It’s just over two weeks until the Champions League Final in Kiev and many pundits have been weighing up Liverpool’s chances against the all powerful Real Madrid. The Spanish giants are aiming for a third straight title and a fourth win in five seasons. This fact alone makes Liverpool’s task all the more daunting. However, Real are by no means the first intimidating finalists Liverpool have been tasked with facing in this competition. It’s interesting, as they once again go in as the underdogs, to compare this Real team to the glitzy AC Milan side they triumphed over as massive underdogs thirteen years ago.
Jamie Carragher rightfully revered the opponents Liverpool faced at the Ataturk Stadium on 25th May 2005 in his autobiography. Taken from the purely simplistic argument, one to eleven they weren’t just better than Liverpool; they were in a different league.
A team littered with great players fielded the evergreen Paulo Maldini for his sixth European Cup final, alongside a back four which consisted of Cafu, Jaap Stam and Nesta. In front of this defensive rearguard were Andrea Pirlo, Kaka, Shevchenko, Crespo, Gatusso, and Seedorf. If you were picking a world XI at that point in time, you wouldn’t go far wrong with that entire midfield and attacking contingent.
Milan looked tailor made for success and played football with a style of sophistication worthy of some of the great I Rossoneri sides down the years. Kaka was in his prime and operated in a midfield paring with Pirlo which would have given Iniesta and Xavi a run for their money.
That first half display in Istanbul was a truly bruising and humbling affair. Liverpool’s back four was sliced open at will and at one point it looked as though it might get truly embarrassing. Masterminded by Carlo Ancelotti, AC were breezing past the Reds in silky smooth attacking waves that left Benitez’s men reeling.
Milan’s mental weakness
Liverpool fans should still thank their lucky stars for Steven Gerrard’s gallantry that night — his heroics were the seeds of AC Milan’s downfall. Legends will forever be spun about Milan partying at halftime, believing they had it in the bag. This is a detail strenuously denied by their camp, but it is fair to say that Liverpool’s fighting spirit in that second half flurry did something to their psyche.
Most sides would be terrified of losing by five or six, but Liverpool, inspired by Gerrard approaching his ferocious and powerful best, came at them and AC somehow collapsed. Perhaps overconfidence was their undoing, we will never know, but football is a strange game. Momentum can switch in a second, and your team must be mentally strong. By the time the final whistle went and extra time beckoned, the AC Milan players looked shell-shocked, their slickness had disappeared and Liverpool had levelled the playing field against a vastly superior side.
Madrid has something Milan did not
If we’re talking about personnel on paper, this Real Madrid team aren’t anywhere near the quality of that AC Milan side. When all are fit and firing, Bale, Ronaldo, Benzema, Isco et al are a truly world class unit, with Ronaldo still showing the same hunger and quality at thirty-three, which have made him one of the true sporting greats of his generation.
Recently, however, they have not all been fit and firing. Los Blancos remain third in the league with goals-against tally of forty-two. Adding to their woes; Ronaldo has caused a panic with an injury niggle picked up in El Clasico. It is odd then, that despite all of this, they still present, a greater threat to Liverpool than that Milan side of 2005.
As we saw in their semi-final victory over Bayern, this is a team that simply knows how to win The Champions League. The aforementioned players, plus the likes of Marcelo and Ramos have all come through a glorious sequence of success in the Champions League.
At their core, they have retained these veterans of recent triumphs. It’s in their DNA. Klopp’s side must be wary of their opponents upping their game in Kiev as the look to emulate the Real stars of the 1950s. No doubt Liverpool’s pace and press will cause them some discomfort on the night, but Real will be ruthless, as they were against Bayern in the last round. They can dig deep, feeding off the doubters and skeptics. Zidane went through the same as player, when his Galaticos side was forever ducking and diving the lash of Spain’s relentless media critics. No doubt this experience has been invaluable as a manger.
Had that AC Milan side come into Istanbul off the back of one or two previous Champions League wins, Liverpool may not have landed a punch. Such was their quality, they only lacked that know-how that Real Madrid has earned through final victories against Atletico and Juventus.
It is always better to face a raw, mentally unprepared but gifted side, than a similarly gifted, mechanically efficient one, even if some of their players are not in their prime. Liverpool will always be dangerous under Klopp and especially with that front three firing on all cylinders. But they must wary of a dangerous beast backed into a corner. Real will have no sentiment for another underdog story in the Champions League as they look to wrap up number thirteen.