Thursday, May 26, 2005

The miracle of Istanbul

From Simon Barnes, The Times Chief Sports Writer, in Istanbul

FOOTBALL. Bloody hell, the printable expletives are utterly inadequate for the task of summing up a night of football mayhem. Bring out the asterisks: it was a night when football brought us the utterly impossible on a night of perfect insanity as Liverpool won the European Cup final on penalties after doing their best to lose it.

Liverpool produced one of the greatest comebacks in the history of football. They created for themselves an utter disaster and somehow rose to find hope, and with it, power and effectiveness and purpose and direction. They turned a lost match around in six impossible minutes: one of those periods of total enchantment that happen in football, but very rarely.

Yet it seemed that they had managed to lose everything in less than a minute. After a season of ever-growing hope and burgeoning expectation, Liverpool looked as if they had lost the lot in a matter of 50 seconds. They conceded a goal more or less before a Liverpool player had touched the ball and were 3-0 down at half-time. It was humiliation.

But before you could say “Football. Bloody hell” they were back in it again. After being made to look like small-timers and second-raters, they came roaring back as if they were the old champions of the Eighties, the Liverpool side that expected to win European Cup finals as a matter of course. They drew level in that period of magic and took the game into extra time, a spooky period played in a mood close to emotional exhaustion.

The match proper finished at 3-3, but not before Jerzy Dudek had made a remarkable double save from Andriy Shevchenko that suggested the force was with the Pole. Then came the penalties and Dudek, a goalkeeper often and fairly criticised this season, saved two of them, enough for Liverpool to win the shoot-out 3-2.

There was a Liverpool banner in the stadium that bore the legend no passaran — they shall not pass — a tribute to the startling and complete impregnability of the Liverpool defence over the previous three matches in this competition. Plan A was obvious, then: don’t concede a goal and so the favourites will get worried and grow vulnerable.

As plans go, it had a lot going for it, but it was less than a minute before Liverpool were on to plan B. It is the nature of football that things can go very wrong very quickly. Liverpool were a goal behind while still wondering what the opening ceremony was all about.

The goal was simplicity itself. A foul: Djimi Traoré on Kaká. A free kick, and Andrea Pirlo swung it in. Paolo Maldini was supposed to be a weak link at 36, but his legs had not got tired in three quarters of a minute. He hit a spirited right-foot volley and topped the ball rather than met it sweetly.
As so often happens in such circumstances, it crashed into the ground and rose steeply in a fashion that was hard to read. And on this occasion it found the net and Liverpool’s day was ruined before it had rightly started. The Liverpool supporters had out-sung the Milanese before the start: their silence was shocking. It reflected a feeling of deep dismay and it reflected perfectly the dismay of the Liverpool players.

So much for Rafael Benítez, the Liverpool manager, and his sudden recognition as a tactical genius. You can’t fault him for effort, but he was presiding over a disaster at half-time and his ploy of putting Harry Kewell in his starting line-up looked like an act of folly.

They shall not pass, indeed. Liverpool hardly passed at all in the first half. Liverpool had come with a reputation for outstanding defence, Milan showed that the traditional continental virtues of tight, intelligent passing are worth a mention. Shevchenko, in a moment of gliding wit and eventing, set up Hernán Crespo for a tap-in, then Kaká pushed through a sweetly timed pass. This one required a bit more of a finish. Crespo provided it and in the process made Liverpool look like a team playing a little way out of their class.

Then the tide turned in a manner that defied logical and even tactical sense. It was simply as if God had changed sides. The force, long absent, was suddenly with Liverpool. Steven Gerrard was the man who started it with a looping header from a cross by John Arne Riise. Then it was Vladimir Smicer, who had come on as a 23rd-minute substitute for the hapless Kewell. He reduced the deficit to one with the goal that threw Milan into a state of confusion.

So much so that they promptly conceded a penalty and Xabi Alonso put that one away on the rebound. Three goals within six minutes: rout had become fightback and fightback had become epic.

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