Around 5:30am my sister sent me an SMS: ‘Well…I suppose on the bright side it’s better than 0-3’. She was, of course, referring to the 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and AC Milan that saw The Reds play both their worst and best halves of the season within the space of ninety minutes, eventually lifting the cup after Jerzy Dudek wiggled on his goal line — a dance-move later named ‘doing-the-Dudek’ — and saved two penalties. My reply was as much diagnosis as prognosis: ‘I’m less optimistic at 0-1 than I was at 0-3. Pace needed on the left. Hope we don’t use Crouch, but I’m prepared to let him redeem himself. D.’

On the stroke of half time Xabi Alonso put a lazy tackle on Kaka — who went down easily a couple of times during the match — to give Milan a free kick close to the box. It was probably too close for Pirlo — the Italian dead ball expert — to get a ball to swerve and dip over the Liverpool wall. He struck what looked like a banal shot towards the side of the goal Jose Reina was covering until it took a defelction of Inzaghi’s shoulder and went hip-height through the middle of the goal.

Inzaghi claims it was a planned move. You don’t want to believe him (and when you see he had his eyes closed you don’t) because he’s the player you love to hate. He scores the kind of goals you wish your defence would stop letting in. When he steps of the last shoulder of the defender as the ball is passed through you hope, expect even, that he will be called offside. A moments hesitation from all concerned, except Inzaghi, and you realise the whistle hasn’t blown. He is one-on-one with the goal-keeper.
Reina held his position well, but it only required a good first touch from Inzaghi to cut him out. The only thing left was to watch the ball roll slowly, humiliatingly, towards goal, until it crossed the goal line. Liverpool were 0-2. Houdini could hold his breath for longer than the time they had left to escape from this predicament.

The first half was reason for some optimism if you supported Liverpool. Central mid-field was clogged and Pirlo and Kaka, the best players of the next generation along with Ronaldino, weren’t allowed to spend too much time on the ball. Riise, Alonso and Gerrard all had shots on goal that sprayed wide or over the cross bar. Gerrard even got behind the defence, one-on-one with goalkeeper Dida, but instead of striking the ball his left foot he tried to turn his body and caress the ball around Dida into the opposite corner with his right. At that moment I could only think of Kaka’s ‘weaker-side’ strike from outside the box in the qualifiers that hit the top corner of the netting. Dida palmed the shot and it was cleared by defence.

Liverpool came out chasing a goal in the second half with the same line-up that had stifled Milan’s midfield in the first half and still gone in 0-1 down. Rather than Liverpool looking more dangerous, more desperate, Milan looked like the side likely to score. Kaka was turning tricks further up the park and stalwarts Maldini and Nesta had Liverpool’s forwards in hand. Pirlo, almost without notice, was stringing passes together and putting players into dangerous positions. In short, their class was showing through.

Of the four sides that reached the semi-final stage this year Chelsea, Arsenal and AC Milan all had 12 or more players in their side that represented their country in last years World Cup. I’m not sure how many Liverpool had, but looking at the team list you can see they weren’t representing the power-houses of world football. Within months of the Premier League Liverpool were destined to fight out third spot with Arsenal, a long way behind Chelsea and Manchester United (who were given an Italian lesson in footbal by AC Milan in the second leg semi-final). Liverpool’s depleted strike-force (Kuyt is more a hard-working poacher than a striker, the pit-bull Bellamy, and six-foot-something Crouch who is no better using his head than Kuyt) failed to produce a goal until injury time in the second half. Substitutions were made, but not before AC Milan wrested the tempo of the game. Mascherano was substituted and, in turn, Kaka set loose. By the time Kewell came on Liverpool were 0-2, and AC Milan were resting back in their own half. Kewell played far enough up the park to run one-on-one at defenders, only to find more white than red shirts waiting in the box to repel his crosses. When Kuyt headed in from what appeared to be an off-side position there was hope for a last minute resurrection. Milan, understandably, made a substitution, but it was a surprise when the final whistle went a minute earlier than expected. Could Liverpool have sent it to extra time?

Like most Australian Liverpool supporters who got up early and had to be at work by 8am (the game starts at 5am) I was hoping it wouldn’t go to penalties. It didn’t. Of course, I wasn’t hoping AC Milan would win, but you couldn’t fault their effort and skill. Liverpool went to Athens to stop them playing the football they were capable of, and succeeded for forty-five minutes.

In the end the game provided the final piece of evidence that Liverpool was playing above their pedigree; getting by on good strategy and a small squad with a lot of heart. Benitez now has a mandate (and the billionaire American owners) to buy an elite strike force over the summer. If Liverpool makes it as far into the competition as they did this year, and with Benitez at the helm you suspect they will, I don’t think I’ll be supporting for an underdog team next year.