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Milan 2 Liverpool 1 - Champions League Final (Mar 23 2007)

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Milan 2 LIVERPOOL 1

Report by Dave Usher in Athens

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Scorer(s) - Dirk Kuyt

Half Time - 1-0

Venue - Olympic Stadium, Athens

Date - Wed 23 May 2007

Star Man - Javier Mascherano

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. ‘In Ancient Greece we’ll bring it back home’ seemed to be the general consensus amongst everyone I’ve spoken to since Chelsea were sent packing in the semi’s. I don’t think I can ever remember a high profile game in which people were so confident. Not one person I spoke to had even contemplated the possibility that we might not win, and I was as certain as everybody else that we’d do it.

 

Why was everybody so ultra-confident though? Most of the pundits and so called experts were tipping Milan, mainly due to the ease they brushed the mancs aside at the San Siro. Yet speak to most Liverpool fans, and they were convinced we’d see them off and bring home number six. There just wasn’t even any doubt about it.

 

Personally, defeat really never even entered my head. I was so sure of winning, that in itself began to make me nervous. Yeah, Milan had looked good against the mancs, but the reality is that United’s awful defending was the reason they were tonked in Italy. United are miles better than us domestically, and their style is perfectly suited to going to places like Villa Park and Goodison and ripping those sides apart. Tactically however, they aren’t the greatest and as a result they tend to struggle in Europe.

 

We are the opposite. I’d fancy us to win in the Bernebeu more than I would at Bramall Lane. So Milan – and Kaka – held no fear for me, or for anyone else I spoke to before the final. Even though we lost, I still feel the same and if we were playing Milan tomorrow I’m positive we’d win. It just wasn’t meant to be this time. Maybe all our good fortune was used up in 2005.

 

We should have won though, as we were the better side, we ‘controlled the game’ and restricted them to hardly any chances. Two years ago Milan cut through us regularly, but this time we made them look exceedingly ordinary. Unfortunately this game went the way of so many others this season, as profligacy in front of goal – coupled with some bad luck - proved our undoing.

 

Four days have now passed since the final, and I’m still not exactly sure what I’m feeling. Initially, I didn’t take the defeat as hard as I would have expected. I mean, I always thought if I saw us lose a European Cup Final I’d be devastated, probably in tears. I wasn’t though, I was frustrated more than anything, because I don’t think we’ll ever have a better opportunity to win a European Cup than this.

 

I don’t know if everyone else feels like this, and having not watched a re-run of the game since I got back (I doubt I will ever watch this game again to be honest) I could be wrong, but from the early stages of this game until the very end, I felt Milan were there for the taking. I wasn’t impressed with them in any way, shape or form. They didn’t attack well, their much vaunted midfield did nothing, and I thought they looked vulnerable at the back whenever we managed to put anything together and test them (admittedly nowhere near often enough).

 

We just didn’t have the firepower to put them to the sword, and that’s why we aren’t Champions of Europe again. I’m upset about it, and I’m also angry about certain things that happened over there (mainly off the field matters, but I’m not getting into any of that here as this is a match report, nothing more), but I’m not as devastated about the result as I would have expected to be.

 

If we’d won, it would have been amazing and we’d all be basking in the glow of it now. We’d have our bragging rights sorted for next season, and we’d all be on top of the world. It would have been a fantastic summer to be a Liverpool fan, but it could have papered over the cracks and actually damaged us in the long term.

 

I know that sounds ridiculous, and given the choice obviously I’d want to win the game. What I’m saying though is that had we won, there is a danger that people would think we are better than what we are. Not Rafa, he’s realistic enough to know what improvements are needed, and even if we’d beaten Milan 5-0 it wouldn’t change his opinion on what needs to be done to turn us into contenders for our domestic title. But would Tom Hicks and George Gillett have felt the same?

 

Having seen us lose, I’d like to think George and Tom will have been hurt by it and will be determined to give Rafa the platform to make us successful. Rafa will have been telling them that the squad isn’t good enough and big money is needed to get us challenging for the title again, but if we’d beaten Milan maybe they wouldn’t quite see the pressing need we have for new players? At least now they now that when Rafa told them we needed more star quality in creative areas, he wasn’t exaggerating.

