Milan 2, Liverpool 1
Okay, it's way over by now. I'm not going to go minute-by-minute recap here. That might kill us both.
This, what happened in Athens, Greece on 5-23-07 was the game you might have expected in Istanbul in 2005. Instead, '05 was a circus - the kind of circus where the elephant rider falls off, into the lion's den, and the lion tamer grabs a juggler's flaming baton to help her, when suddenly an acrobat falls on the baton and immediately catches fire, and just then the ringmaster says, "That's it folks, goodnight!" and they close the tent - and this, on this night, was a football game. And one man can be found responsible for its outcome. Well, maybe two.
- Full discretion: I missed the intro. And the first five minutes. Deplorable, I know, but I was taking a shower. Besides I knew all the pre-game. I'd seen every game leading up to it. And, lemme guess, Athens... Couple shots of the Parthenon? Night shots? Coupla' outdoor staduim shots? A blimp shot? Couple statues with no arms, couple with no legs? I'll be fine.
And the only way anything important happened in the first few minutes is if someone walked onto the field, pulled out a gun, and shot Liverpool's left winger in both legs.
- In my preview I focused only on Gerrard and Kaka, because they are the players I want to see most. I left out the following players, whose names are followed by match ratings (out of 5, with half-points, mostly because it seems more European) and descriptions of their game.
Dirk Kuyt (4.0) - Big Dutch striker, strong, lefty hits a hard shot and a good header, not a fan of subtlety. He doesn't make anything look easy, but he makes himself a target, and he doesn't give the ball away easily. THIS MATCH: Can't play alone up front, not against top-level defenders. Kuyt was reduced to constantly fighting for position, and he would use that position to... poke the ball back where it came from. Not a bad idea, but eventually it just looked too negative. He scored, though.
Xabi Alonso (3.0) - Spanish playmaker. Operates on ball-striking and creativity more than speed or dribbling. If you're getting open, he's great. If not he's just an effective distributor. Defensive liability. THIS MATCH: Again, no good with one striker. He needs the guys in front of him moving and popping-up, so he can either find them or fake a pass and shoot. Nothing significant from him all night, and he fouled to lead to the first goal.
Jamie Carragher, Steve Finnan (3.0, 3.0) - Defenders. English, Irish respectively. Everything else is mostly the same. Dark-haired, short-haired, hard workers, hard tacklers. Watch your ankles and knees. Neither of them fast enough to catch or keep up with strikers, so they like to hover near a forward and then pounce when he's weak. Carragher more consistent. THIS MATCH: Carragher okay, Finnan okay. But Inzaghi wasn't even looking that dangerous, and I seem to remember him jogging in alone late in the second half.
Jermaine Pennant (3.5) - One of 6 British stories that have gone like this in the past 8 years: midfielder, great speed, all the offensive tools. Once put together all of these skills in five or ten games in a row, media instantly names him a fixture on the national team for the next decade... had an equal number of bad games and was immediately written off as done, career over, forever. All this, and he's only 24. But it's hard to tell how good he is when he doesn't get a lot of run. Fact is, he's still got all the tools. (Kieron Dyer, Sean Wright Phillips, Aaron Lennon, Nigel Reo-Coker, Jermaine Jenas, Keiran Richardson... that's seven). THIS MATCH: Very effective going forward first half, but never got back into it in the second half. Maybe he put it all out there in the first 45, and on another night, he could've come off at the hour mark for crazy Craig Bellamy.
John Arne Riise, Daniel Agger (3.0, 3.0) - covered Riise in a previous post. Take that, make him younger, and Danish instead of Norwegian. Now take 10 miles an hour off his left-footed shot. That's Agger, who's also starting for 'Pool. Both are big, capable defenders, but if they expend too much energy chasing and sliding, their left-footed powers are wasted. THIS MATCH: They got forward a little bit, and Riise hit a good one in the first half. But in the second half they resigned themselves to shooting behind the crowd. 'Pool needed a few more good balls zinging across the box. Neither of them had much spark, and there defense wasn't enough to make up for it.
