Is there a more iconic Champions League final than Liverpool against AC Milan in Istanbul on 25 May 2005? Against all odds, the Reds turned over one of the greatest teams of all time to bring home the European Cup for good.
It all began at the end of the 2003/04 campaign when the late, great Gerard Houllier left a parting gift for his beloved Liverpool after six years in charge. He clinched a fourth-place finish in the Premier League that season, meaning the Reds qualified for the Champions League third qualifying round.
But before a ball was kicked in the 2004/05 season, a huge change was afoot at Anfield. Spanish manager Rafael Benitez arrived on Merseyside, fresh off the back of a La Liga and UEFA Cup double at Valencia. And to cut a long story short, he certainly wasn’t the only Spanish incoming at Anfield that summer…
The Spanish arrive at Liverpool
Antonio Nunez joined from Real Madrid, with Josemi arriving from Malaga. The pair would end up leaving the club soon after, but it simply didn’t matter, as the most excitement was reserved for Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia.
The former joined from Real Sociedad, with the latter coming from Barcelona. Not a single Liverpool fan could have guessed just how important the duo would be in the years to come.
Also making a switch to Anfield was French striker Djibril Cisse. Despite having the near-impossible task of replacing Michael Owen – who left for Real Madrid – Cisse would become an immediate hit with the Liverpool faithful.
But a fifth-place finish in the Premier League, together with a 3rd Round FA Cup loss to Burnley and a League Cup final loss to Chelsea epitomised a disappointing first season in England for Benitez. But none of that mattered. Not one bit. It was all about Europe.
Tricky beginnings for Benitez in Europe
The third qualifying round, as it often is for many big teams, was a tricky hurdle for the Reds. They met Austrian side Grazer AK. But it was perhaps a sign of what was to come later from captain fantastic Steven Gerrard.
The inimitable hero netted twice in the first leg to secure a 2-0 victory. A shock 1-0 home loss followed, with the hosts narrowly scraping through on away goals.
The group stages came next, with the Reds pitted against Monaco, Deportivo La Coruna and Olympiacos. All went swimmingly on matchday one, with strikers Milan Baros and Cisse scoring in the 2-0 win at Anfield.
But the points dried up with a loss at Olympiacos and a draw with Deportivo. A narrow 1-0 win at the Spanish club came next, but this was followed by a miserable 1-0 loss at Monaco.
Other results left the Reds needing a victory by two clear goals in their final match against Olympiacos. A free-kick from Brazil legend Rivaldo silenced the Anfield crowd and meant the hosts needed to score three in order to qualify.
Unsung heroes Florent Sinama Pongolle and Neil Mellor snatched a goal each to turn the game on its head, but it was Gerrard once again who stole all the headlines. Mellor turned provider this time, cushioning a header for the oncoming midfielder, who unleashed an unstoppable strike into the back of the net with just minutes remaining on the clock.
The comeback was complete, and Liverpool made their way into the round of 16, where they would face German outfit Bayer Leverkusen. It was undoubtedly the most straightforward challenge the Reds faced throughout the entire competition, as two 3-1 wins secured a spot in the quarter-finals against Italian giants Juventus.
Drama, drama, and more drama
Sami Hyypia and Garcia netted in the first leg win against the Serie A side, with a nervy goalless draw in Turin securing a semi-final meeting against Chelsea. That dramatic encounter is one that has gone down in infamy.
Another goalless draw away from home meant the game would be decided at Anfield under the lights. It started with immediate controversy, with Garcia flicking an effort past Petr Cech in the Chelsea goal in the fourth minute. Despite protests from everyone in blue that the ball hadn’t crossed the line, the Spaniard took off in celebration and the goal was given.
The scoreline remained that way until the final whistle, with many Chelsea supporters still angered by the officiating on that fateful evening on Merseyside.
It was now the Champions League final time, with Italian outfit AC Milan ready and waiting at Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul, Turkey.
Liverpool crowned Champions of Europe
Brazilian icon Dida stood like a giant between the posts. In front of him was Jaap Stam and Alessandro Nesta. Either side? Cafu and Paolo Maldini. Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, and Gennaro Gattuso occupied the middle of the pitch, all behind a certain Kaka.
And in front of him lay Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo. It was undoubtedly one of the greatest teams the footballing world has ever seen, and will ever see again.
Liverpool, on the contrary, were not blessed with superstars. This became evident as early as 51 seconds when Maldini volleyed in a Pirlo free-kick. Argentine striker Crespo then turned on the style, scoring twice in quick succession to give the Italians a 3-0 lead at half-time.
It was at this stage that Benitez decided to take action. The manager brought on the experienced Dietmar Hamann for Steve Finnan, in a switch that also involved a formation change.
The manager’s composure and tranquillity was in stark contrast to Liverpool fans all over the globe, but it was replicated by his players on the pitch. The Reds remained patient in their build-up.
And it paid dividends just nine minutes into the second half, with Gerrard the leader once again, heading home a John Arne Riise cross. Just two minutes later, his fellow midfielder Vladimir Smicer – an early substitute for the injured Harry Kewell – smashed home a long-range effort to make it 3-2.
Milan were rattled, and it showed just four minutes later. Gerrard was again the driver, bursting into the box before being brought down by Gattuso. Dida’s huge frame kept out Alonso’s penalty, but the Spaniard reacted quickest to smash home the rebound and complete the comeback of all comebacks.
The Miracle of Istanbul
Extra-time and penalties followed, and it was Polish goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek who took on heroic status, firstly denying Shevchenko in extra-time, before saving twice in the shootout to secure an unforgettable victory for Liverpool.
The Miracle of Istanbul was truly a match like no other. Never before had a club come back from such despair in the final of the biggest club competition in world football.
In less than a year, Benitez had engraved his name into the club’s treasured folklore, joining just a handful of others to have lifted the European Cup with Liverpool. Even with his recent spell in the dugout across Stanley Park at Everton, the Spaniard will remain an Anfield legend for all time.