 

That was why we didn’t beat Milan. We were lacking up front and didn’t create enough chances, and we were not clinical enough with the chances that did come our way. It’s been a recurring theme throughout the season, a glaring weakness that we had managed to overcome throughout the Champions League campaign but ultimately tripped us up at the final hurdle.

 

Rafa’s team selection has come in for a lot of criticism, and I can see why. I didn’t agree with it at the time, and I also thought he left it too late to change things. Having said that, I don’t think that is the reason we didn’t win and I also think that the team he picked did the job he wanted from them for the most part. We made Milan look extremely average. Where was Pirlo? Or Seedorf? They weren’t in the game, and even the brilliant Kaka did very little until late on when Mascherano wasn’t there to pick him up.

 

Mascherano and Alonso bossed this game, whilst Gerrard’s inclusion in front of them may have restricted our attacking options but it helped us control the middle of the park. But Dirk is not a lone striker, and Gerrard doesn’t play the ‘number 10’ role especially well. Throw in Zenden’s presence on the left, and all that remained for us in terms of troubling Milan was the excellent Jermaine Pennant on the right wing.

 

Pennant came of age in this game. He’s been playing well at Anfield for several months now, but away from home he hasn’t done much. Including him in this game was a gamble from Benitez, but Pennant repaid his manager’s faith and then some. Milan never got to grips with Jermaine all game, he was a constant threat. If he can add goals to his armoury, we will no longer have a ‘right wing problem’.

 

He was unlucky not to score early on when Gerrard sent him clear, but Dida got down well to save his shot from a narrow angle. Maybe he should have blasted it, but I don’t think he did much wrong, as he tried to go across the keeper and it was a very good save to be fair.

 

The first half was not exactly incident packed. Milan weren’t giving us anything to worry about at all, as the fantastic Mascherano shackled dangerman Kaka, and Inzaghi continued to live up to his reputation as one of the shittest, but luckiest strikers ever to lace up a pair of boots.

 

Defenders who face him must be thinking they are having one of the most comfortable games of their careers, as he constantly gets caught offside, contributes nothing in build up play and generally looks shit. Then the ball hits him on the arse and ends up in the top corner. He’s made a career out of it, and what happened a minute before half time was just typical, in more ways than one.

 

I haven’t seen the so called foul by Alonso, but several people have told me they didn’t think it was a foul, and even some hacks in the English press who never normally side with us have said it wasn’t a free-kick. What I did notice was that the referee couldn’t fucking wait to give it. He was on the spot blowing the whistle before Kaka had even hit the floor. It was just one of several incidents that has made me question the integrity of this official, but more on him later.

 

As Pirlo lined up the free-kick, I feared the worst. Then again, whenever a free-kick is given in that position I fear the worst, especially when someone with real quality from a dead ball is over it. I thought Pirlo would score, and I wish he had to be honest. I could cope with that much better than seeing that useless twat Inzaghi deflect one in with his arm. Neither referee or linesman spotted the infringement, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

 

It was a hammer blow coming just before half time, especially as I felt we were in control of the game. We’d looked more threatening, even if we hadn’t exactly overworked Dida. All Pepe had to do was make a routine stop from Kaka’s 20 yard shot. It was the only time the Brazilian had escaped the attention of ‘El Jefecito’ in the entire first half. Mascherano was immense, chasing people down and making tackles. There was one occasion when Kaka looked to have gotten away from him, but ‘Little Chief’ kept going and ended up making a perfect sliding challenge to win back the ball. He did the same thing in the second half too, and for me he was our best player on the night.

 

Going in a goal down was a blow, but we’ve been in worse situations and turned it around, as Milan will testify. There were a couple of choruses of YNWA at half time, but there was something a bit scripted about it for me. It didn’t seem spontaneous like it was in Istanbul, and it didn’t seem heartfelt. Maybe it’s just me, but I thought our support inside the stadium during the game was disappointing. Before the game there was a real buzz, and it was everything I expected a European Cup Final would be. Once the game started though, too many people just seemed to be watching rather than getting involved.

