| AC Milan captain Paolo Maldini at a press conference in Istanbul on Tuesday
Istanbul: Liverpool will need to display the cunning and conviction that defined their European golden age if they are to upset predictions and beat a more accomplished AC Milan side in Wednesday’s Champions League final.
The English club, four-time winners between 1977 and 1984, revived memories of those heady European nights in seeing off Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea in the knockout rounds to reach their first final in the competition in 20 years.
This clash with Milan, who won the European Cup for the sixth time in 2003, presents a still greater challenge for a Liverpool side with a threadbare look compared to Carlo Ancelotti’s team.
“We know we’re not the favourites going into the game,” Liverpool’s Spanish coach Rafael Benitez recognised. “But we deserve to be in the final and now we’re here we have nothing to lose. Everything is possible.”
Surprisingly, Wednesday’s game at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium will be the first Uefa competition meeting of two sides who have racked up 504 European matches between them and appeared in 21 finals.
It comes in the 50th final since the competition began in the 1955-56 season.
For Milan it will be a fifth final since 1993; for Liverpool a first since the tragedy of 1985, when the English club’s rioting fans caused a wall to collapse at the Heysel Stadium, causing the deaths of 39 people, mostly Juventus fans.
Liverpool, in their first season under Benitez, finished fifth in England’s Premier League and will be playing in the lesser Uefa Cup next season unless they win on Wednesday and are given special dispensation to defend the trophy.
Milan were much more impressive in Serie A, finishing runners-up to Juventus, but after seeing Liverpool prevail against their Italian rivals with a mixture of attacking panache and uncompromising commitment they will be far from complacent.
“It’s not a surprise that Liverpool are here,” said Milan’s Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf, the only man to have won the competition with three different clubs.
“We’re talking about a team that’s part of European history.”
Liverpool were banned from European competition for six years in the wake of the Heysel disaster and the return to the top of the European game has been a long and frustrating process, although they did win the Uefa Cup for the third time in 2001.
Milan have also experienced years starved of success at the highest level. After winning the European Cup for the second time in 1969, they had to wait 20 years before winning it again with a 4-0 victory over Steaua Bucharest.
The Italians are playing in their 10th European Cup or Champions League final and are aiming for their seventh victory. Only Real Madrid, with nine titles, have been European champions more times.
Ancelotti is one of four men to have won the European Cup as both a player and a coach. He was in Milan’s winning side in 1989 and 1990 and was coach when they beat Juventus on penalties in 2003.
| Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez at a press conference in Istanbul on Tuesday. (Reuters)
Ancelotti looks increasingly likely to play Dutchman Jaap Stam alongside Alessandro Nesta in central defence, while moving Paolo Maldini to left back.
The other question mark over the Milan team is whether Hernan Crespo or Filippo Inzaghi starts in attack alongside European Player of the Year Andriy Shevchenko.
Benitez has a similar dilemma with Igor Biscan and Dietmar Hamann vying for a place in a five-man midfield. He must also decide between Milan Baros and Djibril Cisse as his main striker.
Liverpool’s top scorer in Europe this season has been the Spaniard Luis Garcia. The former Barcelona player has scored five goals from midfield, including a spectacular strike against Juventus in the quarter finals and the controversial winner against Chelsea.
Shevchenko has scored six Champions League goals this season. The Ukrainian bagged the winning penalty in Milan’s shootout win over Juventus two years ago and the presence of the European Player of the Year is the biggest argument in favour of another success for the Italians.
AC Milan: Dida; Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Kakha Kaladze/Jaap Stam; Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf; Kaka; Hernan Crespo/Filippo Inzaghi, Andriy Shevchenko.
Liverpool: Jerzy Dudek; Steve Finnan, Jamie Carragher, Sami Hyypia, Djimi Traore; Dietmar Hamann/Igor Biscan), Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, John Arne Riise, Luis Garcia; Milan Baros/Djibril Cisse.