Javi Mascherano (4.0) - New arrival, thick legged-Argentinian whose main task is to block up the middle of the field. When Riise, Agger or Finnan range forward, he picks up their slack. A big part of how Mascherano plays is how he looks. I'm not gonna' say a guy's ugly. But Mascherano looks like he's taken 5-10 serious elbows to the mouth every week for, oh, 15 years. He defends like he has nothing to lose, and he hates you, though he may in fact be a nice guy. THIS MATCH: Best defender they had. Seems to have something on Kaka, which, worldwide, makes him one of the one players who can say that. Fearless. If he could just get the ball to half, and then give it to Stevie G, maybe...
Bolo Zenden (1.0) - Left-footed Dutch winger. I failed to mention that among the "great players" in this match, there was also this impostor. I assume he was effective somewhere along the line of the five top-notch, world class teams. But he never stayed with any of them for long, and that should be a blinking, smoking red flag. I've seen Zenden play a few times this year, and, although he's not an exciting dribbler, he seems to do everything well except run, pass and shoot.
Harry Kewell - Left-footed Australian winger. Maybe best overall Aussie talent ever. Smooth, fast, graceful. Probably was the way he always tied his longish hair behind him, but I always thought he looked like a karate guy who decided to kick the ball instead. He carried himself that same way.
- Side note: If you can belive it, Bolo was a martial arts prodigy. By contrast, he carries himself like a giant, dying, flightless bird. An albatross, if you will. Liverpool's albatross. He stinks. We'll be back to him for more in a bit.
Peter Crouch - Already covered him a couple weeks ago. To my eyes, by far - by far - Liverpool's best offensive target. So tall and long, and coordinated enough that he's got a better chance at controlling a nearby ball than almost anyone marking him. And the finishing - HELLO - is there. THIS MATCH: I thought he contributed very poorly while he was on the bench the first 75 minutes. I hardly even noticed he was on the bench. He's got to learn how to score from the bench. SEV-en-ty-FIVE MINUTES!
Jose "Pepe" Reina (3.5) - Streaky Spanish goalkeeper. Athletic, good feel for the action, good shotstopper. Special, unteachable skill of guessing the right way on penalty kicks. THIS MATCH: Not much he could do on either goal. A top three or top five keeper in the world might get a paw on one of those. He is neither top three nor top five, and he didn't.
Quick note on Kaka: his real name is Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite. So, I'm not sure where you get Kaka from, but, I don't think it took long for people around him to realize, "He's really great. We need something less than eleven syllables.
Andrea Pirlo (3.5) - technically perfect Italian midfielder. Free kick, corner kick specialist. Top level ball striker. Plays a ton of promising balls in front of his attackers, makes few mistakes. Good defender. THIS MATCH: Too much defense for my liking. It looked like he constantly either wanted to get fouled or quickly roll it to Kaka and then just say, "Go." Gets + 0.5 points for pinpointing his free kick to Pipo's shoulder.
Clarence Seedorf (3.0) - Streaky Dutch midfielder. If he's drawn into the offense early, can make game-changing plays. Otherwise, can completely disappear, and be reduced to a highly-skilled cog. Low center of gravity, strong hips and legs - not going to be pushed anywhere, anytime. Erratic defense. THIS MATCH: No big mistakes, no big nothing. When did he get subbed? 69 minutes? What? 89? Who knew?
Ivan Gennaro Gattuso (3.5) - See Javier Mascherano. Make him Italian. THIS MATCH: Big-time nuisance. Handful of fouls that disrupted Liverpool's flow.
Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta (3.5, 3.5) - Former superstar defenders. Since surpassed by fellow Italians, but, even at 38 and 31 - 38! - absolute lockdown guys. They know what foot you want to shoot with, they know what's going to happen if they put an elbow in your back or a foot to your shin. You've got to come at them over and over to get both of them to make a mistake on the same play. THIS MATCH: Got an easy ride in the first half when Kuyt was all alone, and allowed Pennant and then Stevie to get through, though neither of them with much of an angle. Other than that, they kept their midfield organized and behind the ball, and did their best to defend against long shots.
