On this day 13 years ago, Liverpool faced Milan in the Champions League final. The Reds lost out, but a win there may have made what came after more palatable for our greatest-ever captain, writes Timothy Ellis.
On the sixth anniversary of that slip against Chelsea, peddled as The Moment™ that cost Liverpool the Premier League title, Steven Gerrard admitted the thoughts are still there: “This wound has been open since that experience,” he said.
“I’m not sure it will close because I can’t change that experience.”
‘If onlys’ can turn into painful soliloquies that twist and turn the soul inside out until there is no wriggle room left. Emily Bronte was probably not thinking about football when she wrote: “Thoughts are tyrants that return again and again to torment us.”
However, it seems to suit the furrowed brow of Gerrard as well as anyone. 2014 will always be painful in its graphic imagery of the lost opportunity.
How different the CV of the ‘greatest player never to win the league’ might be had he reclaimed another of the cherished prizes in club football.
2007 was the year in which Stevie G was ready to kick on big-time with big silverware.
In the previous two years, he had enhanced his superhero status in Istanbul and Cardiff with the leading parts in those mind-bending 3-3 mini-series.
Liverpool had hardly been in Premier League contention in 2006/7, losing a whopping nine away matches to finish third on 68 points, 21 behind eventual winners Man United. Still, Rafa Benitez had the potential emollient of a second European crown within three years. The Reds had the European “‘eritage,” as Jose Mourinho might say.
To have another Old Big Ears would surely, albeit retrospectively, have reduced the midfielder’s long-term angst over the paucity of league titles.
As Jamie Carragher recently admitted: “I know Liverpool are desperate for a league title, especially with the circumstances right now, but I always think that the European Cup is bigger than the league.”
Revisionism is always something that can demur from achievement. In the fallout from that Turkish delight 15 years ago, everyone knew who the better team was. Athens 2007 was going to be a validation that Liverpool were a proper team now.
In the rematch at the Greek capital, the Anfield club were favourites against Carlo Ancelotti’s side. This was the chance for the Reds to re-stamp their growing authority as Continental conquistadors.
Adjustments and angst in Athens
After all, Milan were fielding the oldest starting 11 ever in a Champions League final, with the average age at 31 years, 34 days. Paolo Maldini was in his 40th year and soon to retire.
In contrast, a solid Red spine was moulded in the operating theatre, with only five of the Istanbul heroes surviving the surgical knife. Djimi Traore was nowhere to be seen.
Gerrard was in unusually combative mood pre-match, looking forward to renewing his battle with Gennaro Gattuso in the midfield cauldron of the Olympic Stadium. It was The Dog of War who had infamously brought down Liverpool’s No. 8 to complete “Mission Impossible” as Clive Tyldesley screamed in 2005.
“I am not going into this game worried about Gattuso. My main focus is to get myself right. But if I can do that, we will see if Gattuso can stop me.” Gerrard was stoked by the Italian’s mention that the opposition were a long-ball team. Jorge Valdano had been even more brutal, suggesting the Chelsea and Liverpool semi was “shit on a stick” fare.
It was a promising first-half for the Reds with no end product. Meanwhile, 33-year-old Pippo Inzaghi, a man born offside according to Fergie, sneaked a goal just before the break, deflecting Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick past a wrong-footed Pepe Reina.
Much of what Liverpool did that night was tactically spot on. They looked solid in stifling the prolific Kaka in the middle of the park with Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano. Jermaine Pennant pinged in crosses. It was good soft shoe shuffling along the deck, but without a joker in the pack.
After 62 minutes, Gerrard’s moment came. It was hitman “Rino” who passed the ball carelessly away and gave the captain a run-in on the left-hand side of the box past Alessandro Nesta.
Everything looked set up for a net bulge. “Only one thing hammered through my mind: don’t waste the opportunity. Few chances had come to us, so I didn’t want to shoot with my left foot and regret it. I must use my right, my stronger foot.”
Liverpool’s skipper was too deliberate with a finish that Dida dropped down to save to his left with relative ease. The adjustment to open the body for the right hook impacted on the quality of the hit. What had been instinctive with that stunning strike against Olympiakos in 2004 became mechanical and mistimed at the big moment.
The deflation was palpable.
When Inzaghi scored the second with eight minutes left, the game was dead even though a hustling Dirk Kuyt pulled a goal back just before the end.
Truth to be told, the Rangers boss is haunted by that final too, perhaps not on the same level as that freeze-frame moment with Demba Ba, but in the sense that European nights were Liverpool’s patch.
This time, the question marks were over the greatest tactical coach he played under: “The team selection wasn’t right that night. In my opinion, there wasn’t enough pace in the line-up to hurt Milan.”
After Fernando Torres was recruited from Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2007 under the doomed ownership of Hicks and Gillett, Liverpool had the kind of spearhead that would pay dividends in tight games. It told.
The ‘liberation’ resulted in a title chase in 2008/09. They outscored United, the eventual champions, by nine goals.
As for Gerrard, when Liverpool outclassed Real Madrid in the last 16 of the competition in 2009—their last visit to the big European stage for five years—Zinedine Zidane declared him the best player in the world.
Which makes Liverpool’s return of one European trophy in that glorious four-year period all the starker.
The pangs of regret haunted him: “The reason why the Champions League final of 2007 grates with me is because it was a missed opportunity. The sort I may not ever get again in my career.”
He was right.