Despair, passion and glory – Turkish delight!
Mark Twain once came across his name in the obituary column of the International Herald Tribune while on his travels in North Africa. He informed the world via telegram that “reports of his demise were somewhat exaggerated”. Last week, the very same message was posted just after half-time in Istanbul. But let us start at the beginning.
During an injury-plagued first season under Rafael ‘Rafa’ Benitez, Liverpool FC struggled to compete at the top of England’s domestic league, having to make do for long periods of time without key players such as Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia and Djibril Cisse. In the Champions League, last year’s Monaco hero, the cup-tied Fernando Morientes, was also missing throughout and the Anfield faithful were relieved when the ‘Boys in Red’ just about negotiated the group stage of the competition.
Close to 40,000 Liverpool fans from all over the world gathered in Istanbul, brimming with confidence at their team’s chances of taking the European Cup home to Merseyside for good. Forty-five minutes after the excellent referee, Manuel Mejuto, had started the match, however, nothing seemed more far-fetched. Rousing renditions of “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” faded into the night, surrounding the shining Ataturk Stadium, as Milan proceeded to play Liverpool off the pitch. Paulo Maldini found the back of the net after only 52 seconds and Chelsea reject, Hernan Crespo, added a second and third in the final minutes of the half. Milan were sleek, incisive, precise – a perfectly tuned football machine. Liverpool trudged off into the tunnel of despair, beaten and utterly outclassed – “dead and buried” as one commentator put it. A number of fans sought refuge in the wilderness outside the arena of doom.
It shall forever remain a mystery what Benitez told his humiliated troops during the interval, but they returned and rose like a phoenix from the ashes. The introduction of Smicer earlier and Hamann for part two of this heroic spectacle paid immediate dividends. Steven Gerrard, freed up front, headed home within nine minutes of the restart and, an incredible five minutes later, Smicer and Alonso had put the Reds level.
As the contest continued, extra time became reality and the ‘hour’ of Jerzy Dudek in the Liverpool goal came. So often in the past the fall guy, the Polish international turned unlikely hero. Two minutes from the end, he produced an astonishing double save denying Milan’s Shevchenko the certain winner from point blank range. Dudek then emulated Bruce Gobbelaar’s 1984 antics on the goal line to distract Sérginho into blazing his penalty over the bar before saving from Pirlo and Shevchenko. In-between, Hamann, Cisse and Smicer beat Dida between the Milan posts to complete a victory, which will enter into Anfield legend.
The heroes were welcomed home by over 500,000 delirious fans in one of the biggest victory parades ever seen for a sporting event. There was no trouble in Istanbul or on Merseyside and this was one of the greatest moments for Liverpool and football in general ever witnessed.
In three weeks, UEFA will make a final decision on Liverpool’s participation in next season’s competition. All the signs are that the epic spectacle will have contributed substantially to a likely wild card being granted.
Meanwhile, the ‘Kings of Europe’ will meet UEFA Cup winners CSKA Moscow for the European Super Cup in Monaco’s Louis II Stadium on August 26 – another occasion to savour!