As Liverpool take the trip to Italy and the San Siro to face-off with AC Milan in the final matchday of the 2021-22 Champions League Group Stage, We Love Sport’s Jay Edwards-Bannon looks back at one of the greatest comeback stories in the history of sport as Liverpool defied the odds to defeat Milan on penalties in the 2005 UEFA Champions League final – The Miracle of Istanbul.

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The Champions League final in Istanbul has iconic status in the city of Liverpool (well, at least the red side!) and will forever go down in history as one of the all-time greatest football matches in the history of the sport. Was the football itself incredible? Arguably not, but the nature of the game, how it played out and the truly remarkable comeback in the second half paints a story of biblical proportions.

David vs Goliath

This was a Liverpool team at the beginning of an important transition, the first season under the leadership of Rafael Benitez which domestically wasn’t overly impressive. The majority of the team, an average group of footballers yet to reach their potential, a carryover from the Houllier era at Anfield. AC Milan, on the other hand, travelled to Turkey as overwhelming favourites, with superstar players like Paolo Maldini, Hernan Crespo, Kaka and Andriy Shevchenko. Liverpool, having finished outside of the UCL places in 5th at home, seemed completely uncomfortable in this spotlight falling to a 3-0 half-time disadvantage with the game looking all but over. We’ve all heard the stories of many Liverpool fans leaving the stadium at half-time – not wanting to see it get worse

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Second-Half Comeback

Those fans, however, will always regret this decision as Liverpool not only got themselves back into the game but in one of the most incredible comeback stories of all time, scored three times in the space of six very long minutes for Milan. Inspirational and legendary captain Steven Gerrard opened the scoring, which clearly rattled the Milan stars before Vladimir Smicer smashed home. A Xabi Alonso penalty was saved by Dida but he couldn’t keep out the rebound shot. The reds, against all the odds, were on equal terms.

Superstar Dudek

It could have been all over in extra time as Shevchenko took the shot against Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek. Dudek somehow miraculously pulled off an incredible double save to keep the Reds in the match and into penalties. The shootout itself was just as memorable, Milan – clearly still shocked at being in this position after such an impressive first-half – missed their first two penalties. Liverpool scored both before John Arne Riise had his kick saved by the mighty Dida. Tomasson, Kaka and Smicer all slotted him their kicks before the ‘wobbly-legs- of Dudek saved the penalty of, at that time one of the best strikers in the world, Andriy Shevchenko to hand Liverpool their FIFTH European Cup.

“The best comeback I’ve seen in sport anywhere in the world.”

To many people, even Liverpool fans, there is still completely astonishment that this Liverpool team could lift the Champions League against a side as well equipped as AC Milan. For context the two teams  on historic day were:

Liverpool starting XI: Dudek; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia, Traore; Alonso; Luis Garcia, Gerrard, Riise; Kewell, Baros
Substitutes: Carson, Josemi, Hamann, Nunes, Biscan, Cisse, Smicer.

AC Milan starting XI: Dida; Cafu, Stam, Nesta, Maldini; Gattuso, Pirlo, Seedorf; Kaka; Shevchenko, Crespo
Substitutes: Abbiati, Kaladze, Costacurta, Rui Costa, Dhorasoo, Serginho, Tomasson.

Alan Hansen, a former Liverpool defender who previously won the European Cup with the Reds noted for the BBC – “It wasn’t just the best comeback in a European Cup final; it wasn’t just the best comeback I’ve seen in football; it was the best comeback I’ve seen in sport anywhere in the world.”

Revenge in Athens

After the Miracle of Istanbul, AC Milan player Andrea Pirlo explained in his autobiography ‘I Think Therefore I Play’: “We sat like a bunch of half-wits in the dressing room… We were bloodthirsty zombies faced with an unseen problem – the blood was ours and they had drunk every last drop. We couldn’t speak, we couldn’t move. They had mentally destroyed us. Insomnia, rage, depression, a sense of nothingness. We’d invented a new disease with multiple symptoms: Istanbul syndrome.”

Milan wouldn’t have long to wait to try and get their revenge on the Liverpool team, as both sides would face-off again just two years later in Athens in the 2007 UEFA Champions Leage final. Liverpool, although a changed side with stronger additions in the squad, were still the underdogs going into the game. Milan, had an aging squad but still contained the vastly impressive icons of the game we all remember.

It was no Miracle in Athens but the game was enjoyable and exciting, at the end of the day, how could anything live up to the standard of 2005? Milan came out as winners, lifting the trophy after a 2-1 victory against the Reds. The last time the two sides faced off until the earlier round of the Group Stage this season, and the last time AC Milan made it to the final of the Champions League.

Liverpool, after a brief spell outside of the competition in the 2010s, made it to the final in Kyiv in 2008, losing out to Real Madrid, before defeating Tottenham for the cup the following year in Madrid.

 


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