Rafa Benitez came to the press conference in an extremely irritated state. The Spaniard had just lost the Champions League final, but showed in every way that the match ended unfairly. Rafa assured: the referee added three minutes, but at the end he squeezed a few seconds – in theory, Liverpool could win back one goal from Milan. The coach’s arguments sounded pathetic, but the Spaniard was understandable – he had missed the chance to become great.
It’s hard to believe now, but 14 years ago, the humble chubby Rafael Benitez was one step away from being the best coach in the world. His Liverpool came third in the Premier League, but lit in the Champions League: they knocked out well-fed Barcelona (they dropped the crown back in the 1/8 finals), beat PSV and punished Chelsea Jose Mourinho. After the final, the Spaniard could lift over his head the second Champions Cup in three seasons, that is, bypass these cups and Moura, and Sir Alex, and Carlo Ancelotti. An absolutely grand achievement for a man with the appearance of a university teacher – if Rafa had won one match, his career would have been completely different.
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It seemed that in the two years since the legendary Istanbul final, Liverpool had only become stronger: mastered the 4-5-1 formation, stopped mowing in defense (hello to monster Mascherano) and signed goalkeeper Rein. It is clear that Dudek was remembered for his great performance in the penalty shootout, but Pepe was cooler and more reliable at a distance.
Rafael Benitez (second from left) during the 2006/07 Champions League final Milan v Liverpool
Photo: Getty Images
On the other side of the grid, Milan were sailing to the final in Athens. On the contrary, he was gradually blown away: he lost Shevchenko, started the 2006/07 season from the negative zone (execution for calciopoli) and generally looked like a team from the past. The average age of the players who entered the match against Liverpool was over 31 years old – literally grandfathers ran for the Rossoneri. But even in the semifinals, they clearly showed why they need to be reckoned with. Oddly enough, the confrontation with Manchester United was more often recalled by Sir Alex, and not by Carlo Ancelotti, who had tamed the master.
The fact is that United were driving San Siro after a 3-2 home win and hoping to make it to the final. This is where Milan’s experience has affected. The players of the “devils” (for example, Carrick) recalled that at home the Rossoneri simply crushed the British. Gattuso gnawed all the balls and completely closed Ronaldo, Seedorf brilliantly launched the attacks, and Kaka just smeared the Mancunians with creativity. 3: 0 – after this match Carlo Ancelotti handed Ferguson a bottle of wine, and the noble Scotsman said that he would open it only if Milan wins in the final. Later, Sir Alex explained many times: the defeat from Milan was useful, because the players of Manchester United saw how real men should play.
The next such lesson, the Rossoneri organized already for Liverpool in the Athens final. The Merseysides pressed hard in the first half: they created chances, beat from behind the penalty area, covered the Italians on the flanks and near the final third – in short, they went to a much more confident triumph than in Istanbul. If you listen to the commentary of the first half in different languages, it turns out that almost all reporters were sure: a little more, and Liverpool will score. But instead, Milan endured and in the second half began to catch Benitez’s guys on counterattacks. One of them ended with Alonso’s foul, Pirlo’s free-kick and a rebound from Inzaghi. Then Kaka took Pippo to the Rhine, and he buried Liverpool. Kuyt’s goal in the last minutes only consoled Benitez, who for another 180 seconds lived the dream of catching up with Milan.
That game did not even become as iconic as Istanbul-2005, but now it is impossible to overestimate the significance of the Rossoneri’s victory. Firstly, it was the last disco of the Maldini gang: elderly superheroes were cut brutally and mercilessly, and there were practically no random people in the starting line-up – except that Yankulovsky did not reach the general level. Secondly, Milan have never been so powerful again: there were one-time bursts and even victories in Serie A, but nothing like this was seen at the Champions League level. Thirdly, I amazed Carlo Ancelotti. He admitted that initially he did not believe in the league championship triumph at all, but as a result he took the second Champions Cup in his career and for a while turned into the most successful club coach.
Benitez, on the other hand, gradually turned sour: first he worked at Liverpool, having managed to quarrel with Alonso, then ruined Mour’s legacy at Inter, and then either earned money or trained the middle peasants. Of the prestigious trophies, one can recall only the victory in the UEL with Chelsea, but Benitez was hated by the whole Stamford Bridge – the long tongue and the Liverpool past are to blame. Rafa also had a strange hobby – coming to clubs after Ancelotti. This happened with Real Madrid (terrible), and now with Everton (it is not clear yet). But Rafa did not jump to his own level of the mid-2000s. Probably, if Gerrard realized exits once at a time, and Riise thrashed a little more accurately, it was Benitez who would be quoted as the king of the Champions League, and not as a dull nerd from the past.
AC Milan win the 2006/07 Champions League
Today Liverpool and Milan will meet in the Champions League for the first time since that final. The Rossoneri are not nearly the same as in 2007, but the Lersisides are in perfect order. It is unlikely that Klopp will motivate the guys with a defeat 14 years ago, but it is always an honor to beat the “red-blacks”. Even when Dida, Oddo, Kaka and Pippo are not there – the people who made Milan great in the distant noughties.
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