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Soup of This Day #12: In Istanbul We Won 5

June 6, 2011

Istanbul, Turkey. It just looks right for football – Photo: Mehmet.Y.S., 2007. Mehmet.Y.S. is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

On the 25th of May, 2005 Liverpool FC and AC Milan met at the Atatürk Stadium in Istanbul for the final of that season’s Champion’s League. The Italians had a strong European pedigree, having won the Champion’s League or its equivalent 6 times, including a recent triumph in 02/03. On 3 other occasions they had been runners-up. Their form that season had been strong. The Rossoneri had finished 2nd in the 04/05 Serie A, Italy’s premier football division, having won it the season previous. In total they had played 55 matches across all competitions, winning 38 and losing just 8. They made the final on the back of a 3-3 draw with Dutch giants PSG Eindhoven, scraping through on away goals. In the previous knockout rounds they had comprehensively seen off Manchester United and local rivals Internazionale. They were the favourites.

Liverpool were certainly not a lesser club when it came to honours. They were appearing in their 6th European Cup/Champion’s League final and were vying for their 5th win. Their most recent victory on this stage however had been back in 1984. In 1985 they had played in the final against another Italian side, Juventus, when Liverpool fans were directly or indirectly implicated in a riot that led to the deaths of 39 Juve fans. English clubs were subsequently banned from Europe until 90/91 with Liverpool banned for a further season. While their pedigree, the Heysel Stadium disaster aside, was rich, their form in 04/05 was not. The Reds had finished outside the top 4 in the Premier League, meaning that they had not qualified for the lucrative Champion’s League the following season. That their place was to be taken by local rivals Everton was a biter pill to swallow. Liverpool had played 59 matches across all competitions, winning just 31 and losing 19. They had staggered through qualifying for the CL and barely made it out of the group stages, needing a stirring comeback win over Olympiakos in the final stages to edge through. They had however seen off Bayer Leverkusen (Germany) and old foes Juventus in the knockout rounds, the Juve match at Anfield featuring a touching reference to Heysel before kick-off. In the semi-finals they bested Premier League champions Chelsea in front of the Kop at Anfield, via a single and highly controversial Luis Garcia goal.

Liverpool, playing in their famous all-red strip, had a disastrous start, falling 1-0 behind in the 1st minute to a volley from Milan’s durable captain Paulo Maldini. The exchanges following were nervous and both sides had chances though neither capitalised. On 23 minutes Liverpool lost Australian winger Harry Kewell to a groin injury, Vladimir Smicer replacing him. On 38 minutes Liverpool had a good shout for a penalty turned down when Nesta appeared to handball. This was to prove significant as Milan took the ball to the other end of the pitch, Kaka, setting up Shevchenko who passed it on to Hernan Crespo to score. 2-0 to the Italian club and just shy of halftime it was 3-0. Kaka again sliced open Liverpool’s 4-4-1-1 formation with Crespo benefitting a second time.

Half-time in Istanbul meant around 3:00am in Carnarvon, Western Australia, for me. I had gotten up just before 2:00am and wrapped in a blanket I was lying on a couch in front of the TV. I wore a Liverpool shirt and had held a scarf for most of the game. I also had my keeper’s gloves and a football handy for nervous moments. As the half closed out my wife came out to check on me, heard the grim tale and suggested that I call it quits and go to bed. I told her that I wanted to see a Liverpool goal and that I’d stick with it. At the Ataturk Stadium Liverpool fans had begun defiantly chanting ‘We’re going to win 4-3’. At the same time and much more significantly Liverpool Manager Rafa Benitez, in his first season at the Anfield helm, was delivering a quiet sermon to his team.

When Liverpool re-emerged they had a new formation. Holding midfielder Didi Hamman replaced defender Steve Finnan, essentially moving a defender further up the field. It was to be a tactical win. On the 54th minute winger Jon Arne Riise made a second attempt to cross (the first was charged down with the rebound spilling to Riise) and the captain, Steven Gerrard rose to fire a majestic headerpast Milan’s keeper Dida. Just 2 minutes later it was 2-3 as Smicer fired a speculative long-range drive past Dida who could have and should have done better. Shortly after the re-start Gerrard was brought down, earning Liverpool a penalty. Xabi Alonso’s first effort was parried by Dida but Alonso got to the rebound first and fired it into the roof of the net. In just 6 minutes of the maddest football you’ll see the Reds were level. The rest of the match was a blur, going to extra time and then penalties. Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek made a blinder of a point-blank save from Milan’s Shevchenko in extra time that surely would have won it. Even now I watch it and can’t quite work out how it stayed out.

