The UEFA Champions League final in Istanbul between Liverpool and AC Milan had it all. Seemingly beaten at half-time, Liverpool pulled back from the precipice to lift their fifth European title by overcoming AC Milan (3-3; 3-2 on penalties) in a breathtaking encounter crammed full with drama and radiating all the virtues of attacking play.
For the Reds, who saw off two other hot favourites in Juventus and Chelsea earlier in the competition, this epic triumph comes 20 years after the tragedy of Heysel Stadium in which they also faced Italian opposition (Juventus). Supremely well-versed in the club's history, their coach Rafael Benitez will be fully aware of that, but he can nonetheless bask in his own personal achievement, having managed a European double by adding this trophy to the UEFA Cup he lifted with Valencia last season. He takes over from Portuguese tactician José Mourinho as the mastermind of the most prestigious club honour on the old continent.
And yet, in this first meeting between two sides who boasted ten Champions League titles between them before kick-off (six for Milan, four for Liverpool), Benitez's Liverpool were made to look out of their depth as early as the first minute. Racing onto Andrea Pirlo's perfectly-weighted free kick with a mere 60 seconds on the clock, Paolo Maldini volleyed in his first goal of the season to pull the momentum ominously in the Italians' favour (1-0, 1').
Expecting a cautious start and far more used to taking the lead themselves, Liverpool had been delivered a massive blow before they had even had time to collect their thoughts. They were now obliged to stride forward in search of an equaliser, leaving gaps at the back that played perfectly into the hands of a Milan side brimful of experience. With an average age of 29.5 compared to 26.8 for the English, and spurred on by the ball-winning exploits of Gennaro Gattuso, Milan took a stranglehold on the game and their midfielders began threading sumptuous passes through to their two strikers.
Milan dictated the play and repeatedly threatened to increase their advantage, with Luis Garcia clearing a Hernan Crespo header off the line (14') and Andriy Shevchenko having a goal rightly disallowed for the slenderest of offside incursions (30'). They did not have to wait long for their second breakthrough, however, and sweeping through the Liverpool half on a pacy counter-attack, Brazilian playmaker Kaka fed Shevchenko on the right, who, instead of shooting, cut a pass across the face of goal to which Hernan Crespo applied the simplest of touches (2-0; 38'). Watched from the stands by Diego Maradona, the Argentinean forward netted his second before the half-time whistle, majestically chipping the ball past Jerzy Dudek after being brilliantly set up by Kaka (3-0; 42'). The scoreline perfectly reflected Milan's domination, and as the players walked off at the break the only question seemed to be how many goals Carlo Ancelotti's side would win by.
Rafael Benitez had other ideas, though, and it was an entirely different Liverpool formation that took the field after the interval. He switched to a three-man defence to bolster the Red's faltering midfield, but even that did not appear to make a difference in the initial exchanges. If anything, the Italians still looked the most likely to score, and Dudek did superbly well to keep the ball away from his net from yet another chance after 52 minutes. That scare may well have triggered Liverpool's response, because in an incredible six-minute passage of play the Merseyside outfit spread panic in the Milan back line and wiped out the three-goal deficit as if at will.
Sparking the comeback, Steven Gerrard directed a deft header into the far corner from the penalty spot that left Dida rooted to the ground (3-1; 54'). Moments later, Vladimir Smicer took advantage of some sloppy defending to rifle in a shot from distance that Milan's Brazilian custodian could only feel breeze past his glove (3-2; 56'). Suddenly unsure of themselves as they had been when PSV Eindhoven racked up three goals in their semi-final second-leg, the Rossoneri rearguard cracked for a third time. Superbly set up by Milan Baros, Gerrard raced into the box only for Gattuso to bring him down just in front of goal. Xabi Alonso stepped up to take the penalty, and although Dida got down well to keep out the Spaniard's kick, he could do nothing to prevent the former Real Sociedad ace from sweeping in the rebound (3-3; 60'). To the general disbelief of both sets of supporters, the scores were now level.
Both sides enjoyed their share of chances in the last half-hour - Djimi Traoré saving on his own goal-line from Shevchenko after a mix up between Sami Hyypia and Dudek (69') - but the score remained tied.
Milan looked the more dangerous in extra time, notably when Shevchenko was denied twice by Dudek from point blank range. Several Liverpool players were now down with cramp, but as Benitez had already made his three substitutions they struggled on.
And so to penalties it went, with Liverpool immediately getting the upper hand as both Serginho and Pirlo missed for the Italians. Dudek crowned a memorable night for himself when he saved from European player of the year Shevchenko to seal victory. The Ukranian on the other hand will want to forget this evening in a hurry.
Liverpool, who finished fifth in the English Premier League, have qualified as European representatives for the FIFA Club World Championship TOYOTA Cup Japan 2005 that runs from 11-18 December.