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Old 25 May 2005, 05:01 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Champs are here

Liverpool are once again the champions of Europe after they defeated Milan on penalties in Istanbul.

In one of the best finals in UEFA Champions League history, Liverpool had looked dead and buried at half time as they trailed 3-0.

Paolo Maldini struck in the first minute, before two quick-fire goals just before the interval from Hernan Crespo.

A miraculous turn-around in the second half saw Liverpool level matters as they grabbed three goals in just six minutes.

Steven Gerrard headed home before Vladimir Smicer fired in from 25 yards.

Gerrard then burst into the area and won a penalty which Xabi Alonso missed - although the Spaniard recovered to slot home the leveller.

Milan pushed the hardest as the game progressed into extra time and a wonderful late save from Jerzy Dudek will go down in Anfield legend.

The Pole made sure of his place in Liverpool folklore as he saved Andrei Shevchenko's penalty to hand the English side the Champions League title.

Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez had opted against playing Dietmar Hamann in preference for Harry Kewell, but the Spaniard was left rueing that decision after just 51 seconds as Milan converted their very first chance.

Djimi Traore was penalised for a foul on Kaka. Andrea Pirlo curled the free kick to the edge of the area for his skipper Maldini who volleyed the ball down and past a helpless Dudek.

Liverpool reacted positively to their early setback and could easily have levelled. John Arne Riise saw his goalbound effort deflect wide, before Gerrard picked out Sami Hyypia with a terrific ball into the box but the giant Finn could not beat Dida with his powerful header.

Luis Garcia came to his side's rescue 15 minutes in when he headed Crespo's goalbound header off the line, after the Argentine got in front of Gerrard.

The Kewell experiment failed after just 20 minutes as he limped off with a groin injury, meaning an early reshuffle for Benitez as Vladimir Smicer entered the fray.

Shevchenko then went close to doubling Milan's lead, but he moved just too soon as Kaka threaded a nice ball through the Liverpool defence and despite beating Dudek the effort was rightfully ruled offside.

Garcia could then have levelled as Milan Baros flicked a Riise pass into the Spanish forward's path, but his wild effort flew wide when he should have hit the target.

Then a six-minute spell before the interval looked to have all but ended Liverpool's hopes of a fifth European crown.

Milan grabbed a second as they hit Liverpool with a stunning counter-attack, although The Reds felt they should have had a penalty in the build-up as Alessandro Nesta's slid in to intercept Garcia in the area, but the referee waved play on and within 30 seconds the ball was in Dudek's net.

From Nesta's interception, Gennaro Gattuso, Clarence Seedorf and Kaka worked their way in lightning fashion up the pitch and the Brazilian played in Shevchenko in the area, he decided against shooting and squared the ball to Crespo who made no mistake from close-range.

Kaka then showed his class with a truly sublime ball which sliced open the Liverpool defence and picked out Crespo on the edge of the area and the on loan Chelsea man finished in equally fantastic style as he clipped the ball first time over Dudek.

At half time Benitez brought on Hamann for the injured Steve Finnan and switched to a 3-5-2 formation.

The presence of Hamann had an immediate effect on Liverpool as they looked more comfortable in possession and that showed as Alonso zipped a vicious shot wide from 35 yards.

Shevchenko then saw a thumping free kick somehow parried wide from Dudek and within moments the Pole would see how important his stop was as Liverpool miraculously levelled the scores within six minutes.

They found themselves back in the game when their own captain fantastic Gerrard headed home a Riise cross on 52 minutes.

Then just two minutes later, Smicer picked up the ball from Hamann 25 yards out before unleashing a fizzing drive past Dida into the corner of the Milan net.

Milan were visibly rattled as Liverpool came pushed everything at the Italians looking for the most unlikely of equalisers and again it came - this time on the hour. Gerrard was again the inspiration as he broke into the area in archetypal style and was hauled down by Gattuso before he could get his shot away.

The spot kick was awarded and Alonso stepped up, only for Dida to produce a wonderful save low-down to his right - but the Basque star did not give it up and fired into the roof of the net before the Milan defence could react.

From the most one-sided Champions League final in recent years, the game was now one of the most memorable in European footballing history.

Milan should have retaken the lead when Kaka delivered another great ball into the area which Dudek failed to deal with, that allowed Shevchenko to turn and fire at goal - but thankfully for Liverpool Traore was on the line to clear brilliantly.

Liverpool were still not without their own chances and Garcia should have done better as a superb 40-yard ball from Gerrard found his Spanish team-mate in the area and behind the Milan defence, but he could not control the ball and the opportunity was gone.

Almost straight from that Liverpool chance, Milan countered yet again with Shevchenko skipping past two chances before feeding Crespo into the area, but he could not find Kaka in the six-yard box as Jamie Carragher cleared.

Shevchenko began to carry the ball a lot more and it needed a last ditch intervention from Carragher to block his progress. The resulting corner almost saw Milan clinch a late winner as Jaap Stam headed down but Kaka could not redirect the ball goal wards from just two yards out and that meant extra time.

Ten minutes into added time and Milan created the first and only opening of the first half of extra time. Substitute Serginho found time on the left and crossed for fellow replacement Jon Dahl Tomasson who had backed off Traore to find room - but the Dane missed the ball to the relief of the Reds defence.

The opening exchanges of the second period saw Liverpool have their first chance of extra time, but Hamann's drive from the edge of the area deflected wide.

Serginho then created danger down the left and crossed into the six-yard box, but somehow Liverpool cleared through the Trojan like Carragher - who now was struggling with cramp.

Milan were now very much on top and Pirlo won a free kick on the very edge of the area as Hamann blocked his drive. The Italian picked himself up and whipped in the set-piece but Liverpool again scrambled clear.

The Rossoneri then thought they had won the game. Serginho again crossed from the left and Shevchenko headed at goal, Dudek parried - the Ukrainian followed up and somehow the keeper managed pushed the ball over, but he should not have had the chance to even get near it.

In the final minute Liverpool won a free kick 30 yards from goal in perfect position for Riise, but Hamann's lay-off was too short and that was it, the European final would be decided on penalties as it was two years ago when Milan last won the trophy - although The Reds last success in 1984 also came via a penalty shoot-out.

Serginho took the first kick and skied the ball over as Dudek danced his way along the line.

Hamann fired home, and then Dudek brilliantly saved from Pirlo to give Liverpool a huge advantage.

Cisse found the back of the net and Tomasson registered Milan's first before Riise saw his penalty saved well by Dida.

Kaka stepped up next and levelled matters, although the advantage was still Liverpool's as Smicer picked up the ball and fired home with great aplomb.

Milan now needed to score as Shevchenko stepped up and he missed as Dudek sunk to his right to keep the ball out.

The stadium erupted as the visiting Scouse army could not control their ecstasy as they hailed their conquering heroes who produced one of the most memorable performances in Liverpool's and English football's history.

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