Fifteen years ago today, Liverpool went into a match as underdogs. Fifteen years ago today, Liverpool were down 3-0 at the half of the Champions League final. And fifteen years ago today, Liverpool went on to beat AC Milan and win their fifth European Cup in Istanbul.
It’s been a decade and a half now since Liverpool staged the greatest comeback ever in a major European final, which understandably has some people reflecting on that day and what it meant for the club, players, and fans. Including former manager Rafa Benitez.
“Everything was amazing,” Benitez told The Echo, reflecting on the victory and aftermath. “From the celebrations in Istanbul, to the flight back, and then the atmosphere in the city. There were people everywhere. On the roads, the bridges, street-lamps, trees. Everywhere.”
Benitez sent Liverpool out to play on the front foot against the favoured Italians, but the plan didn’t go well, with Milan converting a set piece in the very first minute. Liverpool then looked to have found their feet only for two more Milan goals to come before the half.
“We wanted to start with more offensive players on the pitch to have the opportunity to create more chances,” Benitez noted. “I remember telling them to play it long and go to press. We didn’t play it long enough and we gave away a foul. So, it wasn’t a great start.”
From the hope and promise of a Champions League final to out of it completely after Paolo Maldini’s opener and then a pair of goals from Hernan Crespo in the 39th and 44th minute. Tactical tweaks and a masterclass from Steven Gerrard, though, would soon turn the tide.
“Stevie showed in this game what he was capable of,” Benitez said of Gerrard’s impact. “He could play well in any position but behind the striker he was lethal. His timing, his power, his vision for the assists and accuracy for finishing was fantastic. He made all the difference.”
With Liverpool switching to an unusual 3-5-2 formation for the second, Milan were on the back foot as Gerrard scored in the 54th minute. Then Vladamir Smicer scored in the 56th before Gerrard won a penalty that Xabi Alonso converted—on the rebound—in the 60th.
The game, deadlocked again for the first time since the very first minute, would eventually go to penalties—and when they arrived, Benitez says that he always believed Liverpool would win thanks to the scouting work that they’d done on Milan’s most likely takers.
“I had confidence that we could win the game in penalties,” he added. “We knew where four of the five penalty takers used to placing their penalties. If you have to take a penalty in a final, you will do it to your strong side. So, I was quite confident Jerzy would save some.
“It was and it will be the best final ever in terms of emotion and even tactical changes. For all the Liverpool fans it will be, for sure.”