 

Maybe it’s just my own perception of it, and I would be interested to know what others who were there feel about it. YNWA at the start of the second half wasn’t inspiring, and neither were the sporadic ‘Campione’ and ‘FOAR’ chants. As I say, I thought it was disappointing, it was as though people were just expecting a re-run of Istanbul, rather than focussing on the game that was happening in front of them. The sportsmanship shown at full time was fantastic, I just thought the support during the game was somewhat muted.

 

Milan were content to just sit back after the break, as we tried to take the game to them. I felt very confident we’d get back into it, as Milan were not offering anything at all and seemed to be hanging on. If we could put them under any sustained pressure, they would surely crack?

 

Had Gerrard buried the glorious chance that fell to him, we’d have gone on to win this game, I’m sure of it. Instead, he got the ball stuck under his feet and produced a weak shot that Dida saved fairly comfortably. At the time I didn’t think it was that big a deal, as surely we’d create more chances?

 

The ineffective Zenden inevitably made way for Kewell, which only served to add to the confidence I was feeling that we’d get back into it. Harry looked lively, Pennant was still causing problems and we were getting down the sides quite easily. The problem was, there was no Crouch to attack the crosses. Dida just kept coming and plucking them out of the air, and worryingly, the clock began to wind down.

 

Eventually, Crouch was sent on. For me, he should have started the game in place of Kuyt, as he plays the role better, and he’s not actually that great coming off the bench. Crouchy usually needs a little while to get into a game, and fifteen minutes isn’t long enough for him to make an impact. Having said that, he came close to a terrific goal when he turned on the edge of the box and struck a powerful shot that Dida tipped over the bar.

 

To get Crouch on, Rafa had been forced to take a gamble and withdraw Mascherano, meaning Kaka suddenly came into the game. With the benefit of hindsight it would have been better to take Alonso off, or maybe even gone to three at the back (it worked well enough in 2005), as Kaka was the only player who could really hurt us. Sure enough, the Brazilian got the ball in space outside the box, and slipped a ball through for Inzaghi who finished well to be fair.

 

I didn’t even see the ball go in, as my view of the goal-line was obscured by an advertising board. This despite me being on row ten, and standing on top of my seat. How is it possible to be stood on a seat in the tenth row, and not be able to even see the goal-line? Thanks for that UEFA, you fucking money grabbing whores. You can shove your finals in future, I won’t be attending any more, but that’s another story.

 

Had Mascherano still been on we wouldn’t have conceded that goal, but it’s difficult to criticise because we were losing and had to take some risks. That goal really killed us, even though we pulled one back relatively quickly when Dirk headed in from close range. If this game had lasted another five minutes, I honestly believe we’d have scored again, but it wasn’t to be, not with this ref anyway.

 

The longer the game wore on, the more of an active hand the referee seemed to take in Milan’s favour. In the first half he’d given a series of free kicks (usually against Alonso) for innocuous incidents, and he was pissing me off a fair bit even then. As time ticked away though, he really began to get on my tits, to the point where I am now convinced he was determined we were not going to win this game.

 

How else can you explain the way he TWICE waved away the most blatant fouls on Kewell by Gattuso? You will never see clearer fouls than that, but on both occasions he signalled that Kewell had dived. That being the case, why did he not produce a yellow card for Harry? Gattuso had been booked earlier for a nasty challenge, and both of the fouls on Kewell were worthy of yellow cards as they were cynical and stopped us when we were in good situations. Maybe that’s why he didn’t give them, or maybe he just didn’t want to.

 

That ref was bent, and I don’t care if people think it’s just sour grapes because we got beat. I’ve not blamed a referee for any of the defeats we’ve suffered this season, even though we’ve had some seriously bad ones (the Arsenal cup games spring to mind). I’m not blaming this guy for us losing this game either, but he sure as hell did his best to make sure we lost and there’s something very fishy about the way he handled this game.

 

I’d like an explanation as to where he came up with just three minutes stoppage time. The rule is 30 seconds per substitution, and 30 seconds per goal. When ninety minutes were up, we’d had two goals and five substitutions. That’s three and a half minutes right there, and it isn’t including the time wasted by that playacting shithouse Nesta. There should have been at least five minutes, plus another thirty seconds for a substitution they made during the stoppage time. Yet we didn’t even get the three minutes signalled, as the twat blew up well before. How can that be justified?

