AC Milan, Champions Of Europe

By Andrew Dixon, III
Updated: May 25, 2007

***image7*** MIAMI AC Milan has had to overcome an awful lot over the past year.

Their leading scorer, and most recgnized strike Andriy Schevchenko left for Chelsea and a big paycheck.

The team was caught up in the match-fixing scandal and was docked so many points that originally didn’t qualify for this season’s Champion League only to successfully appeal and have the penalty reduced and be eligible.

Indifferent league form that saw them finish 4th and their cross town rivals Inter Milan run away the Serie A title.

Yet in European play, the Rossenari perservered eventually earned what they had waited two years for: a chance to beat Liverpool in the Champions League Final. They got their wish, using two goals Fillipo Inzaghi to claim their 7th European crown with a 2-1 win over English side Liverpool at hte Olympic Stadium in Athens.

Both sides overcame semifinal one goal first leg deficits to earn their ticket to Athens. Liverpool overturned their deficit against Chelsea to advance on penalties while AC Milan, overcame a 3-2 deficit with a resounding 3-0 win at home to set up one a rematch of one of the most remarkable Champions League Finals in the history of the competition.

Two years earlier, AC Milan scored in the first minute through its legendary captain, Paolo Maldini and took a 3-0 lead into the locker room at halftime only to see Liverpool score three times in SIX minutes to eventually force overtime and win their fifth European title on penalties. The wound ran deep with AC Milan’s players and they looked forward to exacting their revenge.

As if the growing rivalry needed any more fire, AC Milan midfield combatant Genarro Gattuso dismissed Liverpool as a team without individual talent that plays like a long ball playing Italian team of 10 years ago. Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard called Gattuso overrated and a kitten, a play on Gattusso nickname of “snarling dog”.

So there were no shortage of hype or anticipation as the teams made their way into the Olympic stadium in the Greek capatial. Malini, the 39 year old legend, led his side out in his 5th appearance in the final while Gerrard led out a Liverpool side that looked to prove its doubters wrong.

Liverpool certainly looked up to the task as the put heavy pressure on Milan right from the jump as Dirk Kuyt found Gerrard on the left who lofted a pass for a streaking Jermaine Pennant in the box on the right side. The pass was out of Pennant’s reach but Liverpool demonstrated early that they had no intention of sitting back.

In fact Pennant spent the first half tormenting the Milan defense on the right flank. At the ten minute mark, Milan’s Marek Jankulovski gave the ball away to who played a 1-2 (give and go) with Kuyt. Pennant’s shot forced a fine save out of goal keeper Dida. 12 minutes later he set up Gerrard after marauding down the right flank but the captain’s half volley from the left side sailed over Dida’s goal.

Four minutes later he again got off a good cross, finding Boudewijn Zenden about 15 yards from goal in the box. Zenden headed to Kuyt who battled to control it and saw the ball roll back to Zendin. Zenden attempted a pass to Gerrard on the right but it was blocked out to Xavi Alonso who unleashed a shot that was inches wide of Dida’s net, left side.

***image9*** On 32 minutes, Pennant set up John Arne Riise for a shot from the left that sailed over the top and worked a give then three mintues, blew by Jankulowski and left the ball Gerrard. Gerrard ghosted into the box and set up Kuyt near the penalty spot but Allesandro Nesta made an important block of Kuyt’s shot.

At this point Liverpool were dominating play. They controlled the midfield, had the bulk of possession and had neutralized AC Milan’s Kaka and Clarence Seedorf who were so influential in the semifinal against Manchester United.

Errant passes and an exposed left flank had Milan on the back foot. They didn’t get their first shot on goal until Kaka’s tame effort in the 17th minute and looked nowhere like the side that dominated Manchester United in the second leg.

But a glimmer of hope presented itself a mintue before half time when Alonso fouled Kaka about 22 yards from goal. Andrea Pirlo, Milan’s dead ball specialist, lined up the free kick and unleashed a shot around the five-man wall that took a deflection off Filippo Inzaghi’s shoulder and past an already committed Pepe Reina.

Another illustration of the uniqueness and cruelty of this game. You can have all the shots and ball possession you want. There is only stastic that truly matters in the game of soccer and that’s the scoreboard. For all of Liverpool’s dominance and the non-existant play of AC Milan, one fortuante deflection had given the latter a 1-0 on the stroke of half time.

Liverpool had to be stunned and it took them a little while to regain their first half momentum. The next best chance came to Gerrard who forced Gattuso into a giveaway, dusted Nesta on the left side and bore in on Dida’s goal. Trying to beat him to the far post, Gerrard saw the oft-maligned Brazillian get done to make a fine save.

***image8*** On 72 minutes, Nesta’s attempted downfield clearance hit the ref and bounced to Gerrard. Gerrard shot from about 25 yards out and Kuyt making a run into the box was unable to get a foot on Gerrard’s shot which went just wide left.

Liverpool appeared to be tiring and running out of ideas but Benitez curiously kept 6’7″ England international Peter Crouch on the bench. The forward didn’t make his appearcne until the 76th minute but was powerless to stop Milan as the seemingly put the match out of reach.

Kaka, who had a very quiet match, received the ball with a ton of space on the right side. He threaded a perfect pass between two defenders to Inzaghi who just beat the offside trap and found himself one on one with the keeper. Inzaghi skillfully rounded Reina to the right side and slipped the ball past him at a difficult angle to the back of the net.

***image10*** The knock many have on Inzaghi is that he is simply a one dimensional player who, if he’s not scoring goals, is mainly invisible. Yet Inzaghi is a proven goal scorer and his movement, skill and touch for the game winning goal demonstrated that if he indeed only has one skill, he’s very good at it. 2-0 Milan with eitht minutes left and the Italian side had one hand on the trophy.

Liverpool tried desperately to get back into the match. Crouch forced a fingertip save out of Dida in the 85th minute with a well struck volley. But Liverpool found a lifeline 3 minutes later when Pennant’s corner from the left side was flicked on by Daniel Agger, off the head of Maldini and right to an unmarked Kuyt.

Dida had no chance to react and suddenly, everyone’s thoughts drifted back to Istanbul two years earlier. Could Liverpool do the impossible again?

Not this time. AC Milan effectively killed off the three minutes of added time and erupted into celebrations. Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher would remark that as hard as they tried, his side simply wasn’t good enough. Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez hailed AC Milan as a world class side.

But for all of the artistry that they usually display, it was their perserverance, even when being outplayed, that ultimately won them their 7th European title. There are some who will complain that they should not have been in the tournament.

While that statement has merit, AC Milan proved their championship pedigree on the field. They have a legitimate world player of year candidate in Kaka, a legendary captain in Maldini a master coach in Carlo Ancellotti and a tradition that is surpassed perhaps only by Real Madrid.

AC Milan are worthy Champions League winners.