my fingernails got shorter and shorter.
Dudek fumbled a cross; Shevchenko must score! Djimi Traore, so often the villain in the eyes of Liverpool fans, cleared it off the line. In that moment he was a hero to all Kopites. He had more than redeemed himself for his bumbling own goal against Burnley.
More heroes were to be made.
A monumental effort was given by everyone wearing red, particularly Jamie Carragher, who was heroic despite having cramp in both legs, and Steven Gerrard, who made some vital, perfectly timed tackles of his own.
Extra time passed with much nervousness but not many incidents. Then, on the verge of penalties, a great cross found the head of Shevchenko.
My heart was in my mouth when he headed that down. I was certain he had scored, but Dudek got down to make a brilliant save.
Shevchenko followed up, but Dudek made an unbelievable save, albeit one he didn’t know much about, from just five yards out.
It all happened so fast that I didn’t know what was going on. When Shevchenko got the ball five yards out I knew we had lost it. The best striker in Europe at the time wouldn’t miss from there.
It took a few replays for me to fathom what had actually happened. How had Dudek saved that? It had to be our fate to win it after that!
Dudek’s save is closer to the hand of God than anything Maradona has ever produced.
So it came down to penalties...
The worst way to decide something, but also the best way. I hate watching them and love watching them at the same time.
The problem is, I am always convinced the player stepping up is going to miss. I was still sceptical simply because they had such good players, so they must be good at penalties.
Serginho missed. Hamann scored. Pirlo missed. Cisse scored. Could this really be happening? At half-time we were 3-0 down, now we were 2-0 up on penalties.
Then Tomasson scored and Riise missed, and all my doubts surfaced again. Kaka scored. Smicer scored in his last kick as a Liverpool player.
Jerzy Dudek’s spaghetti legs had worked so far, but I didn’t think they would work against Shevchenko. I expected him to score; he was the best striker in Europe.
Then again, looking back on the match, he had a pretty unlucky one. He'd had a goal disallowed, a shot cleared off the line, and missed from five yards out.
Still, I was in no doubt that he would score. I still thought we would win, but that we’d have to wait a little while longer.
Shevchenko’s penalty was poor. Straight down the middle for Dudek to gobble up.
Liverpool had won the Champions League!! Surely I was still dreaming?
How had players like Igor Biscan, Neil Mellor, and Djimi Traore won Champions League medals?
Not only was I lucky enough to see my team win the trophy against all the odds, but I was lucky enough to see them do it in the greatest final of all time.
The next day, I went to school decked head to toe in Liverpool gear. A Liverpool hat, a Liverpool scarf, a Liverpool flag, and a Liverpool shirt.
I was told to take them off, especially during lessons, but that wasn’t going to happen!
It was a night I will never forget, and one that will be very hard to top.
Thank you Rafa. Thank you everyone who played in that game.
You made yourselves legends and made your fans the happiest in the world!
Thank you for the Miracle of Istanbul!
Quiz Question No. 5 Answer:
Three - Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso, and Steven Gerrard.
Quote No. 5:
"Rafael Benitez is down there making his hand signals but no-one will hear him in this atmosphere." - Mike Ingham