 

I was watching him closely, and he had the whistle in his mouth for ages, looking at his watch and just waiting for the opportunity to blow. He couldn’t fucking wait to end the game, and was shitting himself any time we got near their box. Look at the ludicrous free-kick he gave against Crouch just to relieve the pressure Milan were under. He did everything he could to help Milan, and whilst I’m not going to go as far as to say they paid him off (although it wouldn’t be the first time), I’m positive he didn’t want us to win.

 

We lost because we weren’t clinical with the chances we had, and because we didn’t have enough quality in attacking areas to make Milan pay for their negativity. Having said that, I still think that ref was bent and nobody will convince me he wasn’t.

 

I tell you something else that pissed me off, I was the only person in my section who was even shouting at the ref, or at the time wasting Milan players. People around me just didn’t seem that arsed. It was surreal, I mean this is the fucking European Cup Final for God’s sake, show some passion. The people around me just seemed to accept what was happening, and I see more passion at Anfield even when we are playing shite teams like Sheffield United.

 

It was just depressing, and that’s without even getting into all the shite that happened with people getting in without tickets. I’m not going into any of that here, but it will be covered in the next issue of the fanzine I’m sure. I’m also going to avoid going into what’s gone on since, with Rafa basically telling the world he thinks Parry is incompetant and that the Yanks need to put their money where their mouths are.

 

With so much negativity happening, this has been a really shitty week to be a Liverpool fan. With all that’s gone on, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we have just lost a European Cup Final. I honestly don’t think it has sunk it with me yet, probably because of all the other crap that has been happening.

 

I’m glad the season is over to be fair, and it isn’t one I will be looking back on with any real fondness. This final was actually a microcosm of the season as a whole. Not good enough in attack, unable to come back when we concede the first goal, wasteful in front of goal, and a bit unlucky.

 

And then there is Steven Gerrard. For me, he’s had a poor season (.tv readers clearly think otherwise, having just named him player of the year!), and although he is our best player, he is also perhaps one of our biggest problems at the moment. I know that sounds stupid, but bear with me.

 

Rafa doesn’t want to pick him in centre midfield when we are up against good sides who can exploit the gap between our defence and midfield. So he has used him on the right, or behind a striker. What this season has shown however, is that Gerrard won’t play on the right, he either sulks or goes walkabout. Playing him off the frontman doesn’t work either, not because he sulks or doesn’t try, but because he just isn’t that effective in that role.

 

So in effect, we are ‘accommodating’ him. I know that sounds daft, as he’s our best player, but if he isn’t playing in the middle then the balance of our team is seriously disrupted. If he knuckled down and played as he can do when selected on the right, it wouldn’t be a problem (like it wasn’t a problem last season), but if this campaign has taught us anything, it’s that playing Gerrard on the right just isn’t really a viable option anymore.

 

So next year Rafa is going to have to bite the bullet and just play him in the centre, either with Mascherano if we’re up against Kaka or someone similar, or with Alonso (assuming he’s still here) if we’re playing someone shit. It’s time we let other teams worry about what we can do, rather than the other way around.

 

It’s been a terrible few weeks for Liverpool fans, from the ticketing fiasco to losing a European Cup final, to the bad press we received thanks to the antics of a minority of scumbags who stormed the gates of the stadium, to the revelations from Benitez about how pissed off he is with Parry’s ineptitude and the American’s ‘all talk, no action’ approach.

 

I’m just miserable as hell right now, and the result in Athens is only part of the reason. We need something to put the smiles back on our faces, and although I’ve no doubt Rafa is doing everything in his power to do just that, I’m not so sure the people above him are.

 

If they put the money up, we could be celebrating the arrival of at least one top player by the end of the week. If they don’t, it’s going to be a long, miserable summer if you’re a red.

 

 

Team: Reina; Finnan (Arbeloa), Carragher, Agger, Riise; Pennant, Alonso, Mascherano (Crouch), Zenden (Kewell); Gerrard, Kuyt:

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