May 22, 2007

Seeing Red: Robo-Crouch and Liverpool look to relive ’05 triumph

The two best moments of my life so far have come as a supporter of the Liverpool Football Club. May 25, 2005 remains branded in my mind as one of those days wherein the tedious weekend ritual of waking up at ungodly hours to watch league matches finally pays off in a highly cathartic, Fever Pitch kind of way.

Two years ago, I sat with my heart in my throat as Liverpool staged a three-goal comeback at the Ataturk Stadium in Instanbul and eventually beat AC Milan in a penalty shoot-out. Even for armchair fans, the game went beyond the clichéd narratives of miracles and destiny, instantly securing mythical status in the tome of European soccer competition. While the singularity of this success stands out as a defining moment in the maturation of Liverpool in modern times, it will remain a remarkable footnote unless the team can repeat its accomplishment, erasing all doubts over the 2005 victory and reasserting itself as a team to be feared.

The second instance was the night of February 21, 2007, when I was in the stands for Barcelona vs. Liverpool at the Nou Camp in Barcelona. The first time I saw my favorite team play in person ended up being one of its most glorious European nights to date. That’s saying something, given the Club’s rich history in the Champions League.

While February 21 is more of a personal milestone, no fan can deny the importance of May 25. Two years later, Liverpool is poised to repeat the same feat against the same foe. I couldn’t be happier, but the pragmatist in me knows it won’t be the same this time around.

There is a certain tinge of wishful thinking to most of the articles that have been written about this year’s Champions League final, but those who see Wednesday’s rematch as a revenge storyline for AC Milan are missing the point. This match should be emotional and riveting but vastly different from the dramatic spectacle of 2005. Don’t expect another 3–3 result. The trick for both teams is to shake off the hysteria surrounding this rematch and simply play the beautiful game.

Both teams have their crosses, as well as their grudges, to bear. Milan, implicated in last summer’s corruption scandal, wasn’t even supposed to be eligible for the competition but narrowly escaped the wrath of justice. They struggled to advance past the Round of 16, but their two semifinal matches against English champions Manchester United were enviable displays of free-flowing soccer.

Liverpool, long criticized for its disciplined—and overly conservative, some would say—approach to the game, advanced easily from its group but had to overcome goliaths Barcelona and Chelsea to reach the final. Neither team, to be fair, is a champion in its own country, with Milan occupying fourth place in Serie A and Liverpool finishing third in the Premiership.

In 2005, fans and critics alike expected a closely contested game between two of the best defensive teams in Europe. But on a stage like the Champions League final, teams can never be expected to uphold the standards they set on a weekly basis. (Those of you unlucky enough to sit through the dreadful FA Cup final between Manchester United and Chelsea last Saturday know this firsthand.)

The expectation this year is that Milan will exact revenge. The attacking genius of Kaka, anchored by the unorthodox but extremely effective midfield duo of Rino Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo, is expected to cut through every defense it meets—never mind that the team had a depressingly low-scoring season. Liverpool’s defense, one of its proudest attributes, will be a much more difficult armor to pierce than that of Manchester United, which was depleted through injuries and suspensions.

How Liverpool’s defense deals with a depleted yet tricky Milan attack will be fun to watch, but the midfield power struggle will be the key to winning the game. Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez has an embarrassing wealth of choices for the central midfield position. Either Momo Sissoko or Javier Mascherano will be required to nip at the heels of Kaka; Mascherano is perhaps the better selection, having successfully quarantined the Brazilian several times while playing for the Argentinean national team. If Liverpool can contain the menace of Kaka and prevent Pirlo from showcasing his vast range of passing, it will effectively shut down the creative center of the Milan team.

Captain Steven Gerrard will square off with his tactical antithesis and mutual antagonist Gattuso. If Gerrard is afforded ample room to operate in central midfield, he can surpass Gattuso both physically and mentally and control the entire flow of the game. On this occasion, Benítez needs to unleash him instead of restricting him to a role on the right wing.

Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti issued fighting words recently, labeling Liverpool the “least technically gifted” of the English teams in the competition and criticizing a perceived lack of English identity. Ironically, Benítez is a former pupil of Ancelotti, making the clash of managing styles even more intriguing. In 2005, Benítez’s squad wasn’t equipped to handle Milan’s midfield pressure, his 4–4–1–1 wrecked by a couple of untimely injuries; at halftime, he switched to a radical 3–5–2 formation. The tactical showdown between the managers will be a highlight of the 2007 final, no matter what the outcome.

The biggest caveat of this rematch is that both teams are wary of each other. The comments made by the managers and players over the past three weeks are nothing more than jabs and feints in a boxing match, resulting in the cagey sensation of two foes circling around each other, trying to probe out the weak spots. The real brawl will begin at 1:45 p.m. tomorrow, and for the sake of my emotional health, I hope Liverpool prevails in a less stressful manner than in 2005.