Soccer – The Most Important of Life’s Unimportant Things

May 25, 2005


by @ 4:37 pm.
Filed under Uncategorized

Well, if I live to be a hundred, I don’t think I’ll ever see a more amazing football match.

The UEFA Champions League Final between Liverpool and AC Milan is one for the ages. First of all, Liverpool weren’t even supposed to make it to the championship game in Istanbul (not Constantinople). They limped in to the competition, placing 4th in the English Premier League last season. This meant they had to start their season earlier than expected, and had to make it through the qualifying stages to even have a shot at getting to the final. It had to be a bit depressing; facing a long grueling Premier League season, they had to end holidays early, travel to the backwaters of Europe (well, okay, Austria, but playing against Grazer AK just for the opportunity to get to Group Stage play wasn’t what they had in mind when they started the 2003-2004 season).

But get there they did, and just kept winning and winning. All the while having a disappointing season in England. They made it to the finals, against all odds. They had to be happy to even be there. But, being Liverpool, one of the most succesful football clubs in history, “happy to be here” isn’t something the players were likely to say, or even feel.

So what happens in the final? They give up a goal in the first minute of the first half, and two more in the next 44 minutes, and go to the locker room down 3-0 to one of the best clubs in the world.

So what now? What do you say if you’re Rafa Benitez? What do you say if your team captain Steven Gerrard, who is FROM Liverpool, for Pete Best’s sake? How do you react as a player? Mail it in and be glad you got that far? Get on your cell phone and book a tee-time at your favorite golf course? Who could blame them if they did? Three goals down to AC Milan is not a tenable position with 45 minutes left in your season.

I’d love to know what was said in there, because Liverpool came out for the second half and pulled off one of the greatest comebacks, not just in soccer history, but in sports history. The game ended 3-3, and you just couldn’t believe what you were seeing. Instead of mailing it in and warming up the bus, they went to three defenders, added a midfielder, and played absolute lights out soccer, while Milan dropped back and tried to mark time until the trophy presentation.

Never a good idea. Never.

So the game ends tied. Two 15 minute overtimes, and possible penalty kicks to follow if no goals are scored.

But how could you top the preceding 90 minutes? Who could possible come up with something to out-do that?

Jerzy Dudek. That’s who.

Dudek, the greatest goalkeeper Poland has ever produced, took over. One is tempted to use the old “carried the team on his shoulders” saw, and in this case, it might even be worthy of being dusted off. His first superhuman save came just before the end of the second overtime period. Andrei Shevchenko tracked down a long cross from the left flank and hit a thumping header from about 8 yards out. The reaction save Dudek pulled off was good enough. The ball was struck hard and down, and bounced at this feet; the hardest kind of shot to stop in all of football. It was a glorious and unlikely save.

But on the rebound, Shevchenko got a good five yard run on the ball, hit it as hard as he could from no more than three feet from the goal line, only to have the hero of Liverpool get a hand to the ball and hit it nearly straight up and over the crossbar. I watched the replay at least a dozen times, a couple of those on slow motion, and I still don’t know how he did that. You can say luck, but you’d be wrong. It was impetuous; it was Homeric.

Then, the dreaded penalty kick shootout. Nobody wants a game to end this way, but that’s the way it is.

Serginho took the first kick for AC Milan and didn’t even come close. The ball may have landed in Greece by the time it stopped flying. Fine. It happens. Plenty of chances left.

Dietmar Haman has no trouble beating Dida to make it 1-0 to Liverpool.

From here on in, it’s Jerzy time.

He saved Pirlo’s attempt, guessing correctly and diving to his right, making a parry save. Now, we have to be honest at this point and say that Dudek cheated a bit here. The rules say the ‘keeper can’t move forward until the kicker makes contact with the ball. Good ol’ Jerzey was at least a yard forward when the kick was taken, but the referee must have been dozing, or perhaps thinking of how he’d make it back to the hotel if he called for a re-kick. At any rate, the goal stands. Cisse comes on and easily puts it past Dida, and Liverpool are up 2-0 with three kicks left.

Thomasson beats Dudek cleanly to make it 2-1, Riise, surprisingly, gets beat when he hits a low shot just inside the left post, which is saved by a correctly guessing Dida. It’s 2-1.

Kaka (really, his name is Kaka), scores for Milan; Smicer, who scored such a great goal in the second half, does the same for his side. 3-2

Andrei Shevchenko (2004-2005 European Player Of The Year, mind you), who had been so cruelly brickwalled by Dudek just minutes before in extra time, has to make his penalty kick to keep Milan in the shootout. In what will surely be his nightmare for the forseeable future, he hits his shot straight down the middle, hoping to catch Dudek diving away, but it doesn’t work; Dudek starts to his right but holds up and snuffs the shot with his legs. Game over.

If you saw it in a movie, you’d ridicule the screenwriter for coming up with such drivel. But it happened. If you can catch the replay on television, or know somebody who taped it, it’s worth watching, even though you know the outcome.

I love this game.

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