UEFA Champions’ League Final: AC Milan vs Liverpool, 2007: Athens, May 23
Tactical, it was. And it was brilliant, observes Kashinath Bhattacharjee
Kaka – 2, Gerrard -0!
Milan went ahead on the verge of the break in Athens because Kaka was fouled on the edge of the box. Andrea Pirlo’s free kick found Pippo Inzaghi’s shoulder to deflect into the nets. Xabi Alonso had to foul Kaka to deny him the shooting opportunity.
Then the moment of the unspectacular final arrived when Kaka passed the ball for Inzaghi to help him take his permanent place in the history of AC Milan. Pure, sublime skill that touches your imagination and forces you to ponder over what makes them so special!
On the contrary, Steven Gerrard had set the grass on fire, as the British would have liked it. But, he could not beat Dida this time since he had to place it from close quarters and the British, eternally, can never place it right! If it was a chance from 30-yards, Gerrard would have unleashed a rocket that would challenge the stitch of the nets, undoubtedly. Or, for that matter, a header would have been ideal for him. But placing is “Hebrew” to even Steven Gerrard!
Those who love to see British football, love this work-man like effort. They run and run and run, earn their bread by the disciplined work-rate, as it was a rule in their life following the industrial revolution. They are as blunt as you can think of, absolutely ignorant about on the ball activities, know only to run and then, sending a cross to the box – simple!
For a section of experts, this is what modern football is. The discipline, the work-rate. Alas, they fail to understand the basic requirement of a football match – a goal. To score a goal, you need to break the barrier of the opponent defenders. All your skills are needed on the attacking third of the field to outwit the defenders. You can reach there by any means but once you are there, you have to find ways to surprise them. And in British football, surprise-elements are rarely found!
Not only in British football, North Europe suffer from the same lack of imagination on the attacking third of the field. Because they do not believe in build-ups, because they want to reach the opponent box by the minimum touches - if possible, by a shot alone, if a long shot can do so, why should we break the rhythm by unnecessary touches! They know how to shot, how to head, but, not how to pass.
Michael Hidalgo was in the France Bench when Michael Platini was his captain. Hidalgo learnt his lessons from Alber Batreaux, his coach in Stade de Reems. Real and Reems played the first European final and even today, people can not forget the flair they had seen on that first European final between two South European giants.
But what had made the Frenchman, Batreaux, so special?
He was the unsupported founder of pattern-playing in football. He taught his footballers simple things. In a soccer field, you do not find it problem to reach the opponent box. There are so many ways to reach there. But when you are there, you have to be at the best of your creativity to out-think the defenders. So, stock your energy to burst in the attacking third.
His favourite student, Hidalgo, in possession of a great midfield under the able leadership of Platini and a tireless worker in Jean Tigana, decided to go one up than his predecessor. He was the first man to use five midfielders, even he wanted to use six! But he preached not to make the middle third over-crowded. That would jam the game in the mid-way, he opined. If the opponent players were not allowed to come to you, you cannot have open space in their half, either. So, he used three midfielders as “tactically loose elements” who would not have any specific duty to shoulder. Platini was instrumental in that role. He did what he felt he should. If it was destruction, he did so. Playmaking? Was there a footballer in Europe with a better vision then? And he scored important goals, too.
English football will never have this luxury. They know they are in the field to do some specific duties. And they would abide by their boss, always!
Since a coach can never define what exactly you need to do to break the opponent defense, English footballers cannot carry out their coaches’ orders and are a total failure if they are not to head the skiers there!
Liverpool, being as mediocre as it can get, lost the final plot right there. They were allowed to come to the Milan box, Nesta being at the vertex of the funnel, took out the ball and Liverpool could not open the face of the goal except once when Gerrard did so and failed to place the ball past Dida. They were relentless at their attack, without venom on the final third and failed miserably there, as expected.
Milan knew that Liverpool would not be able to keep the tempo. In the second half, they played possessional football, denying Liverpool the space and pace and controlled the game as they would have liked it. Even after Dirk Quyt had headed (yes, headed in, not placed in!) in on the 89th minute, they were not panicked. Kaka held the ball to eternity, taking out the initiative from the Red Bulls, closed the match coolly to complete a revenge of 2005.
The British love to utter “Rafalution” for what Rafa Benitez did for Liverpool. But under Carlo Ancelotti, Milan had reached three Champions’ League finals in the last five seasons, winning two of them. He had the upper-hand as far as the tactical battle was concerned.
“Rafalutions”, thus, became “Rafa-illusions”!
PS: Peter Crouch is no Philippo Inzaghi. If he was there in the starting line up, too, it would not have made any difference, no matter how the British newspapers found an excuse under that mistake from Benitez. Rafa was right. Crouch, against Maldini and Nesta, would have been purely a watcher!