21 May 2007

Liverpool v AC Milan 05.23.07

2:45pm. Available live in the US on espn2.

Road to Athens
Champions League Group Stage results:
Liverpool: 2-3 Galatasaray (a); 2-0 PSV (h); 3-0 Bordeaux (h); 1-0 Bordeaux (a); 3-2 Gala (h); 0-0 PSV (a)
Milan: 0-2 Lille (h); 0-1 AEK (a); 4-1 Anderlecht (h); 1-0 Anderlecht (a); 0-0 Lille (a); 3-0 AEK (h)

1st Knockout Round results:
Liverpool: 0-1 Barca (h); 2-1 Barca (a)
Milan: 1-0 Celtic (h); 0-0 Celtic (a)

Quarterfinal results:
Liverpool: 1-0 PSV (h); 3-0 PSV (a)
Milan: 2-0 Bayern (a); 2-2 Bayern (h)

Semifinal results:
Liverpool: 1-0 Chelsea (h); 0-1 Chelsea (a)
Milan: 3-0 United (h); 2-3 United (a)

Goal scorers (Europe):
Liverpool: Crouch 7; Garcia, Gerrard 3; Bellamy, Fowler, Riise 2; Agger, Gonzalez 1
Milan: Kaka 10; Inzaghi 4; Seedorf 3; Gilardino 2; Gourcuff, Pirlo 1

European History:
Liverpool: European Cup/Champions League 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984, 2005; UEFA Cup 1973, 1976, 2001; UEFA Super Cup 1977, 2001, 2005
Milan: European Cup/Champions League 1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003; Cup Winners’ Cup 1968, 1973; UEFA Super Cup 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003

Referee: Herbert Fandel (GER)

My guess of a lineup:
Finnan Carragher Agger Riise
Alonso Mascherano
Pennant Gerrard Kewell

This is less a guess at what Liverpool will do, and more a guess as to what I think they should. That’s the opposite of what I usually try, guessing along the lines I think Rafa will go, but this time, I honestly have no idea. There really are any number of ways the manager could line them up, and I love that he’s probably got everyone guessing. What I do know is that I believe that strength in the middle of the field and width in attack will be necessary, and I think this line-up accomplishes both.

First and foremost, yes, Liverpool will need to control the midfield. Easier said than done, to be sure, but with the talent in Liverpool’s squad, it’s possible. I rarely guess a five-man midfield, but Wednesday’s game is definitely a special case. For this one both Alonso and Mascherano need to be on the pitch, and I think Gerrard will be better suited to a free role, with actual out-and-out wingers as well.

As has been said by pretty much everyone in the run-up, the main focus will be on stopping Kaka and Seedorf. It’s simplistic to hark back to Istanbul for comparisons, but in Didi Hamann, Liverpool saw how they can halt Milan’s offense: congest the midfield and deny space to the attacking midfielders. Again, easier said than done, but certainly what Liverpool will aim for. And as has been shown at times since he’s arrived, that’s a specialty of Javier Mascherano, who will need to have an outstanding performance.

It’s a fair question to ask where the goals are going to come from with Kuyt playing as a lone striker, but stacking the midfield seems more important. In Gerrard, Pennant, and Kewell (yes, I’ll get to that), Kuyt ideally will have some support, but more importantly, a five-man midfield should allow Liverpool better opportunity to control possession and the tempo of the match. Milan also gets all their width from defense; none of their midfielders (Kaka, Seedorf, Gattuso, Ambrosini, Pirlo) are out-and-out wingers. Jankulovski and Oddo stretch the field from the fullback slots, and in Pennant and Kewell, Liverpool has players who can exploit the gaps they’ll leave, especially on the counter-attack.

I can hear the questions now, and believe me, I’ve asked them myself. It seems unthinkable that after having been out for pretty much the entire season Harry Kewell could start in his third straight cup final. But a healthy Kewell (I know, I know, if even possible) truly can be a game changer. Zenden did pick up an ankle knock at the training camp in La Manga, but honestly, I probably would have gone with Harry anyway. I’m aware I keep harping on it but width will be key to Liverpool’s success, and in Kewell, Liverpool has a player who can run at defenders and take the game to Milan while still getting crosses in. And yes, that seemed to be the plan in 2005 before Kewell went off with a groin injury, but I do believe Rafa will be thinking along similar lines in this game.

Admittedly, Harry might be better served to come on a substitute, especially if the match looks to be heading to extra-time, to inject a bit of pace, but I want to see Kewell on from the start, declaring Liverpool’s intent. And in his last couple of appearances, even if they were coming off the bench, Harry has shown a bit of the form that brought him so many plaudits earlier in his career. If Garcia was fit, we wouldn’t be having this discussion, because one would start with the other as super-sub, but such is life. I realize that the game could very well start cagily, and Kewell could inject pace after about 60 minutes, but after all’s said and done, I still think that Liverpool needs to take the game to Milan, even if that’s blindly optimistic. Plus, with both Alonso and Mascherano playing, Liverpool can afford to have two attacking wide players going at Milan’s goal from the opening whistle. With them, Gerrard, and the defense, there will be tacklers in there to strangle Milan’s attack, while having Pennant and Kewell could allow Liverpool to exploit them on the counter.

Meanwhile, what can you say about the Milan team. It’s impossible to downplay the squad’s ability. They’re chockfull of world-class players with a depth of experience in big games. You’ve certainly read heaps of praise piled on Kaka, which is no surprise; one of the best players in the world this season, top scorer in the Champions League, and on his day, nearly unstoppable. Not only is he surrounded by players who complement him offensively exceptionally well (and class in their own right) in Seedorf and Pirlo, but in Gattuso and Ambrosini, there’s more than enough cover for those three to focus on the attack. Admittedly, with Inzaghi and Gilardino, Milan’s strike force is less imposing than in 2005, but with Kaka, Seedorf, and Pirlo on their game, they will never go lacking in goals.

While Milan is not an archetypal Italian team -- they like to attack, are renown for it, and rarely close up shop even with a lead -- I certainly won’t downplay their defensive abilities. The aforementioned Gattuso and Ambrosini do an excellent job mopping up before play gets to Milan’s backline, but Nesta and Maldini are still worth the hype they’ve received over the years despite their oft-mentioned age, while younger legs in Jankulovski and Oddo will also contribute to the attack. Again, it feels like I’m stating the obvious, but it bears reiterating: Liverpool will certainly have to be on top form to win.

And one last thing, I do hope Milan get caught up in all the revenge talk they been stoking. A lot of these players are world class and have been in this situation before, so I don’t say this lightly, but hopefully, if they’re in such a frame of mind, they’ll push too hard instead of letting the game come to them. Not to mention that the Chelsea game was supposed to be a revenge game as well, and that didn’t quite go according to script.

Roll on Athens.


Ace Cowboy said...

Great preview, Nate...nothing to add but a bit of kudos.

Manton said...

While I totally agree with your assessment of the midfield (even Kewell!), I have to bank on the fact that Benitez won't go with your scheme simply because you're almost never right. 4-4-2 with Arebeloa left with Riise above, Crouchinho coupled with Kuyt. Kewell will still be the super-sub and I can't wait til he hits the pitch