I was trying to come up with a witty preamble to my Champions League recap…and not surprisingly, I failed. Last night’s game simply defies any attempts at rational discussion; I can only try, and hope you’ll forgive me when I inevitably fail. I should also mention that I hate Liverpool with unbridled passion; it will be an important point to bear in mind when I start lavishing them with praise.
The night before the final I tipped Liverpool to win it because, and I quote, “I’ve got a feeling”. Clearly, logic had no place in my decision. If it did, I would have called A.C. Milan without hesitation. Their current team is one of the undisputed greatest club sides in the world; Liverpool, meanwhile, count Djimi Traore and Vladimir Smicer among their numbers. In theory, there was no comparing the two sides. Yet that said, Liverpool had made the final via Juventus (champions of Italy) and Chelsea (manufactured champions of England). No one could explain their success–apart from a few vague insinuations of Jamie Carragher being the greatest central defender in the world–but nor could anyone deny it: there it was, and there they were.
I also agreed to haul my computer downstairs to keep HLP Paul company in his hour of need (Tim Jebb, my other woefully misguided Liverpool supporting friend, had gone to watch at a pub). I won’t get into how insane Paul is where Liverpool F.C. is concerned; suffice it to say that he currently lives in Liverpool, and that it’s not a coincidence. At one point, Paul was trying to coax me into buying a plane ticket to Manchester and then flying to England to watch the final with him. Instead, he would have to settle for communication via MSN…and as it turned out, he would quickly need my support. To the surprise of absolutely no one, within the first minute of play Djimi Traore had committed a stupid foul; Cafu put the free kick into the box, Paolo Maldini expertly thumped it past Jerzy Dudek, and just like that it was 1-0 Milan. “I hate life,” came the message from Liverpool; I immediately pointed out that Manchester United had pulled a similar stunt in 1999 and ended up all right, but still, it wasn’t an ideal start by any means. Somewhere around the thirty minute mark the phone rang. For some reason I assumed it was Paul–a silly assumption, really, since I’m pretty sure he doesn’t use the telephone (when Paul and Lori get engaged, he’ll tell me over MSN; this isn’t a bold call so much as a simple statement of fact). Instead, it was my English grandmother. How she deigned to call me in the middle of the Champions League final I do not know. On that note, I also don’t know how family genealogy got brought up, either…but while we were discussing how people come to identify themselves with a particular country (my grandmother, who seems horrified that I consider myself to be Canadian–shocking, I know, since I’ve lived here my entire life–likes to use the expression, “A kitten born in the oven isn’t called biscuits”), Chelsea castoff Hernan Crespo scored two quick goals to put Milan up 3-0. That noise you heard was the soul being sucked out of Merseyside–or a muffled cheer eminating from Trafford.
At half time, Paul messaged me. “This is embarassing,” he said. I recognized it was my duty to at least try and keep his spirits up…but, I mean, come on: 3-0 down to A.C. Milan? When Steven Gerrard scored to make it 3-1, it wasn’t so much a signal of the start of one of sport’s greatest all-time comebacks as an indication that Liverpool had at least shown up to the stadium (you’d have been forgiven for having thought otherwise during the first half). But when Vladimir Smicer, the team’s perpetual black sheep, fired a shot past Dida to make it 3-2, it was suddenly game on. Paul, for his part, seemed confident enough to turn on his webcam; he must have sensed something was afoot, because a few minutes later Captain Magnificent was making one of his trademark, rampaging runs through the heart of Milan’s defence and being hacked down by Gatusso…honestly, you couldn’t have scripted it any better. Xabi Alonso actually had his spot kick saved, but recovered in time to bury the rebound to bring Liverpool back on level terms. Unbe-fucking-lievable.
From that point on, Milan dominated. Paul and I (and scores of other people, I’m sure) understood that this was how Liverpool was going to have to play–defend, defend, defend, then try and steal a winner. When it works, it works well, and when it doesn’t…well, it’s hard to reverse the momentum. Yet the Liverpool back four held strong, Milan’s vaunted attacking players were unable to put any real pressure on Dudek’s goal…I’m sure Liverpool’s supporters weren’t relishing the thought of extra time, but considering their team had just come back from 3-0 down to one of the best teams in the world I’m sure no one was complaining, either. In extra time, Liverpool seemed content to just sit back and absorb wave after wave of Milan pressure, which was just asking for trouble. Paul looked like he was about to vomit in his own mouth. Milan seemed permanently on the brink of snatching a winning goal, but Liverpool kept warding them off. Paul and I had started discussing who would be taking the spot kicks if and when the game went into penalties…and then Jerzy Dudek made The Saves. Fifty years from now, when people are still talking about the 2005 Champions League final, they’ll simply be referred to as The Saves. I’ve seen them replayed dozens of times since then and still have no idea how Dudek make the first one, let alone how he managed to parry a point-blank rebound from the world’s best striker over the bar. But he did, and Liverpool had survived again. Magical stuff.
