Inzaghi the unlikely hero

May, 23, 2007
If one believes in irony, then AC Milan's victory over Liverpool in the Champions League final Wednesday in Athens was certainly a shining example of that. Despite being outplayed for the majority of the game, Milan somehow emerged as winners and finally killed traumatic memories of the Istanbul final of two years ago, which they lost to Liverpool despite being the better team that day.

Liverpool can rightly argue that they were hard done by the result, just as Milan could two years ago, but for once, you could probably argue that Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez made a couple of strategic errors with his substitutions and lineup.

The final itself was a dour affair as I expected, with most of the action centering in the middle of the park, where the Liverpool midfielders Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano were dominant all game long. It was an unremarkable performance for the most part for the Serie A side, and I suspect one would be hard pushed to name a true standout for Milan, other than Massimo Ambrosini and even that might be a stretch. Here's what I took away from the game:

1. The unlikeliest of heroes for Milan. Pippo Inzaghi showed why he's one of the most perplexing and infuriating strikers in the world, equal parts good and equal parts terrible. For most of the game he was invisible, providing next to no presence up front, save for three memorable moments, two of which resulted in goals. The first goal by Inzaghi, just before half time, came when he diverted an Andrea Pirlo free kick and was amazingly allowed to stand by the officials despite blatantly deflecting in off Inzaghi's left shoulder/arm. Clearly handball and it should have been disqualified. Late in the game with Milan still only up 1-0, the ball fell to Inzaghi in the six-yard box but in classic Inzaghi fashion, he made a complete mess of it and allowed the ball to pass through his legs. Just while we were wondering if that would prove costly, Inzaghi then completed a bizarre night by adding his second with a classy finish following a sublime pass from Kaká.

2. Kaká. Much of the talk centered on how the Brazilian would need to produce something special for Milan to win and he did, albeit late in the game. His through ball to Inzaghi showed tremendous vision and redeemed his otherwise subpar performance, where he had spent most of the night being effectively shackled by Daniel Agger and Javier Mascherano. He also won the all-important free kick from which Milan scored its first goal, but that was due more to Xabi Alonso's clumsy challenge than anything else. Most telling was the fact that his one moment of brilliance came with Mascherano off the pitch, having been subbed as Liverpool tried to make its final push.

3. Benitez's lineup choices. For once, Liverpool's master tactician Benitez got it wrong. For some undeterminable reason he decided to start Bolo Zenden on the left wing. Zenden's garbage even when he's 100 percent fit and the decision to start a less-than-fully fit Zenden will haunt Liverpool fans for a while yet. Adding to the problem, Benitez persisted with him into the second half even after Zenden played a first half which could best be described as about as effective as a Lindsay Lohan rehab stint.

4. Peter Crouch. I believe the original formation that Benitez put out minus Crouch and with only one pure striker was still the correct one. Liverpool bossed the midfield all game long, created the better chances and barely let Milan get a sniff on goal. However, with the team chasing a 1-0 deficit, Benitez waited far too long to get Crouch on the field, inexplicably bringing him on with only 12 minutes left in the game. To compound the problem, Benitez opted to pull Mascherano from his holding role for Crouch, instead of subbing Jermaine Pennant and moving Steven Gerrard to the right. With Mascherano no longer shadowing him, Kaká was finally able to roam free to provide the killer touch.

5. Liverpool's inability to exploit Marek Jankulovski. If there was a worse player on the field than Zenden, it would have been the Milan left back Jankulovski, who seemed to spend the entire first half trying to help Jermaine Pennant look world-class (sadly, he's not). Between being caught upfield and out of position or simply giving the ball away to Pennant, Jankulovski's errors should have been punished and the failure to do so cost Liverpool heavily. I'd argue that Pennant wasn't particularly good in the first half, he actually just benefited from Jankulovski's complete ineptness. In the second half with Jankulovski clearly operating under strict stay-at-home orders from Milan coach Ancelotti, Pennant reverted to the usual non-factor that he is, and should have been subbed for Crouch.

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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