Milan 3-3 Liverpool | A game of two halves and one of the greatest Champions League comebacks ever


Build up:

The Champions League Final of the 2004/05 season saw Liverpool take on the Italian giants A.C. Milan at the Istanbul. The build up to the game was full of varied expectations and predictions as both the sides had been dominating the European football over different time periods with Liverpool having won it four times compared to Milan’s six trophies. It was the sixth final for Liverpool and tenth for Milan.

Quite intriguingly, Liverpool had failed to enter the top four that season in the Premier League and nothing less a than win in the final would ensure their place in the Champions league next season. Liverpool were considered as the underdogs coming into the game having qualified to the knock-out stages after finishing as the runners-up in their group to Monaco. But they had some great results for them brag about on their way into the finals. They beat Juventus in the Quarterfinals and the “Untouchables” Chelsea in the semi-finals.

Line ups:

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AC Milan (4-4-2 Diamond) | Manager: Carlo Ancelotti

1.Dida // 2-Cafu, 31-Jaap Stam, 13-Alessandro Nesta, 3-Paolo Maldini // 8-Gennaro Gattuso, 21-Andrea Pirlo, 20-Clarence Seedorf 22-Kaka // 11-Hernan Crespo, 7-Andriy Shevchenko.

Liverpool (4-4-1-1) | Manager: Rafael Benitez

1.Jerzy Dudek // 3-Steve Finnan, 23-Jamie Carragher, 4-Sami Hyypia, 21-Djimi Traore // 10-Luis Garcia, 8-Steven Gerrard, 14-Xabi Alonso, 6-John Arne Riise // 7-Harry Kewell // 5-Milan Baros.

Initial setup:

AC Milan were set up in a 4-4-2 diamond with Shevchenko leading the attack with Crespo. The diamond constituted of Pirlo at the back with Gattuso and Seedorf taking the flanks along with Kaka who played as the No.10. Jaap Stam and Nesta formed the core of the central defense flanked by Cafu and Maldini in the right and left back positions respectively. Pirlo was positioned in the deep playmaker’s role but he was also assigned the role to move even deeper to split the central two, collect the ball from the back and then provide the passes forward. Kaka deployed in the traditional CAM’s role was asked to find spaces between the lines of defense and midfield and he was often provided the path as the front two Shevchenko and Crespo moved into the wide areas.

On the other hand, Rafa Benitez shaped his side in a 4-4-1-1 formation with Baros leading the attack and Kewell behind him who would join him up front during the attacking phase in certain instances. The double pivot of Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard were supported by Luis Garcia and Riise in the flanks. Xabi Alono played a bit deeper than Gerrard who was involved with bringing the ball out from the back. Dudek was the between the sticks and was defended by a back four of Finnan, Carragher, Hyypia and Traore.

Space between the lines and Milan’s control of the game:

Right from the word go, Milan took the initiative and took total control of the game. They were even able to score a goal under the first minute courtesy of their captain Maldini who volleyed in home from Pirlo’s corner. The Italian giants were able to dominate the game in all phases as Liverpool failed to produce a single chance to their name.

Milan were often able to find spaces between the defensive lines. Shevcheko, Crespo, Kaka, Seedorf and Gattuso occupied oceans of space that were available. For Milan, their wing backs Maldini and Cafu often proved to be the outlets. Maldini would often carry out the ball from the back in the left flank whereas Cafu on the other hand would provide off the ball movements by bombing up forward.

This particular move of the Brazilian Cafu often made Seedorf and Pirlo find him through cross diagonal long balls from the middle or from the left flank. These situations often caused havoc for Liverpool on their left flank as Traore was often caught napping during the defensive phases as the sudden transitions from attack to defence helped Cafu win the 1v1s against the left back Traore with his much appreciated pace.

From the below instance we can identify Maldini bringing the ball from the back in the left flank and he can be seen in acres of space available in front of him. This is due to the counter and quick transition of defense to attack from Milan. Rossoneri were defensively astute in their half, giving Liverpool space to play in the second-third which didn’t bother them. This restricted Liverpool to more sideways passing and back passes. Liverpool looked to play out from the back through Xabi Alonso who dropped deep between the two central defenders when needed but clear zone oriented pressing from Milan allowed them to disrupt Liverpool’s chances of build ups.

