Euro soccer prepares for a historic night

Two years ago Liverpool and AC Milan produced one of European soccer’s greatest matches when they fought out a 3-3 draw in the Champions League final in Istanbul before the English side won on penalties. If today’s final at the Olympic Stadium between the same teams comes close to that dream night across the Aegean, then Athens will have witnessed a true piece of soccer history. There have been several changes to the personnel of both teams, but the underlying factors that provided soccer fans across the world with such entertainment in 2005 are still present – AC Milan’s skill and experience against Liverpool’s energy and determination. The Italians, who are slight favorites to lift the trophy, will rely on their old guard, which will include, if passed fit, veteran defender Paolo Maldini, Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf and experienced center-back Alessandro Nesta. Maldini’s desire epitomizes the qualities that have carried Milan to its 11th European Cup final. «It is incredible. It is unbelievable to play games like this at the age of 38,» Maldini said last week. Maldini, who recently played in his 600th Serie A match, made his debut for Milan in 1985 but said that he intends to carry on playing for another season after today’s final. He has won four European Cups with Milan and will equal Real Madrid’s Francisco Gento record of eight European final appearances if he plays. Another experienced campaigner who is still hungry for success is Clarence Seedorf – the only player to win the Champions League with three different clubs. «It is important every year to try to improve, for myself, because otherwise I don’t see why I should be still playing at this level,» Seedorf told Reuters. «That makes it joyful for me to be part of a system where you are obliged to win.» But Milan will only win the game if their younger generation, including Brazilian star Kaka and midfield battler Gennaro Gattuso are able to shine. Kaka, whose full name is Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, is the Champions League top scorer with 10 goals and is touted by many experts as the world’s best player at the moment. «I want to write my name in AC Milan’s history,» said the 25-year-old who was part of the losing 2005 team. «It’s been my ambition since I arrived here. I want to be remembered alongside all those players who have made this club great.» Perhaps it is apt for Kaka, who is a devout evangelical Christian, to be regarded as his team’s savior but the quiet Brazilian is modest enough to realize that he cannot win the trophy single-handedly. «My teammates have great faith in me and I consider that an honor,» he said. «But I always say that one player alone cannot win a match, everyone is important.» More than any other Milan player, the tough-tackling Gattuso has expressed in the runup to today’s final how desperate he is to win to erase the bitter memories of 2005, when Milan threw away a 3-0 halftime lead. «It was something strange and it is hard to forget that night,» said the 29-year-old Calabrian, whose side let in three goals in a six-minute Liverpool spell that heralded one of the most amazing comebacks ever seen in European soccer. «It will stay in my memory forever and still hurts me thinking about it,» said Gattuso. «But the thoughts and feelings of what happened then can stimulate us. I believe it has given us strength and can motivate us even more.» Milan’s coach Carlo Ancelotti, who led the side to the 2005 final, will also find it difficult to escape from the ghosts of the past. He was a player on the AS Roma side that lost the European Cup final on penalties to Liverpool in 1984. «Let’s hope this time the story has a happy ending,» he said. «There is little to choose between the two teams, but we are in better shape coming into the final than we were two years ago.» In fact, Milan has benefited from being out of contention in the Italian league, as it has allowed Milan to rest older players and concentrate on their European games. With one game to go, it is 33 points behind city rivals Inter. AC Milan was docked points at the start of the season after being found guilty of involvement in a domestic match-fixing scandal that also threatened its place in this year’s Champions League. If Milan wants to grab this second chance, then it has one of the most suitable coaches at the helm. Ancelotti is one of only five men to win the European Cup as both a player and a coach. He was in Milan’s winning sides of 1989 and 1990 and was coach when it beat Juventus on penalties in 2003. Standing in Ancelotti’s way will be Liverpool’s Spanish manager Rafa Benitez, who has transformed the English side since taking over in 2004. The former Valencia coach has injected a Latin flavor to his side with an abundance of signings from Spain and South America. This has prompted criticism from some fans, especially as Liverpool have yet to mount a consistent challenge for the English Premiership, but Benitez has brought home a Champion’s League trophy and an FA Cup in the meantime. The Spaniard knows that Liverpool will need to be at the peak of their game to beat a Milan side that produced probably the most impressive performance in the Champions League this season when they put out another English side, Manchester United, in the semifinal. «In this final, I would like to see the perfect team,» Benitez said. «The perfect team must be proactive. Sometimes you need to react, but if you want to have the perfect team you need to train the team and the players to be proactive.» The 47-year-old would certainly not want to see his side give away a three-goal lead to Milan again, as they did two years ago. «We will try not to let that happen again and perform the plan as we want to,» said one of Benitez’s Spanish signings, midfielder Xabi Alonso. «It’s not often you see a final like that. The first 35 minutes was not great and we can’t let them score as early as they did and we can’t make big mistakes. But that’s the past and now we have to look to the future.» On that night in Istanbul, Liverpool relied on the leadership of their captain Steven Gerrard to claw their way back into the game. If the Reds are to repeat the feat, Gerrard will be a key player. «Steve Gerrard, Gerrard can pass it from 40 yards,» the Liverpool faithful like to sing. The truth is that apart from being an accurate passer, Gerrard can also run, tackle, shoot and head the ball with equal skill. He is the ultimate all-around soccer player and his midfield battle with Gattuso will be decisive to the outcome of the game. An intense rivalry has developed between the two players over the last two years, with Gerrard accusing the Italian of smirking as he left the pitch at halftime in Istanbul. But going into today’s final, Gerrard has tried to ease the tension. «I’m not preparing to play against Gattuso. I’m preparing to play against AC Milan,» he said. «He’s a fantastic player with lots of experience. But I’m not going into this game worrying about Gattuso. I’m worried about AC Milan and how Steven Gerrard’s going to play. If I can get myself right, we’ll see if Gattuso can stop me.» Gerrard has rejected approaches from other teams to stay at the club he has supported since he was a boy. He represents the link between this team and those of the 70s and 80s that dominated European and English soccer. The 26-year-old wants to claim his place among the heroes of his childhood. «It’s a magnificent achievement to get to two finals in three years,» Gerrard said. «But we as players don’t want to come back from Athens upset and with regrets that we haven’t brought this cup home. We want to make history. We want to be heroes and come home winners.» Lifting a second European Cup in three seasons would certainly guarantee this generation of Liverpool players legendary status. Perhaps there is no more fitting place for them to carve their name in history than Athens, a city which has seen plenty of heroes in its time. [email protected]