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Liverpool Looks to Find Glory Again

Friday, 05.18.2007 / 12:00 AM / News
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Liverpool Looks to Find Glory Again
By Steve Davis

It was one of "those" moments. Every Liverpool supporter knows precisely where he was during that remarkable triumph on May 25, 2005.

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Liverpool claimed one of global soccer's most coveted trophies that night, a fabled evening witnessed by a global TV audience, but studied with particular passion in the Northwest England port city famed for its soccer team and for birthing the Beatles.

For the legions of diehard Liverpool fans, that contest in Istanbul, Turkey, stands monumental, even for one of the most storied clubs in Europe, one with more than 100 years of memorable moments.

So every supporter of the Reds remembers (fondly, of course) their whereabouts as Liverpool captured European glory in stunning fashion, overcoming a 3-0 halftime deficit with an implausible second-half comeback. They evened the match at 3-3, and then prevailed over Italy's similarly famed A.C. Milan in a penalty kick tiebreaker.

Liverpool, the club now owned by Stars and Rangers owner Tom Hicks, faces the very same opponent Wednesday in the 2007 Champions League final. This year's championship match, set for Wednesday in Athens, will be shown live at American Airlines Center on a 1,500-square foot HD screen.

American Airlines Center, of course, is home to Hicks' hockey club, the Dallas Stars. But it's an ocean away from Europe, where stories on the run-up to Wednesday's match will be splashed all over the daily sports newspapers that are so prominent in the Old World.

Even if the event registers as only a blip on the U.S. sports radar, this is annually one of the most celebrated dates on the global sports calendar. The Champions League, featuring the 32 top European clubs -- the likes of Spain's Real Madrid, Germany's Bayern Munich, England's Manchester United, to name a few -- is the most competitive, most lucrative and most high-profile club competition in worldwide soccer.

Liverpool stands to earn some $50 million from its participation this season. (The final prize money depends on TV revenue and gate receipt distributions, which have yet to be calculated.)

The Champions League competition runs concurrently with the teams' domestic league title chases back in their own land. Teams begin Champions League group play in September, move through the season and then culminate the later, elimination rounds in May.

It's an odd concept to most U.S. sports fans. Here, teams typically compete for one big prize. They may celebrate a division or conference championship, but every organization is driving toward the same ultimate goal.

European soccer operates differently, with various prizes within reach annually. Liverpool, for instance, competes each season in the English Premier League, one of the world's top associations. Glory lands on team that finishes atop the venerable EPL after 36 matches of double round-robin competition. It's among the most highly sought domestic crowns.

Teams in England also compete for the F.A. Cup, which is a separate competition but involves many of the same clubs. Something akin to golf's U.S. Open, this is an all comers tournament, with amateur and lower-tier professional sides eligible to qualify for their chance to slay the big boys. The final for this single elimination tournament (a "knockout" tournament in English soccer parlance), which annually features story-book upsets, is held annually at famed Wembley Stadium.

The F.A. Cup matches are staged concurrently alongside the league competition.

All the while, the best teams are also waging battle in intercontinental competition. So teams in England are scrapping with the best clubs from Italy, Germany, Spain, etc., adding a nationalistic spin to the endeavor.

The Champions League is the biggie of the continental tournaments. (There is one other European competition, the UEFA Cup, which is to European soccer what the N.I.T. is to American collegiate basketball.)

So teams such as Liverpool scratch and claw to qualify for one of these continental tournaments. England, because it has such a strong league, places its top six teams into the following year's Champions League competition. The top four clubs (the teams collecting the most points for the year) qualify automatically. Teams that finish fifth and sixth must participate in play-in matches.

That's one of the reasons soccer fans in other lands continue to follow the domestic tables (the "standings", as we say it), even if their club is hopelessly out of the race for the top spot. Teams battle for one of those coveted top six spots in England, because it means potential riches, not just in acclaim, but in financial compensation, in the next year's Champions League.

Liverpool, for instance, kept pushing hard toward the season's stretch run, even though catching eventual champion Manchester United seemed out of reach. But by keeping the pace until the end, the Reds secured third place and are thusly ensured a spot in next year's Champions League tournament.

Winning the Champions League means thousands in prize money. But it's the glory attached that matters.

So what happened that night two years ago in Istanbul? How did the highly improbable comeback against the Italian powerhouse play out?

First, a brief and relevant history lesson about European soccer: The Italians are the architects of modern defense. They practically invented, then refined the art of team attack busting. Generally speaking, an Italian team is an absolute nightmare to face when provided a one- or two-goal lead. Three goals? May as well switch over to BBC news.

Imagine baseball's best closer of the moment handed the ball with a five-run lead in the ninth. Yes, a comeback is always possible -- but it's remarkably unlikely.

In this case, Milan's back line included the incomparable Paolo Maldini, the best defender every produced by a nation that specializes in them. So that was the scene as Liverpool fell under the weight of the championship game in 2005. The Reds surrendered three goals before intermission, and all hope seemed lost.

Team captain Steven Gerrard, then and now one of England's top players, delivered what appeared to be a consolation pride-saver when he headed in John Arne Riise's cross at the 53-minute mark. A few minutes later, Vladimir Smicer's 25-yard shot found its way past Milan's goalkeeper and suddenly hope prevailed.

Liverpool supporters, gutted and desolate only minutes earlier, rose in stunned and delirious joy when Milan midfielder Gennaro Gattuso dragged down Gerrard inside the penalty area. The resulting penalty kick would turn into the tying goal -- and history had been made.

Three goals in 15 minutes -- surely the most spectacular quarter hour in Liverpool's amazing history. Few teams can match Liverpool's list of accomplishments, which includes 18 league championships, seven F.A. Cup titles, those five European championships and three titles in the UEFA Cup.

Liverpool and Milan went scoreless for the remainder of the match and through the 30-minute overtime. Liverpool then grabbed the trophy in a stirring penalty kick shootout, prevailing in the tiebreaker 3-2.

So, what will come from this night in Athens (which, of course, will be in the middle of the afternoon in the United States)? Milan president Silvio Berlusconi spelled it out quite clearly for the English newspaper The Guardian: "We owe it to our supporters to exorcise the loss against Liverpool two years ago," Berlusconi said. "We have to erase that terrible night."

 

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