May 29, 2005

UEFA Champions League Final - A tribute to Liverpool

I know that it has been some time since my last posting. (Well, actually only a couple of months, but in Internet time, that is an eternity). Anyway, I had been really busy with my final exams and took some more time to cool off. Hopefully, I will be able to write more frequently from now on.

A tribute to Liverpool

Last night was truly unforgettable. The European Champions League Final between Liverpool FC (England) and AC Milan (Italy) was one of the best soccer matches that I have watched in a long time. Since my favourite team this season, Chelsea, had already been beaten in the semi-finals by Liverpool, I was even more keen to watch Milan win the match.

The match had hardly begun before the Milan skipper Maldini netted the first goal, plunging the Liverpool team, and of course, the fans, into a state of disbelief and confusion. The remainder of the first half witnessed a committed Milan attack flowing into Liverpool bastions, wave after wave. Some incredible play by Kaka' and clean finish by Crespo. It was only inevitable that a couple more goals landed in Liverpool nets. Halftime score: 3-0 Milan. It seemed that the second-half of the Champions League final will be a mere formality, with all possiblities of even a worse scoreline for Liverpool in prospects. Liverpool was dead and buried, or so we all thought.

It is said that great champions come out with their best in times of adversity, when all hope is gone and you are doomed to fail. I don't know what their manager said to the team during the half-time team-talks, but as one commentator rightly put it, it would have been nothing short of 'Churchillian.' To say that when the Reds walked out to face their opponents in the second half, the task facing them was Herculean would be a massive understatement.

I had always liked Steven Gerrard for the great player he is - persistent, tenacious and never willing to give up, never. Skippers are supposed to set the pace for their teams; to lead by example. And that is exactly this hardened English international did for his team. A sidelong glancing header from Gerrard of a long ball from Riise landed in the back of the Milan post. Score : 3-1 Milan

The seemingly invincible Milan defence was not so invincible after all. Little did the players or the millions of spectators worldwide realise that this was the beginning of a fightback. Milan side was exposed, but not definitely disturbed. After all, they still had a 2-goal buffer.

Only a couple of minutes had passed that Smicer, who had been brought in to replace Harry Kewell, found himself with the ball a few yards from the box. There were no defenders to put pressure on him and he let go off the ball in a blazing shot. Dida, the Milan goal-keeper, was found wanting as the ball managed to fly past across him into the back of the net. Liverpool strikes again.Score : 3-2 Milan

Liverpool, it seemed, had found their rhythm and started keeping more of the ball possession for themselves, steadily gaining in confidence and control of the game that had been away from them only a few minutes earlier. The renewed confidence transformed their attack plans and they had started asking more questions of Milan defence.

The Liverpool skipper, Gerrard, once again managed to get the ball near the box and he was fouled by Gattuso in the box, and the referee promptly awarded Liverpool a penalty kick. Xabi Alonso stepped in to take the kick and managed to get his kick blocked by Dida, but his quick reflexes caught the ball on the rebound and this time he didn't make any mistakes. Liverpool equalises. Score 3-3

In a span of just 6 minutes, starting from Gerrard's goal to the penalty kick by Alonso, Liverpool was back in the game, and the Milan team and their fans were dumbfounded, indeed, shell-shocked. It was not really complacency from the Milan side; it was more of tough, gritty, committed football from Liverpool and they deserve all the credit for getting back into the game.

And when full-time play and extra-time failed to break the deadlock, the game moved into that heart-breaking ritual, the penalty shootout. Personally, I am very much against this ghastly routine. It is not football skills they are testing, it is just tough nerves and some good old luck that you need to get through this. But since there is no other alternative than play for a tie-breaking goal in open play (the so-called golden goal), which could take anywhere from 20 seconds to all eternity, you just have to accept it for what it is - a necessary evil. The one, and the only flaw that you can point out in this graceful and beautiful game ever created.

It seemed that Lady Luck had quarrelled with Milan after the half-time and was squarely on Liverpool's side, as they won the shootout. I won't describe the shootout myself, as I thoroughly despise the heart-break and the crushing emotions associated with it. But I do admit that it was Liverpool's night all right. They showed that there is nothing like 'unbeatable odds' and 'hopeless situations' in front of persistence, commitment and hard-headed optimism. As the saying goes, 'it ain't over till it ain't over.' You are never defeated till you give up.

Liverpool are the new European champions. And they truly deserve this victory. Hats off!