Okay, I lied about waiting; it only took a couple of hours of head clearing before finding some words. Sometimes I can’t help myself.
Where to start, where to start. I guess I’ll begin by saying up front that Milan were deserved winners. Please keep that in mind when I come off as especially shrill.
That said, Liverpool should have been leading going into halftime. At the very least, Milan certainly shouldn’t have been up one-nil. Liverpool was utterly dominant from the first minute until Pirlo’s free kick in the 45th, and the fact that they weren’t able to get off the mark seemed almost a return to the bad old away days. Even though there were few clear-cut chances in the first, the plan was working. There was a lot of huff and puff with no goals to show for it, which has been a frequent and valid complaint, but this was always going to be an exceedingly tight game. Until Inzaghi’s goal, it looked to be working a treat.
And yes, I can’t go without saying that the goal clearly went in off of Inzaghi’s arm. As Stevie Nicol said during halftime on espn2’s atrocious coverage (Nicol was the only bright spot), forget about any ball to hand nonsense. If a shot goes in off a player’s arm, it’s not a goal. End of. I hope Platini’s future extra referees will be in place to catch things like this, as it was one of many things that Fandel and his crew fouled up Wednesday evening.
Once Milan got the first goal, they were never going to make the same mistakes as in 2005. I wouldn’t say they completely shut up shop -- they ended the game stronger and earned a fair few corners in the second half -- but they were content to sit back and soak up pressure, and continued to let Liverpool set the tempo. Oddo and Jankulovski were cemented in fullback positions instead of charging forward as they did in the first, and Liverpool had much less room to operate.
With the clock ticking down, Benitez threw the dice bringing on Crouch for Mascherano in the 78th minute. To fully utilize Crouchy, it was always going to be Mascherano or Alonso coming off, and Benitez was always going to wait until as late as possible to limit the damage Milan could cause with one less holding player in there. It didn’t take long (four minutes, actually) for Kaka to take advantage, with a slide-rule pass for an absolutely perfectly timed run by Inzaghi. 2-0, and game all but over; at 1-0 Milan were never going to give Liverpool any room to play, at 2-0 they barely had space to breathe, and the end result was the ball bouncing around the pitch. To Liverpool’s credit, heads never went down, and a Kewell corner found its way to Dirk Kuyt in the 89th minute, who made no mistake. But much like Kuyt’s very similar goal against Arsenal in the FA Cup, it was too little too late.
I do believe that Benitez got the formation correct. Gerrard may not be at his best in the free role behind Kuyt, but the midfield of Alonso and Mascherano as well as Pennant on the right definitely did their jobs, and with those players in those roles, that’s always where Gerrard was going to line up. And truth be told, aside from a hideous miss in the 63rd minute (Dida did do well to get down quickly), he had a good, if marginally inconspicuous, game. It’s just that since his heroics have saved Liverpool so many times in the past, when he doesn’t come through with a miracle, anything else is a let down.
Liverpool’s most threatening player in the first half was Pennant, hands down. For 45 minutes, he was embarrassing Jankulovski for fun. Nearly all of Liverpool’s dangerous play came through him and he was exploiting gaps in the defense exceptionally. Yes, the end product could have been better, but I thought he was easily the best attacking player for the first half. Once Milan scored and kept the fullbacks deeper, Pennant didn’t have nearly as much space and faded somewhat, but it was still good to see him play to that level in a game such as this.
I’ll also head off another line of questioning and say, yes, for the most part, Zenden was the only weak spot in the line-up in the first half, and at times left Liverpool’s left flank open when Riise went forward to cover some of Zenden’s duties. But he really didn’t seem fit, and under normal circumstances, I highly doubt he would have started. However, with the health of both Zenden and Kewell (and with Garcia a long-term casualty too), Benitez was in a catch 22. Had Kewell been on from the start, maybe Liverpool could have taken better advantage of how well they started the game, but admittedly I was wrong, and it seemed from his 35 or so minutes that Harry probably wouldn’t have lasted an hour, let alone the full game. Maybe if he was on early, and if Liverpool got a goal, it’d be fine if he tired because others could shut up shop, but that’s a lot of ifs, especially for a Champions League final and in retrospect.
No one should leave Athens with his head down, because the team’s effort was to be praised even if the end product was lacking. Not Zenden or Kewell, not Gerrard, or anyone else despite whatever flaws are there to be picked out. I can’t fault anyone’s effort today, and I still have the same faith in what Liverpool’s building as I did on Tuesday. Again, credit to Milan. Their defense held firm and Inzaghi was at his goal-poaching best. In a cagey, balanced match, they had the nous to take advantage, and they did.
I’ll have more to say later in season-ending wrap-up stuff, but I do want to reiterate it is only year 3 in Benitez’s rebuilding project. Yes, this is a disappointment, but it’s not a step backwards. Take nothing away from Milan, they won through resolute defending, smart play, and far better goal-poaching. If anything, it demonstrates that Liverpool does need more guile in front of goal, which isn’t quite news, but how much needs to be bought, or in Garcia and Kewell, it mainly just needs to get healthy?
At the end of the day, the main thing I’m coming away with is pride in the team, despite disappointment in the result.
Roll on next season.