Champions League final redo

May, 21, 2007
So, this Wednesday most of Europe will be tuned in to watch the Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan in Athens (2.30 p.m. ET, ESPN2). The game is of course a rematch of the classic 2005 Istanbul final, where Liverpool produced one of the greatest-ever comebacks in European club soccer and overcame a 3-0 halftime deficit to beat a stunned Milan team in a penalty shootout.

It has already been billed and stereotyped as a "beauty and the beast" affair, with the flowing, 'pretty' technical soccer of Milan, headed by Brazilian Kaká, providing a stark comparison to the rigid, defensive long-ball game of Liverpool, equated to "[Expletive] hanging on a stick" by former Real Madrid technical director Jorge Valdano recently.

Milan head into the game as favorites, with Sir Alex Ferguson recently stating that there is "no way" Liverpool can win this game. I beg to differ, for despite Milan's undoubted creative flair and technical superiority, there are several factors that ride in Liverpool's favor:

1. For a start, this Milan team is inferior offensively and defensively to the '05 version. With no Andriy Shevchenko or Hernan Crespo, Milan lacks bite up front, relying on the long past-his-prime Filippo Inzaghi, who simply doesn't offer the threat that Shevchenko, Crespo or the ineligible Ronaldo does. If anything, this version of Milan is even more dependent on Kaká and Andrea Pirlo than ever before. The Milan defense, without Jaap Stam, lacks the same type of physical presence it used to have.

2. Just as Milan is weaker, this Liverpool team is far stronger than the one that lifted the trophy in 2005. The '05 Liverpool lineup might actually have been the least talented lineup ever to lift the Champions League trophy. Considering the Reds actually started comedy goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek (one night of penalty heroics doesn't attone for a career's worth of heinous mistakes), the inept Djimi Traore (possibly the worst defender ever to wear the Liverpool jersey) and the equally incompetent Czech pair of Vlad Smicer and Milan Baros, both of whom subscribe to the theory of giving "100 percent for their country and 10 percent for their club team" -- it's a miracle that Liverpool even made the final let alone won it.

3. Apparently, Sir Alex Ferguson is still at a loss as to why Man United lost to Milan in the semifinal. I'm not sure what the issue is since it's pretty obvious what the problem was. Ferguson decided not to opt for a man-marker on Kaká and let the Brazilian run free and rampant all game long. Liverpool made the same mistake in the first half of the '05 final where Kaká was devastating -- a mistake Rafa Benitez rectified in the second half by putting Didi Hamann on him. Hamann's not around anymore but Javier Mascherano and/or Momo Sissoko should be up the task. Granted, it's almost impossible to shut Kaká down completely these days but at least Liverpool will attempt to make life difficult for him.

4. Liverpool's predominant and obvious strength is up the middle, both in central midfield where Benitez can play any combo or all of Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano, Steven Gerrard or Momo Sissoko and at center back with Jamie Carragher and Daniel Agger. The flanks are where Liverpool are vulnerable, which is why a matchup against Man U and the wing duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Ryan Giggs would not have been ideal. However, Milan lacks the ability to expose Liverpool down the flanks. Cafu has lost a step and is no longer starting, depriving Milan of a marauding presence down the right. With most of Milan's offense being funneled through the middle with Kaka, Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf, it's hard to see them successfully attacking Liverpool there.

5. Assuming Sissko recovers fully from an injury picked up last week, I predict Benitez will come out in a defensive formation and five-man midfield designed to negate Milan's midfield creativity, and with Bolo Zenden's injury (some Liverpool fans would say a fortuitous occurence), he'll gamble on the oft-injured Harry "I play only once a year and only in big games or tournaments" Kewell. He'll opt for a lone striker in Dirk Kuyt and give Steven Gerrard free license to roam the field. This is the lineup I think Benitz opts for:

GK: Reina

D: Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Riise

M: Mascherano, Alonso, Sissoko, Kewell

AM: Gerrard

F: Kuyt

It could well turn out to be a dour final with minimal action in the box -- but I think Liverpool has a chance to sneak this one 1-0, provided Mascherano and company can shackle Kaká.

Jen Chang is the U.S. Soccer editor for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes regularly and is a contributer to Soccernet podcasts. He joined ESPN Studio Production in 2004 and earned a Sports Emmy award, before making the move to in 2005.



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