The Miracle of Istanbul: How Liverpool's 2005 comeback unfoldedby Sports Desk
At half-time in the 2005 Champions League final, Liverpool appeared out for the count.
A team that had twice shut out Chelsea to punch their ticket to Istanbul was hurt time and time again by Milan in the first 45 minutes.
Paolo Maldini had landed a huge early blow – the defender’s goal after 50 seconds setting a new record as the fastest in the final of the tournament – but it was a one-two from Hernan Crespo that had the Reds in serious trouble.
The striker – on loan from Chelsea – scored a brace before the break, the second of his double a delightfully delicate finish beyond the advancing Jerzy Dudek to reward a sublime throughball from Kaka.
Referee Manuel Mejuto Gonzalez spared Liverpool from suffering further punishment by bringing the first half to an end. Saved by the bell, but still 3-0 down to opponents who had kept five clean sheets in six European games since qualifying top of a group that also included Barcelona.
Yet this was the same Milan who had shipped three against PSV away in the second leg of their semi-final, leaving them to squeeze through on away goals in the end. They had their English rivals in trouble, for sure, yet there was still some fight left in Liverpool yet.
Rather than using smelling salts to bring them to their senses, Rafael Benitez galvanised his team with a tactical change. Instead of going into survival mode when already so far behind on the scorecard, the Spaniard worked out the best way to get on the attack.
He still believed. Within 16 minutes of the second half, so too did everyone else.
SUBSTITUTION: HAMANN ON, FINNAN OFF
The first step in dealing with a problem is admitting you have one in the first place. Benitez had gone with a 4-4-1-1 formation from kick-off, springing a surprise by naming Harry Kewell in the XI to work behind lone striker Milan Baros.
It had not worked. Clearly. With the excellent Kaka afforded time and space to poke and probe, and with Crespo and Andriy Shevchenko willing runners in behind, Liverpool were under-manned in midfield and over-run at the back.
Benitez responded with a substitution and a switch in shape. Off went the injured Steve Finnan, on came Dietmar Hamann, a surprising absentee from the starting line-up. Having initially been the sacrificial lamb at half-time, Djimi Traore was stopped from getting changed to instead join Sami Hyypia and Jamie Carragher in a three-man central defence.
Hamann's introduction was a counter to cope with Kaka. The German would sit next to Xabi Alonso, freeing up Steven Gerrard to affect the game further forward.
Of course, this could easily have been the footballing equivalent to shuffling deckchairs on the Titanic. Instead, it provided a much-needed platform to produce a six-minute onslaught that suddenly saw Milan the ones teetering on the ropes.
GOAL! MILAN 3-1 LIVERPOOL (Gerrard, 54)
Freed from his defensive duties, Gerrard began the recovery by planting one on Milan.
John Arne Riise failed with his first attempt at a cross from Liverpool's left flank, but the second effort picked out his skipper, all alone in a pocket of space inside the penalty area. Socially distanced from any Milan players, Gerrard rose up, flicked his head at the ball and then watched as it drifted beyond Dida and into the far corner of the net.
It was so nearly his last goal for the club – he handed in a transfer request a few months later before deciding against joining up with Jose Mourinho at Chelsea – but was also a notable first; no other Liverpool captain had scored in a European Cup/Champions League final previously.
GOAL! MILAN 3-2 LIVERPOOL (Smicer, 56)
Vladimir Smicer was called into action earlier than he might have expected. Kewell's time to vindicate the faith shown in him by the boss spanned just 23 minutes, as an injury cut short his involvement.
So, Smicer was summoned from the bench to play a part in the biggest game of his Liverpool career – it also happened to be the last.
The Czech, who moved to Bordeaux in the off-season, flattered to deceive in his time with the Reds, yet will forever be remembered fondly for his contribution on Turkish soil. Given possession by Hamann's square pass, he opted to let go a low, right-footed shot that hit the target and caught Dida cold, slipping beyond the goalkeeper.
GOAL! MILAN 3-3 LIVERPOOL (Alonso, 61)
The leveller that Milan so nearly avoided. The Serie A side were wide open at this point, rocking and rolling, unable to quite comprehend what was happening to them.
Carragher's zipped-in pass to the feet of Baros allowed the striker to reverse the ball back inside with the simple flick of a boot, sending it into the path of the galloping Gerrard. Gennaro Gattuso could not keep up and, in trying to hold on in the hope of escaping without punishment, pulled an arm to give away a penalty.
Alonso went low to his left with the spot-kick and while Dida guessed correctly to keep it out, the rebound was lifted into the roof of the goal despite a desperate lunge from Alessandro Nesta. At 23 years and 181 days, Alonso became the youngest player to score in a European Cup/Champions League final for the club.
From done and dusted to all square; Liverpool had climbed off the canvas, come out swinging and produced the mother of all comebacks.
There was more drama to come of course, including a penalty shoot-out, but the Miracle of Istanbul came to pass thanks to 16 unforgettable second-half minutes.