Game on: Liverpool vs. AC Milan
If you need an excuse to take an afternoon off during the offseason, here it is. Wednesday afternoon is the Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan and it’s on your TV or that of your favorite watering hole. Have you watched a game at Bob’s Place in Avon or the new E-Town in Edwards? This is your chance.What a ride it’s been for everyone’s favorite former ski area owner, George Gillett, since taking over Liverpool this year. One can only imagine the scenes in the Director’s Box as the legendary Kop section of the crowd at Anfield embraced George and his family. There seems to be a genuine affection for them from the players and manager Rafael Benitez. Of course, victory over the free-spending Chelsea in the Champions League semifinal can’t hurt. Now they travel to Athens, Greece for the neutral site final against AC Milan. The match is a replay of the 2005 final in which Liverpool staged one of the most stunning comebacks ever witnessed, coming back from 3-0 down at halftime to win on penalties after a 3-3 draw. That match took place in Istanbul and the Liverpool fans gave legendary accounts of scrambling back to their hotels that night to try and beat the 5 a.m. prayer bells. Now Athens is facing an influx of ticket-less Liverpool fans desperate to not to miss another historic occasion.
Triumph and tragedyGillett, already the owner of the fabled Montreal Canadiens, couldn’t have purchased a more interesting football club if he’d searched the world over, which I’m sure he did. Winners of an unmatched 18 English League titles and five-time champions of Europe, they’ve won the FA Cup seven times and feature one of the most devoted sets of fans anywhere in the world. The section of their famous stadium known as the Kop (named after a battlefield in the Second Boer War where hundreds of city residents perished) is legendary and the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is their signature. This Rodgers and Hammerstein song was recorded by Gerry and the Pacemakers in the early 60s and has been sung at their stadium Anfield ever since. Check it out on youtube.com or listen to the Pink Floyd song “Fearless” for a taste of it, or travel to Anfield in Liverpool for the real deal. Tragedy as well as triumph has followed Liverpool as well. The tragic Heysel stadium disaster occurred in Belgium in 1985 before the final of the European Cup against Italian club Juventus. A separating fence between the two sets of supporters was breached and panic ensued, a retaining wall collapsed and 39 fans were killed. Liverpool received a 10-year ban from European competitions, later reduced to six, and all English clubs were banned for five years. Since the end of that ban, English clubs have only won the competition twice – Liverpool in 2005 and Manchester United in 1999. Tragedy struck Liverpool again in 1989 when 96 fans were killed in a crush of supporters trying to enter an FA Cup semifinal match at Hillsborough Stadium. An overflow of fans presented a crisis outside the ground and the decision to open the turnstiles crushed fans when the crowd was pushed against retaining walls and fences designed to keep them off of the field. Champions League?
The European Cup became the Champions League when it, ironically, began to admit more than just the Champions of each league in Europe. Liverpool this year qualified on the basis of their third place finish in England last year. The top-four in England, Italy and Spain from the previous season qualify and other countries receive less slots. Seen by many as superior to the World Cup in terms of talent, this competition features the most well funded clubs in Europe, with their multi-national rosters, squaring off in group play, then home-and-home knockout games culminating in a single game final at a neutral site at the end of the season. This year’s final is today and will be televised on ESPN2 at noon. Go ahead, take a long lunch, or what the hell, take the rest of the day off. I’ll be taping it and watching after school, which wasn’t the case in 1999 when Manchester United won it by the way, so please don’t call or email with the score. The current Liverpool team feature Jamie Carragher, defensive star of the 2005 final, and Steven Gerrard, the talismanic midfielder who also grew up in Liverpool supporting the club. Peter Crouch, the giant forward who has scored key goals for club and country. “He’s big, he’s red, his feet stick out the bed.” Liverpool fans sing on occasion. The team has had an influx of Latin flair under Spanish manager Rafa Benitez. Xabi Alonso, Luis Garcia and Marc Gonzalez are notable examples. Italian DFresh off an Italian World Cup victory last summer that many neutrals (OK, me and my dad) had hoped wouldn’t happen, the Italian side, AC Milan, represent the best qualities of Italian football’s defensive organization with a dash of Brazilian flair and Dutch technique mixed in. The club has won the European Cup or its equivalent six times, and the revered Serie A in Italy 17 times. In the back, the most important feature of any Italian team, they most notably feature 38-year-old Paolo Maldini. This guy has had an incredible career with club and country.
For Italy, he played in the dramatic penalty shootout loss to Brazil in 1994 and the World Cup winning side of last summer, the only player to feature in both games, though Bob Bandoni or Jeff Leonardo would have played in either if they’d called. He has represented AC Milan his entire career and has played in an amazing eight Champions League finals, scoring the first goal against Liverpool two years ago. The rest of the team contains the classy Alessandro Nesta in the back, the rugged Gennaro Gattuso in midfield and the sublime Kaka in midfield alongside the Dutch technician Clarence Seedorf. Kaka, who might be the best player in the world, is the leading scorer for the club in the Champions League and put three past Manchester United in the semifinal. Up front they showcase the dynamic talents of “Pipo” Inzaghi and Gilberto Gilardino. Dutch technique, Brazilian magic and Italian determination and guile might just be the mixture of ingredients needed to overcome the aura of Liverpool’s bravery and cheek. My prediction, 2-1 to Liverpool and a first trophy for our favorite “Director of Quality Control” George Gillett. Games of this magnitude rarely live up to their billing. This one just might. Go ahead, take the afternoon off and enjoy it. Just don’t call me. When not traveling to World Cups or taping every soccer game on television, David Cope s a history teacher and soccer coach at Battle Mountain High School. He is a regular soccer columnist for the Vail Daily.
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