From the above instance in the 13 minute, notice how Liverpool adopt two banks of four during their defensive phase. Kewell joined to help out his midfielders. However we can identify Pirlo, Seedorf and Shevchenko occupying dangerous positions before the final line of defense and the ability of Pirlo to play lofted balls and astute short passes puts Milan in a positional advantage.

The above instance once again shows the previously explained scenario where Liverpool defended in two banks of four but allowed opposition the space between the defensive lines to be occupied. The wide players also ensured that they provided another option to the ball carrier from the center to play it wide into the space behind them rather than playing it to the players in front of them. This type of control in the game was achieved only through their domination in the midfield which was aided by the presence of a diamond in the centre which is explained below.

From the below picture, we could once again witness Maldini brining the ball out from the back. Milan were able to conduct the game mainly through the dominance and control in the midfield. This was possible because of the diamond adopted by the Milan’s central four. The ability of Pirlo and Seedorf to drop deep at the right instances and play out from the back and also providing long balls to find players in space proved to be vital in this system.

The dynamic display of Kaka by moving from his original position to find space in the danger zones as well as playing key passes to the wide areas helped Milan to attack considerably well. As far as controlling the game play is concerned, the diamond was so close and was able to close the space in the centre immediately. They were so close in the centre that, the full backs Maldini and Cafu were always shown the green signal to bomb up forward and join in attacks.

While all the praise is given to Milan’s attack and their ability to be quick to find their players in dangerous zones, it must be said that Milan’s defense paved the way for such an attacking display. As Liverpool were just able to recycle possession in the second third, they were pressed by the Milan defense and midfield which proved to be very decisive. The lack of support provided by the Liverpool front two caused them issues as Liverpool lost the ball, almost every attack resulted in a dangerous counter.

Milan were stunning in the transition between defense to attack and their pace and quick passes outran Liverpool players in most occasions. This was mainly due to the Pirlo – Kaka – Crespo axis and this looked very dangerous in turnovers. Talking about the defense of Milan, they were very compact and allowed minimal chances to Liverpool. They diamond broke into a flat 3-1 shape as Pirlo, Gattuso and Seedorf joined the back four to form banks of three and four. They could’ve been exploited had Liverpool played two men out wide but they failed to do so.

These above situations showed two things. 1) Milan’s great performance and understanding of opponents’ weakness for a perfect 45 minutes. 2) Liverpool’s poor structural orientation and space occupancy. It looked as though Rafa Benitez played into the hands of his counter-part by adopting poor tactics and this fact was assisted by the performance of his players in the field at the end of first half. Defensively astute, offensively threatening and tactically adept –  these three terms could be said of the Milan side who dominated the first half and had one hand towards European Glory after an astounding 3-0 lead at the Half-time break.

Change in system and Liverpool’s improvisation:

By the end of the half Benitez realized that his side were tactically weak against Milan and hence decided to change the team’s structure which turned out to be one of the best tactical changes ever in the Champions League. Smicer was brought midway through the first half as Kewell was injured. He occupied the right wing in the midfield. Hamann was brought as a tactical switch which saw him play deep in the central midfield alongside Xabi Alonso. His presence allowed Alonso to move further during the purchases going forward.

In this system, Carragher, Hyypia and Traore completed the back three with Smicer and Riise acting as the wing backs. Gerrard and Garcia were deployed behind Milan Baros. They completed the 3-4-2-1 which looked a pretty good idea initially as this would give them a chance to control the midfield through which the Italian Giants were thriving. Benitez and his men aimed to take control of the game by creating a 6v4 overload in the midfield with both the wingbacks playing very high.

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Liverpool (3-4-2-1)

11.Smicer; 16.Hamann

As it can be seen from the above graphic, Liverpool have changed their structure in order compliment the lack of control in midfield. By this formation, the diamond will be occupied and the midfield is packed that Milan cannot play their way out and give the Reds the much needed dominance. The three at the back ensured that Liverpool were now able to rotate the ball freely unlike in the first half. Both Carragher and Traore went quite wide and by doing they helped themselves to play better passes forward to Alonso and Hamann. Also the 3-0 cushion made the Milan forwards quite complacent. The forwards did not show the same pressing actions like in the first half and this provided Liverpool the leeway they needed to have clean and stable progressions.

