There is something poetic about Milan’s trip to Anfield on 15 September 2021 being the first time Liverpool and the Rossoneri have ever met in the Champions League group stages.
For two kings of the sport, it feels appropriate that whenever they meet, it’s usually to compete for the grandest prize in football and the most beautiful silverware on offer.
And upon Milan’s return to the top table of European football, now as underdogs owing to their seven-year absence, who better to welcome Rocky Balboa back than Apollo Creed?
But back in 2005 on that night in Istanbul, it was roles reversed. Liverpool were very much the underdogs, while Milan were the celebrated heavyweight favourites.
Every man, woman and child old enough to form memories will remember exactly where they were and who they were with when Liverpool took on Milan in 2005, as the world witnessed one of the greatest ever football matches on the biggest of stages in Istanbul.
So, in honour of Liverpool and Milan’s two upcoming meetings in 2021, let’s take a trip down memory lane and look back on a night when the impossible became reality before our very eyes.
Any team that reaches the Champions League final must have a little something about them, but it’s fair to say that this edition of Liverpool was far from vintage.
The Reds qualified for the European competition by finishing the 2003/04 season in fourth place with a measly 60 points – a whopping 30 behind title champions Arsenal.
Rafa Benitez’s boys would then go on to finish the famous 2004/05 campaign in fifth place, amassing only 58 points and missing out on Champions League qualification to Merseyside rivals Everton. That is, unless they could do the impossible, and win the trophy…
At the other end of the spectrum, we had 2003/04 Serie A champions Milan. The Italian giants were at the peak of their powers, boasting one of the most star-studded and talented squads that calcio has ever seen.
The list of icons simply rolls off the tongue: Dida, Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Jaap Stam, Paolo Maldini, Andrea Pirlo, Gennaro Gattuso, Kaka, Clarence Seedorf, Hernan Crespo, Andriy Shevchenko, Filippo Inzaghi.
This elite group failed to defend their Serie A title in 2004/05, but as we would later discover in the Calciopoli scandal and Juventus’ subsequent relegation to Serie B, they were not involved in a fair fight.
Even if Liverpool hadn’t won the most dramatic final in Champions League history, their run to Istanbul would still have been remembered as one of the most bonkers and controversial ever seen. The Reds were forced to play a Champions League qualification round against Grazer AK, which they won 2-1 on aggregate.
The group stages were equally as nervy, and Liverpool’s qualification for the Round of 16 hung in the balance until the very last second. Benitez’s boys were heading out of the competition in the dying seconds of the final group game with Olympiacos, needing to win by two goals to progress into the next round.
Captain Steven Gerrard stepped up in injury time to save his club, smashing a stunning half-volley from 25 yards to break Olympiacos hearts and send Liverpool flying into the next round. Oooooh you beauty!
Liverpool then cruised past Bayer Leverkusen, sneaked beyond Juventus with a goalless draw in Turin, following a 2-1 victory at Anfield (inspired by a memorable Luis Garcia strike), and then beat Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea through Garcia’s infamous ‘ghost goal.’ Drama until the end.
Milan’s path to the final was much more straight forward, although they did treat us to several chunks of tension and drama. Four wins out of six group matches meant the Rossoneri topped the table, setting up a Round of 16 battle with Manchester United.
Two Crespo goals – one in either leg – helped Milan overcome the Red Devils, leading to the most mouth-watering of Milan derbies against Inter. Carlo Ancelotti’s side won the ‘home leg’ at San Siro 2-0, but the talking point came in the second meeting, when a fan threw a firework onto the pitch, hitting goalkeeper Dida in the head and causing the game to be abandoned.
Milan were handed a 3-0 win on the night, and progressed to the semi-final to face PSV Eindhoven. A 2-0 success at San Siro meant the second leg should have been fairly routine, but the Rossoneri found themselves down by the same scoreline and heading to extra-time as the final whistle beckoned.
