Few players can have experienced a campaign of such contrasting fortunes as Argentine midfielder Javier Mascherano. On the eve of September 2006, he and international team-mate Carlos Tevez became the talk of English football when they swapped Sao Paulo for the East End of London, moving from Brazilian club Corinthians to West Ham United.
If their move to the Hammers had come as a surprise, more surprising still was the fact that Mascherano, for several years heralded as one of the best defensive midfield prospects of his generation, struggled to break into the team and appeared in danger of fading into obscurity. That was until long-time admirer Rafa Benitez took him to Liverpool during the January transfer window.
Since then, Mascherano has looked a player reborn, and has been a central figure in the Reds' impressive advance towards Athens and another UEFA Champions League final. As he looks forward to Wednesday night, the 22-year-old tells FIFA.com how he has discovered true happiness on Merseyside.
FIFA.com: Javier, how are you feeling about your first UEFA Champions League final?
Javier Macherano: It will be very tough, of course. And for me personally, it will be a new kind of experience, given that everything will be decided in one game. In South America the final of the Copa Libertadores is played over two legs, home and away, but here you get just 90 minutes to decide your destiny. It will be a different challenge.
How has the build-up to the big day been for you?
This week I've been getting phone calls from people everywhere, at River Plate, Corinthians and people from the Argentina national team. To tell the truth, I have been feeling more nervous than usual. When I think about the match, I can't quite believe what is happening to me. It's incredible. I am so thankful for what my life has given me personally and in my career.
Did you watch the AC Milan-Liverpool final in 2005? If so, can you remember what kind of impression it made on you?
I did. It was a great match, but then you would expect that from the Champions League final. As we say back home, it was played with the hand on the heart, by two teams with two different styles, both showing plenty of respect for the other's game.
What are your thoughts about the current Milan team?
Tough, really tough. They have so much experience that for them, games like this one are like domestic league games. They have so many players of great quality, who have done so much in the game, so they are not going to be nervous about playing in a final.
Kaka has been in exceptional form Milan this season, especially in the Champions League. Do you feel he is their main dangerman? And how do you feel about being given the task of having to mark him?
I have seen him play thousands of times and he always does something different. You can analyse videos of him as much as you want, but he can still take you by surprise at any moment. I don't know if I will be man-marking him on my own, or whether there will be more than one of us asked to watch him - at the moment, I still have to wait and find out if I will be picked to start the game.
You seem to have settled very quickly at Liverpool and are playing in your favourite holding role in the middle. That must make you happy?
It does, yes, but there is also no problem if they want me to play further out wide. I have played there before, and am happy to do so for Liverpool, if they want me to. Everyone at the club has made me feel so welcome. I feel like I was made for Liverpool and they were made for me.
You have formed a strong bond with Steven Gerrard in the midfield, and the Liverpool captain has been very complimentary about your impact on the team. How do you feel your partnership is shaping up?
Yes. He made me feel welcome from day one, and put me completely at my ease. Some of the things he said about me are a bit too much, maybe. As for my thoughts about him, I don't think it's my place to give an opinion. He's a great player and I respect him an awful lot. But I don't feel it's my place to be making a judgement about him. That wouldn't be right.
Before you went to England, there was a lot of talk that you might actually move to Italy. And you hold an Italian passport. Is that still something that you would like to do one day?
There was some talk about going to Italy, but things never reached a serious stage. At least I was never told about an official offer. In the end it was West Ham who showed the most interest, so that's where I went. And then of course came the chance to move to Liverpool. To be honest, I must say I was surprised that they were so keen on me. For now, I have no more thoughts about Italy. I am happy here in England.
How do you think the current Liverpool team compares with the team that won the trophy in 2005? Are you stronger?
It wouldn't be fair to say that. Journalists are paid to give opinions on that kind of thing, not players. All I can say is that we have a great team at Liverpool now - one that is respected not just in England but throughout the world. What I can say is that we know all about Milan, and they know all about us. Two very strong sides. There can be no messing around. Both sides will need complete focus and concentration for the whole game.
Presumably, you will be hoping to avoid a repeat of the penalty shootout that decided that final in 2005?
Yes, of course. We definitely want to win the game before it goes to penalties this time!