Heaven’s gate opens and gives Milan one more chance

Pirlo, Gattuso and indirect hangers on Inzaghi and Nesta would double up the next year after their World Cup victory, retaining the Champions League with Milan, but surprisingly no one was tempted to call it an Italian domination. Barcelona had stuttered to an early exit in the Champions League, leaving the title open to anyone.

That ‘anyone’ turned out to be the team that although on its way down had more experience than the others, which was the deciding factor, enough to string three expert matches together. Milan faced elimination when travelling to Germany in the quarter-final, but Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf came into his own, first scoring and then touching a brilliant cushioned volleyed backheel to set Filippo Inzaghi through on goal. Inzaghi, a veteran who if nothing else was a clever finisher, didn’t look such gift horses in the mouth. At long last he would have his day in the final, having taken over from the departed Shevchenko.

 

Introducing Cristiano Ronaldo to the world-at-large

The other three clubs to reach the semis were all English. They had finally gotten the hang of defending properly and had swatted aside Europe’s other challengers. Liverpool had won 2-1 in Barcelona, banding together in a more mature manner than the way they had won their 2005 matchups.

Manchester United were finally ready to flower. Cristiano Ronaldo this year had graduated from flashy inconsistency to an excellent dependability that would last on and on for years, single-handedly wining an emotional English league title for the young United over Mourinho’s invincible Chelsea, unusually providing most of the assists rather than most of the goals as he would in the future.

Bizarrely neither he nor Wayne Rooney, a stocky forward of great ability who was the secondary face of Man United, had scored in the Champions League for three years before their quarter-final with Roma, but in a thrilling romp both did in the 7-1 second leg win. All seven of the goals scored were of beautiful quality. The semi-final would be perhaps the most imposing matchup of the decade, Manchester United, the kids ready to take Europe by the scruff of the neck, versus Milan, the older generation looking for one last chance.

 

But he was not the King yet

It became a one-man masterpiece. Manchester United got the perfect start with a Ronaldo header, but Kaka glided in to roll in a perfectly-angled away goal. Fifteen minutes later he then outfoxed two defenders, who crashed into each other cartoon-like as Kaka ran on to again finish easily. It was a thrill to witness the crowd’s stunned silence, dreams shattered by this brilliant player, and it was not yet even halftime of the first leg.

The excitement of the epochal showdown continued into a second half in which Rooney took charge, scoring twice – the second outwitting his marker Nesta with an early shot with the game’s last kick to win 3-2 and give United hope of glory headed to Italy.

Kaka quickly killed that hope in Italy, shooting low and true from just inside the box, and Seedorf scored an identical goal soon after, Milan retaining complete control from go to whoa. Manchester United had been given a lesson, and Kaka had shown the world who was The Man. Previously not a huge goal scorer, he scored ten in this season’s Champions League, its top scorer, and singlehandedly won the competition for a Milan who previously had barely been able to scrape past Celtic in the second round (Kaka had slalomed a solo in extra time).

 

It happened again? Against the same team?

Liverpool and Chelsea would front up to their annual semi-final against each other. The two were characterised by almost identical English central midfielders. Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard was more energetic and goal scoring, while Chelsea captain Frank Lampard was more tactical and passing-based. The English trauma of the era was that the two could not form a cohesive central midfield unit when on the same English side. They were too similar, always running to the same places.

History was repeated, as Liverpool at Anfield (a goal down this time) recorded another stirring 1-0 victory over Chelsea and, the crowd buzzing and confidence high, won a penalty shootout as comprehensive as it gets, their third high-profile shootout win in two years.

This very English tactical battle had its bouquets and brickbats, its admirers and disparagers from foreign lands. Some Spanish observers were astonished by the indomitability of the combatants: Michael Essien got crunched and just bounced up again! Liverpool’s winning goal was disallowed, and they just got on with the game without surrounding the referee! Jorge Valdano, however, would say that for passion, England cannot be beaten. But, he continued, if you put shit on a stick, you can try renaming it but it will still be shit on a stick.

Coaches Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho had never gotten along. Mourinho had always called Liverpool’s 2005 winner against Chelsea a “ghost goal”, one that had not crossed the line. As Benitez soaked in the jubilant Anfield atmosphere of having again produced the impossible win over the more accomplished blue nemesis and its loud-mouthed manager, he must have thought: There’s only one thing better than an epochal, never to be forgotten victory – and that’s heading back for the same situation and winning it all over again, cementing the original legend, if you will.

Mourinho had gathered his team, arms around each other, and given them a pep talk pre-shootout. They then proceeded to miss two of three kicks, drowned by Anfield. Funny how penalty shootouts should be a contest of technique but always morph into a confidence contest. That was Mourinho’s last try for glory with Chelsea, his usual three-year buzzer in any one place running out. The team he had set up, the core of Cech, left-back Ashley Cole, Terry, Lampard and Drogba, however, would continue running itself without him, any new coaches irrelevant.

 

Milan close a circle

Liverpool, the more confident, experienced version of Manchester United, gave Milan the runaround in the first half of the final, fleeting winger Jermaine Pennant fantastic. But Milan scored a deflected free kick at the end of the first half, their only real attack up until then. It was sad that an entire Champions League competition could be decided by such a terrible goal.

Still, it gave Milan the impetus to hold firm, spurred by the unlikely direct opportunity to avenge the 2005 loss to the same opposition. Given the abundance of Italian goalkeepers at the time, Milan’s unusual man between the sticks for all of the glory years was Brazilian Dida, seldom used by Brazil, an expert penalty saver who had saved three in the 2003 final shootout and kept it together here. Liverpool had gotten to the final by scoring only twice against Barcelona and once against Chelsea, so goals were the only Achilles Heel for a now confident, composed team led by Gerrard and Xavi Alonso in the middle.

Javier Mascherano, who had kept Kaka in check, needed to be removed in the late chase for an equaliser, leading of course to a now free Kaka to slide the through pass for Inzaghi to similarly slide through the sealing goal, elegantly. Milan had sealed their half-decade on top with a second European crown, in a fortunately for them open year.

 

Argentina’s post-Maradona woe continues indefinitely

That summer’s Copa America final summed up the increasing trauma that had bedevilled the Argentine national team since the end of Diego Maradona. In the 2004 Copa America Argentina had taught the second-string Brazil a nebulous lesson in the final but conceded a last-minute equaliser and subsequently wilted in the shootout. They had done much the same thing throughout the 2006 World Cup, transfixing everyone with a 24-touch goal from Esteban Cambiasso against Serbia and Maxi Rodriguez’s awesome smash against Mexico before the penalties again destroyed them prematurely.

Now, in 2007, budding superstar Lionel Messi had seamlessly (at least for now) been incorporated into Argentina, whose romantic team eased through this tournament with Juan Riquelme enigmatically directing operations one last time in his slow-ticking world in which time was never a factor. Brazil’s B-team, in the other half of the draw, staggered their way to the final via an opening loss and a traumatic penalty shootout.

But on D-day, as usual now for both countries, it mattered not. Brazil flashed a goal in only four minutes in and their superior goalmouth intuition ripped Argentina apart 3-0. Argentina played the opposite game to their one-two-punch rivals. For them, the ball was played from man to man, the attack accumulating, accumulating and then falling onto a wall, much like in 2002.

More than twenty years (and counting) would pass by without a senior international trophy for Argentina in an era in which Argentina’s junior teams owned the World Youth Cup and the Olympic Games tournaments by right. In 2009 Messi et al would lose a scarcely believable match in Bolivia, 6-1 against South America’s weakest team, and lurching in crisis would barely qualify for World Cup 2010.

 

Marty Gleason

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