From the above image we can notice the changes made at the back made by Liverpool. Central midfielder Hamann came in for the right back Finnan and this gave the much needed space for the three players to circulate the ball around them and also create build ups from the back. In most occasions as Liverpool had the ball very high up the pitch either one of Traore and Carragher would join the central two as Hyypia would be the final player in front of Dudek. This allowed to recycle possession high up the field and also allowed Alonso to play more forward.

The below image shows the width offered by the wing backs which was lacking in the first half. This proved to be an important key for opening the lock as the first Liverpool came as a result of a Riise cross from the left flank. Both the wide players made sure that they took full advantage of the dropping back of Cafu and Maldini as they looked to sit back rather than going forward. Here Carragher (white circle) can be seen supporting the midfield duo giving them a numerical advantage in the second third.

In the second and final third, the marking scheme looked drastically improved as the key players Pirlo and Kaka were often declined access to the ball. Pirlo was tracked by Gerrard whereas Garcia followed Gattuso. At the back both Xabi Alonso and Hamann double marked Kaka in certain instances which made sure that he couldn’t find his teammates both forward as well as backward. This helped Liverpool gain advantages in the wide areas when Milan lost the ball, Liverpool looked to play to their wide men who were often in 1v1 situations and also found support from the ball near inside forward. The below graphic depicts the situations through which Liverpool were able to win the ball back in the much improved second half.

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In defensive phases, Liverpool were well organized in the second half as they allowed very less chances for Milan to carve out opportunties. They defended in a back five which helped to negate Rossoneri’s chances of scoring another goal. There was nothing more than this instance given to explain about Liverpool’s defense in the half as all the action took place in the second third and final third.

Final changes and complacency towards the end:

As the game wore on, both the teams were complacent with the score line and looked to see off the time. The play revolved mostly around the middle third. Both the teams looked to pass the ball sideways and it was Liverpool who had most of the possession towards the end. They were aiming to create chances with minimal risks. This was done to avoid quick counters if they lost the ball while circulating in the center or in the middle third. In most occasions they were involved in occupying the centre and playing long balls via Gerrard and Alonso. By doing this, it showed that they were not willing to take the risk to score the next goal and Milan on the other hand were no different.

The Rossoneri were chasing the ball as Liverpool saw most of the possession. Ancelotti introduced Serignho to the left wing during the dying minutes of the second half in a game which was going into extra time. Serginho was fresh and he was fast. His presence in the field now meant that Cafu was also pushed a further upfront on the opposite flank with Maldini becoming the third central defender along with Staam and Nesta. This resulted in a structure akin to 3-4-1-2 and gave them the width in midfield. To counter this, Benitez played Gerrard in the right flank to stifle out the threats caused by Serginho. The below graphic depicts the structure of the teams played in the final minutes of the game.

Milan ( 3-4-1-2)

27.Serginho; 15.Tomasson

Liverpool (3-5-1-1)

After ending extra time on 3-3, the drama went on to penalties where Milan succumbed. They were rattled by Liverpool’s comeback and missed three of their five penalties. Serginho, Pirlo and finally Shevchenko all failed to score as Liverpool won the match dramatically. Football won too as it was a comeback to be cherished purely for the nature of the game and how it had panned out over the course of 120 minutes.


Liverpool who started the second half looked as the exact opposite side who played in the first 45 minutes. They had width, their passes were better and their use of space improved as they looked tactically wonderful. The match which was expected to be a boring match and it was thought that both defences would cancel out each other. This was the way how both the teams played throughout the tournament by being defensively strict.

In the end, while Milan’s aim to replicate the team under Sacchi failed, the game proved to be a great entertainer and was one of the best comebacks made in the history of Champions League. The fact that Liverpool found the mental strength to come back like that after being 3-0 down in a Champions League final speaks volume of their character. Rafa Benitez made amends to his blunders in the first half as Liverpool mounted a surreal comeback. The win gave Liverpool their fifth European title and an opportunity to defend their Champions League title next season having failed to qualify through top four in the Premier League. Steven Gerrard was rightly adjudged as the Man of the Match. . Istanbul will sure always stay in every football fan’s heart as one of best Champions League game ever played, if not the best in itself.