On to penalties–and at this point, I was sure Liverpool were doomed. Yet there was Dudek doing his Bruce Grobelaar impersonation (reports that he was making bets on the side are still unconfirmed), coaxing Serginho to Beckham his kick high and wide before making a(n illegal as hell) save from Pirlo. Meanwhile, both Hamann and Cisse scored for Liverpool. Ian was pointing out how Dida kept on diving to his right…which he was doing without fail, and which I should add he did for every single one of Manchester United’s ten spot kicks when the teams met up at Giants Stadium for a preseason friendly last July (among the United scorers from the spot that afternoon: Phil Neville and Eric Djemba-Djemba). Still, after Tomasson had pulled one back for Milan, John Arne Riise went right back to Dida’s right hand side…and Dida saved, spectuacularly. Following this, Kaka wasn’t about to let his team down; with the score tied at 2-2, the aforementioned black sheep stepped up to the ball…and with the world watching he cooly slotted one to Dida’s left. 3-2 Liverpool now, and Shevchenko was striding up to the penalty spot. You’ve got to wonder if The Saves were playing in the back of his mind…because, I mean, World Players of the Year just don’t miss from two yards out, let alone on two consecutive shots. Shevchenko shot, Dudek saved and Liverpool were champions of Europe.
I still can’t fathom what happened–like, not at all. And the thing is, in terms of epic comebacks like this one I have no immediate points of comparison. Last year, me and fifty members of the Walkhome staff were at the Leafs/Senators game in Ottawa in which the Leafs went down 4-0 and then stormed back to win 5-4 in overtime…but a regular season NHL game is hardly the European Cup final. Last season’s Red Sox/Yankees series is a bit closer, I reckon, but even then, despite people’s continual insistence on Boston being underdogs, they still had the second highest payroll in Major League Baseball. So instead of trying to find an appropriate comparison, I’ll just call it like it was: one of the single greatest comebacks in the history of team sport. I know I tend to speak in superlatives, but in this case I don’t feel as though I’m exaggerating.
At one point–I can’t remember when exactly, but I feel as though it was in extra time–Paul asked me if “That Night in Istanbul” would supplant “That Night in Barcelona” in the footballing lexicon if Liverpool ended up winning. Earlier today, I scribbled off a brief, paragraph-long ode to the 1999 Champions League Final, in which Manchester United famously scored twice in second half injury time to swipe the title away from Bayern Munich. I made a point to declare that it remains equally as memorable today even in light of Liverpool’s heroics–which I knew would snake its way under Tim Jebb’s United-hating skin. Sure enough, upon arriving home from watching the Blue Jays sweep Tim’s favourite baseball team, the Red Sox, I found a looong missive from him awaiting me. Jebb, I love you like a brother…but at some point in our lives, you and I are going to come to blows in the name of professional sports. Until that happens, I feel the need to substantiate my earlier comments. For me, United’s infamous victory will forever rank as the most dramatic Champions League win I’ll ever witness, although I’ll be the first to admit that enormous personal bias is colouring my opinion. Quite simply, you can’t follow a team your entire life, watch it win one of the sport’s most coveted prizes in utterly thrilling fashion and not be deeply affected…well, unless your opinion of said team is utterly distorted by blind hatred. But that said, even when United were trailing 1-0 going into second half injury time, I had absolutely no doubt in my mind that they’d win–none. In case you don’t remember (or, as is more likely, you weren’t around to watch…by the way Tim, I’m clearly not addressing you in particular), that year’s Manchester United team had made a living on scoring late, improbable winners…including one, if I recall correctly, against Liverpool themselves. Still, scoring twice in the final two minutes to win the European Cup…well, you can’t find the words to express it. You just can’t.
…and that said, you can’t find the words to express what Liverpool did, either. No sane person would have bet on them coming back against A.C. Milan, even though they had forty-five minutes in which to score three goals. (If anything even vaguely colours Liverpool’s achievement, it’s that they had an entire half of football in which to make it…honestly, I’m clutching for straws at this point.) Even then, I’m still not sure I was ever fully convinced that they’d actually complete the comeback; it wasn’t until Dudek saved Shevchenko’s penalty that I thought to myself, “Hey, Liverpool might win this!” The point, I guess, is that I’m not taking anything away from Liverpool…but that said, I’m also not about to say that Sheringham and Solskjaer’s goals weren’t equally dramatic in their own right (and for the record, neither before nor since has a final been decided in such a manner). I don’t think you’ll find a single person who would argue otherwise…well, unless their opinion of Manchester United was horribly distorted by a deeply imbued bias verging on hatred (Tim, I am now very clearly addressing you in particular…honestly, if you’re not here this fall to watch NFL football with me I’m going to be bitterly disappointed).
But here’s the thing: both United and Liverpool were horribly outplayed for virtually the entire length of their respective finals, yet both managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. In both cases, sheer, bloody resilience triumped over natural superiority–and that, I think, is the reason that me, Tim, Ian, Paul and the rest of the footballing world will still be talking about these championship games fifty years from now. On paper, Liverpool shouldn’t even have been allowed on the same pitch as A.C. Milan; the fact that they walked out of the stadium with the European Cup is a testament to their will, their determination…and grace, too (*rimshot*). Gratuitous Tragically Hip references aside, last night’s game was something magical to behold. Let it be known that I hate Liverpool F.C. Hate, hate, hate, hate Liverpool F.C. Hate them. Yet today, twenty-four hours after their amazing triumph, I can’t help but admire them. To quote Sir Alex Ferguson: “Football…bloody hell.”