An injury-time goal from Massimo Ambrosini broke PSV hearts, and even though Phillip Cocu levelled the scores on aggregate a minute later, Milan progressed on away goals to meet an unfancied Liverpool. The final was theirs to lose…
The final, played in front of 69,000 fans in the Atatürk Olympic Stadium will forever go down in history. Turkey was met by a sea of red, as fans from England and Italy swarmed upon their city of Istanbul.
Milan were heavy favourites, and began the game as such, stunning Liverpool supporters into silence after only one minute. A free-kick was whipped in from the right flank, and Rossoneri bandiera Maldini was on hand to volley home Pirlo’s delivery and send the Italian supporters wild.
That goal set the tempo for the opening 45 minutes, as Ancelotti’s side bossed the Reds, ripping them apart with terrifying ease. Five minutes before the break, it was 2-0. Kaka drove through the heart of the Liverpool midfield, dinked a clever pass into Shevchenko, who in turn rolled the ball across the box into the path of Crespo, who tapped the ball into an unguarded net.
Game over? Well, five minutes later, it was game, set and match. Kaka split the defence again, this time with an inch-perfect pass through to Crespo, and the Argentine showed no nerves in clipping the ball beyond Jerzy Dudek to put Milan three goals ahead before the half-time whistle.
Men against boys, and no way back for Liverpool, whose dreams had been crushed inside 45 minutes.
Dietmar Hamann was introduced at half-time to try and stem the flow of blood pouring from Liverpool’s wounded body, which simultaneously allowed Gerrard to roam wild and spark a stirring comeback. Thankfully for Liverpool, the legend obliged.
On 54 minutes, Gerrard rose highest to meet John Arne Riise’s cross from the left, guiding the ball into the far corner of the net. A lifeline. The captain’s belief struck a chord within his teammates, and only two minutes later, they were within one. Vladimir Smicer lined up a shot from range, and his arrow snaked into the bottom corner beyond a despairing Dida.
Four minutes after that, the world was picking its collective jaw off the floor. Gerrard burst through the Milan defence and was tugged back by Gattuso in the box, and the referee pointed to the spot. Penalty!
Xabi Alonso stepped up, saw his effort saved by Dida, but was alert enough to fire the rebound into the roof of the net. Comeback complete.
Milan responded by throwing everything in their power at the Reds, but the plucky underdogs stood firm. Djimi Traore raced back onto the line to clear a certain goal-bound effort, while Jamie Carragher produced a brilliant last-ditch tackle to prevent Kaka from restoring the lead.
Liverpool breathed a sigh of relief when the final whistle blew, but 30 minutes of extra-time awaited them. Once again, the Rossoneri were the better team, but they couldn’t capitalise on their superiority.
Dudek was called into drastic action by Shevchenko, first parrying a superb downward header and then sticking out a hand to somehow turn his powerful rebound over the crossbar. A huge moment in the game, and one which took the Champions League final all the way to penalties.
As with every penalty shootout, there will always be a hero and a villain, with each player’s fate decided with one swing of a foot, or one diving save. On this occasion, Dudek was the hero, writing his name into Liverpool folklore for eternity.
The Polish shot-stopper took inspiration from Reds legend and eccentric shot-stopper Bruce Grobbelaar, dancing and bouncing on the goal line, while replicating the Zimbabwean’s iconic ‘wobbly legs.’
Serginho blasted his spot-kick over the bar, and Dudek then dived low to his right to deny the usually impeccable Pirlo. Converted penalties from Hamann, Djibril Cisse and Smicer meant Shevchenko had to score to keep Milan alive – but it was not his destiny to be the hero.
The Ukrainian stepped up and casually dinked the ball down the middle, but Dudek was there to stretch out an arm and claw the ball away from goal. Liverpool players rushed to mob the goalkeeper, while supporters wiped away tears of joy and disbelief.
From three goals down and out for the count, the Reds rose from the canvas to be crowned champions of Europe.