After consecutive memorable finals, it makes sense that we were in for a stinker and last night's game wasn't very good. I came away with a little more respect for Liverpool, or at least for Rafa Benitez, who got his tactics exactly right. Liverpool pressed Milan very high up on the pitch, which prevented Milan from getting the ball forward to their midfield, which is their strength, and also created offense for Liverpool by creating turnovers. I'm inherently skeptical of English sides in Europe. I generally think of them as overhyped at home and then ready to be exposed by continental teams with superior technical skill. In this instance, Liverpool came with an advantage because Milan was not used to being pressed so far up the pitch, as is common in the EPL, and Liverpool had the better of the exchanges in the first half.
So why did Liverpool lose? Luck has to be one of the elements, as the first goal was critical and didn't appear to be the result of design:
The goal was probably legal, as it hit Pippo Inzaghi's shoulder and my understanding is that a ball off the shoulder is not a handball, and in any event, that would have been a very marginal call on which to disallow a goal. That said, it was certainly lucky.
In addition to luck, Milan simply had better players. They had Andrea Pirlo to take free kicks, which put them in position to get a lucky deflection. They had Kaka to wriggle free and force a foul from Xabi Alonso to set up the free kick. In the end, they had Kaka and Inzaghi to craft the one quality goal of the game once Liverpool were caught forward. In contrast, Liverpool's players found themselves in position to score goals and just didn't have the skill to score. Jermaine Pennant and Boudewijn Zenden were put in position to make plays by Benitez's scheme, but they fluffed cross after cross and Pennant shot poorly on Liverpool's best chance in the first half. For most of the game, Dirk Kujt was close to useless for Liverpool, other than doing his usual act of running a lot and going after the ball, as opposed to doing what a striker is supposed to do: score. (It is ironic that Liverpool and Milan both get their offense from their midfields as a result of suspect strikers and yet all three goals last night came from the two strikers.) Steven Gerrard had a couple good chances and showed why he's a midfielder and not a striker. (Gerrard did generate a good chunk of offense and I like him more as a withdrawn striker than as a right-sided midfielder, but I like him as a central midfielder more than either.) In short, Benitez put his players in position to win the game, but his players simply weren't good enough to exploit their opportunities.
So where does this Final rank in terms of entertainment and quality? I'm glad you asked. I've watched every final since Ajax's upset win over AC Milan in 1995 and here's how I would rank 'em:
1. 1999 - Manchester United 2 Bayern Munich 1
2. 2005 - Liverpool 3 Milan 3
3. 1997 - Borussia Dortmund 3 Juventus 1
4. 2006 - Barca 2 Arsenal 1
5. 2002 - Real Madrid 2 Bayer Leverkusen 1
6. 1995 - Ajax 1 Milan 0
7. 1996 - Juventus 1 Ajax 1
8. 2007 - Milan 2 Liverpool 1
9. 2001 - Bayern 1 Valencia 1
10. 2004 - Porto 3 Monaco 0
11. 1998 - Real Madrid 1 Juventus 0
12. 2000 - Real Madrid 3 Valencia 0
13. 2003 - Milan 0 Juventus 0
And a note in the obligatory "Liverpool fans misbehaving" category. Color me shocked that there were run-ins between Liverpool fans and the police after a group of ticketless Pool fans stormed into the Olympic Stadium, leaving fans with legitimate tickets outside and unable to get in. I'll say it again: the combination of English restraint and Greek efficiency was always going to be a problem. I genuinely feel bad for the fans with legitimate tickets who couldn't get in. There are few instances in life where I could see myself thinking "yes, overturning a car as part of a crazy mob sounds like the right idea," but paying 2,000 Euros for a ticket to see my favorite team play in the biggest game of the year and then being denied entry to the stadium would be one of those instances. Since I'm in the mood for lists, here are my five best sports-related tantrums:
1. 1988 - In my parents' bedroom after LSU 7 Auburn 6
2. 1996 - In a parking lot outside of Dyche Stadium after Northwestern 17 Michigan 16
3. 1996 - In my apartment in Ann Arbor after Cardinals 4 Braves 3
4. 2001 - In my condo during Ohio State 26 Michigan 20
5. 1998 - At my aunt and uncle's condo in the closing stages of Iran 2 USA 1