Fillipo "Pipo" Inzaghi (5.0) - Classic Italian goal-poacher. Never runs too far too fast. Doesn't need to. Stays near the ball, stays near the goal. Eventually a midfielder finds him, or the ball finds him, but at 33 he's well past the days of making things happen for himself. Or anyone else. THIS MATCH: Quick note on the shoulder goal - can we at least get a smile out of this guy? Does he have to dash off, shouting, like he in any way wanted that to happen? I've seen Inzaghi react like this to flukes before, and I've also seen him try to claim other people's goals and own goals. Now THAT, my friend, is an Italian goalscorer. But Inzaghi, who ran about 100 meters all night long and looked lost at times, saw his spot, broke through, and scored. That's all you want out of a striker in a big, hunker-down defensive match - score on your best chance.
Nelson Dida (4.5) -Brazilian goalkeeper. One of the best. No one, anywhere, makes a save that he can't make. Concentration and positioning lapse at times, but he's so quick - and so, uh, 6-foot-5 - that he's always got a chance to bail himself out. THIS MATCH: Not too many real tests. Two, to be exact, that he could have stopped. Pennant, and then Gerrard. No goal. That's all you want.
That's it for them. Marek Jankulovski and Massimo Oddo both do one thing, just on opposite sides of the field. Marek on the left, Oddo on the right: get to the corner, kick it towards the front of the goal, try and keep it high. If anyone gets near you with the ball, try and foul. Thanks, your check is in the mail. One of them is Polish, one's Italian. Figure it out for yourself.
I would've liked to find some great insight into this game while I was watching it, some thing that often clicks when I watch basketball or football and, increasingly, soccer.
The best thing that came to me is that you can start three lefties from goofy, northern European countries - but not FOUR.
But my only real insight was this. When you look at those lineups, if my descriptions are accurate, Milan is older but more talented in the middle, at the back, and in goal. You - normally, mind you, normally - give the wings to Liverpool, and the forward battle probably goes there way, too, because Gerrard was all over the place playing just behind Kuyt. Kaka was very good at moments, and he timed his pass to Inzaghi perfectly. But Gerrard was called upon to do everything, and he impressed, moreso even than Kaka.
So, reading what you've read (you read this?), the two guys who decided this were Dida and Inzaghi, right?
No, not unless you're in Milan tonight. The most valuable men in Athens for AC Milan were on the Liverpool side. One was wearing a suit, and the other was dressed like a giant, dying bird.
Rafa Benitez is not the kind of manager who would give a shit what I think, and in a way I like that about him. The English press is so ruthless, so presumptive about managers. When he names his lineups, reporters probably try to immediately come up with desparaging headlines.
"Raf-a-el: BLOOD-Y HELL!"
"RAFA-BENI: AN ENEMY OF MANY"
Headlines is all they do over there. Headlines and Kate Moss pictures, and Kate Moss headlines.
So Rafa does whatever he wants. Here's a great, great story. He didn't name the same starting lineup for two consecutive games for his first 99 games at Liverpool. There was always at least one change from the previous game. Then, his 100th lineup was identical to his 99th. That's what you call a professional wink, or maybe it's a finger to the press.
However tall Peter Crouch is, he hasn't figured out how to lean in for a header while he's sitting ON THE BENCH. The first goal was a fluke, and maybe Rafa didn't think they would need more than one goal. Maybe he was assuming an overtime.
But Bolo Zenden was, in Athens Greece, a disaster. I must think that, on some day in some city, he knew how to play this game. Not today, and not the times I saw him before that. The ESPN Gamecast called him "ineffective." Ineffective? How about "morbid"? "Cancerous."
Zenden was the 800-pound gorilla on the left wing. He was the statue with no arms and legs.
And yet, he played 58 minutes. Harry Kewell, though an improvement, didn't look too good either. So, there's your two favorite options on the left, neither looking very helpful to you. What do you do?
I don't know. They don't pay me to figure that out. They don't pay me anything. No one does.
But Rafa's got a job. And he didn't do it tonight.