For the penalty shoot-out, Liverpool took an early lead thanks to Dudek, who bluffed one over the bar and stopped another. Riise was to miss for the Reds but in the end it came down to 2004s European footballer of the year, Andriy Shevchenko who needed to score for Milan. He couldn’t, the attempt was saved by Dudek and Liverpool were the champion’s of Europe for the 5th time.

It remains the most extraordinary game of football I have ever witnessed. The emotional rollercoaster ride was extreme – At times in the second-half I felt like my heart would burst with the stress. For one fan in Ireland, that sadly became the literal truth as moments after the end of the game he suffered a fatal heart-attack. The strain of watching his beloved Liverpool get through was just too much. Comebacks will do that.

Which brings me to the theme for this post: The comeback, aka the rally.

There were a couple this weekend and not all of them went the way this blog would hope. Some, such as the Mavs cut-down of the swaggering Heat, making up a 15 point deficit with 7 minutes to play, were outside my sphere of fandom. New Englanders look away now because I’m also going to mention the Bruins, run down by Vancouver in game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals. Unlucky for Boston and very lucky, for the 2nd game in succession, for the Canucks.

Staying in Boston and the Red Sox were almost the victim of a rally Sunday morning, right before the Bruins game, giving up a 7-3 lead in the 9th and ending up going to the bottom of the 14th to get a 9-8 win. Beckett had an ok start, tagged for 3 earned and that looked enough. Gonzalez with a solo shot (again) and RBIs from Drew, Pedroia (2) and Crawford (3) gave Boston that 7-3 lead. Top of the 9th then and Papelbon lost the plot. A Pedroia error cost a run and then another came off a double. Varitek was ejected for questioning the strike zone and following single that added another 2 to tie, Papelbon was also ejected, for charging the home plate ump. On replay it looked kind of like the ump came at him first but Papelbon made contact and that’s never gonna go down well. A pretty good throw from Salty got them out of the inning and into a long, long encore.

In the end the bullpen and Drew saved the Red Sox with Salty and Ellsbury chipping in. The latter two came to the party with Boston down 8-7, bottom of the 11th and the bullpen limited the A’s to just 1 run after the meltdown. Drew ended a run of 4 strike outs and a game they could not afford to lose with an RBI single. Psychological damage avoided.

Would that I could say the same of Fremantle. The Dockers led Hawthorn by 25 early in the last quarter but were over-run by an 8 goal to 1 effort. Freo had looked good to this point, Nat Fyfe ably demonstrating that he’s a superstar in the making. Without Biggest Aaron Sandilands the Dockers had surprisingly matched it in the middle of the ground against a subdued Hawks who were without spearhead Buddy Franklin. Despite being behind in the disposals count Freo had shown some real quality in possession and I thought they’d get home. Alas, Hawthorn’s midfield woke up in the last and got on a roll that just wouldn’t stop. The Dockers are now at 5 and 5 and I’m pretty sure they’re in a meeting with the Devil about some guitar skills.

The final play in this rally suite sends us back to Boston and the final of the series vs Oakland this morning. The comeback here is the return from the DL of John Lackey. It seems most Sox fans are ambivalent at best about Lackey but I’m still hopeful. On this start he did ok, throwing 5 2/3 for 3 earned. Crawford with a 3-run blast in the 2nd and Gonzalez (again) with a 2-run shot in the 4th gave the Sox a 5-2 lead before an RBI single from Pedroia made it 6-3. Albers, Hottovy, Wheeler (looking ok) and Bard got the job done for the bullpen and ensured that the previous day’s shenanigans were not repeated. Boston with a broom over the A’s and back in the fight for the AL East. Bring on the Yanks.

And now I’m done in for the night. Comebacks will do that.

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