About That Game is a series looking at the data stories underpinning classic matches. This edition looks back at the Miracle of Istanbul, in which Liverpool came from 3-0 down to Milan at half-time to eventually lift the UEFA Champions League trophy after a penalty shootout.
The greatest European Cup final ever? The greatest comeback in football history? One of the greatest football matches of all-time?
We’ll let you decide where the game ranks. Few would disagree that the 2005 UEFA Champions League final in Istanbul is at least in the conversation for each of those questions.
What is fair to say is that frankly the game was a mismatch – or at least it should have been. One of Milan’s finest ever sides with one of Europe’s brightest managers took on a Liverpool team that was in its first European Cup final for 20 years. A Liverpool side that had gone 15 years without a league title. A Liverpool side that had finished fifth in the Premier League that season, below Merseyside rivals Everton for the first time in 18 years.
Indeed, only once since 2005 has a side reached the Champions League final despite finishing fifth or lower in their league that season (Chelsea in 2011-12 – sixth in the Premier League). And we all know how that one ended up.
Carlo Ancelotti was Milan’s manager. The same Ancelotti who has just become the first manager in history to lead a side to win each of Europe’s big five leagues. Here we are, 17 years on, and he’ll be taking Liverpool on in Europe’s biggest final once more. It will be his fifth Champions League final as a manager – the most by anyone in European Cup history. He had already won the competition as Milan manager once before 2005. His pedigree at the highest level is matched by few.
On top of this, Milan’s starting XI for the match read like a World XI in the FIFA video game series. Combined, those 11 starters had made 575 European Cup/Champions League appearances before the 2005 final. Liverpool’s had made less than half that number (250).
Eight of Milan’s starting XI had played in – and won – a Champions League final before 2005, while not one of Liverpool’s had done so.
Most notably, Milan captain Paolo Maldini was making his seventh and penultimate appearance in UEFA’s showpiece event, with his eighth and final one coming in the rematch between Milan and Liverpool in 2007 – a joint-record by any player, alongside Paco Gento, who also made eight with Real Madrid from 1956 to 1966.
Indeed, the 2005 final was 16 years on from Maldini’s first in 1989. Almost as long as the 17 years it has now been since that final in Istanbul. For some perspective, can you imagine Xabi Alonso – Liverpool’s youngest 2005 finalist at 23 years, 181 days old – also starting the 2021 final? Remarkable longevity from a fabulous player.
That’s the sort of experience Liverpool were up against. Experience that Liverpool fell 1-0 behind to within 50 seconds of match starting, the fastest goal in any Champions League final. The then 36-year-old Maldini was the scorer, still the oldest Champions League final scorer ever.
Liverpool were already in trouble. Milan had kept nine clean sheets in 12 Champions League matches in 2004-05 before the final, the most of any side. On top of that, Liverpool had only scored 15 goals in their 12 previous Champions League matches that season – at 1.25 goals-per-game, only two sides have ever reached the competition’s showpiece with a lower ratio: Milan in 1994-95 (1.10) and Arsenal in 2005-06 (1.17).
Matters were made worse for Liverpool when Harry Kewell was forced off with an injury in just the 23rd minute. In fairness, the Reds held their own for a period, not allowing Milan a single shot between minutes 19 to 38. Perhaps if they could get in at half-time with the score 1-0, they would have a chance…
Hernán Crespo had other ideas. He scored twice in the final seven minutes of the first half, the first after a square pass from Andriy Shevchenko and the second set up quite exquisitely by Kaká – the youngest player on the pitch at 23 years, 33 days old – with an inch-perfect through ball from inside his own half. Crespo remains one of only three players to score twice in the first half of a Champions League final.
So, the opening 45 minutes was the mismatch it looked on paper. Liverpool now needed to find three goals in 45 minutes against one of Europe’s tightest defences. And this was not a free-scoring Liverpool. All told in 2004-05, they netted a total of 82 goals in 60 matches, or 1.37 per game. That was their lowest goals-per-game ratio in all competitions in a season since 1973-74 (1.31).
It’s no surprise then that Opta’s live win probability model measured Liverpool’s chances of taking home the trophy at just 0.55% heading into the 54th minute of the match, with the score still 3-0.
But then Steven Gerrard scored. The club captain rose to meet John Arne Riise’s cross and head the ball past Milan’s Dida in goal. It was the third of seven occasions that Riise assisted a Gerrard goal for Liverpool – the most often any one team-mate assisted Gerrard in his entire 710-game, 186-goal Liverpool career.
It was Gerrard’s first headed goal for Liverpool in almost four years, and what a time to get it. In all, it was his 13th goal of the 2004-05 season in all competitions, but only two of them came in the Champions League proper. He couldn’t have picked better moments to score those two goals – his famous strike against Olympiakos to secure Liverpool’s progression from the group stage, and then this in the final.
Also remarkably, 13 goals were enough to make Gerrard Liverpool’s joint-top scorer of the season, along with Luis García and Milan Baros. Only once since the Football League resumed post-World War II has Liverpool’s top scorer in a season netted fewer than 13 goals (Michael Owen’s 12 in 1999-00). It further highlights just how incredibly unlikely this comeback was.
Despite this, it then took just two minutes for Liverpool to get their second. The scorer was Vladimir Smicer. It was his first goal of the season. His first, in fact, for a period of a year and 148 days for Liverpool. The Czech midfielder hadn’t even started the match, and only came on after Kewell’s first-half injury. This was his 184th and final Liverpool appearance.
In fact, Smicer remains one of only two players in Liverpool’s entire history to score in a major final in his last game for the club, with the other being Djibril Cissé in the following year’s FA Cup final.
It was also Smicer’s first Champions League goal since November 2002 against Basel. And in a frightening coincidence, that game against Basel saw Liverpool 3-0 behind at half-time. Smicer scored Liverpool’s second goal en-route to coming back to draw 3-3. You couldn’t make it up.
There have only been eight individual matches in Champions League history in which a team had come from three goals down to avoid defeat, with Liverpool the only club to do so more than once, and Smicer scored their second on both occasions.
So, from 3-0 to 3-2. And Liverpool weren’t done yet. Gerrard was involved again as he burst into the box before being felled by Gennaro Gattuso. VAR didn’t exist in 2005, but if it had it might have got involved to spoil the romance of the moment. The contact was faint. But this was a simpler time. The referee’s decision was final. Penalty to Liverpool.
Up stepped Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard had never previously taken a penalty for Liverpool before. But here he was, the youngest Liverpool player on the pitch taking the most important kick of the match. But despite his youth, you have to admire his dedication to the drama of the night. Because he missed. Or more accurately, Dida saved. However, he parried the ball straight back out, only for Alonso to make amends from the rebound.
⌚️ 54 minutes: AC Milan 3-0 Liverpool— ITV Football (@itvfootball) July 29, 2020
⌚️ 60 minutes: AC Milan 3-3 Liverpool
WHAT A COMEBACK FROM @LFC! 😱
This is a @ChampionsLeague final we’ll be talking about for generations! 🤩 pic.twitter.com/CUXmXz0gKz
Liverpool had done it. From 3-0 down to 3-3. Against this superb Milan side.
Well, except they hadn’t done it. Opta’s live win probability of Liverpool lifting the trophy after Alonso’s goal was now 36.7%. A vast improvement on the 0.55% it had been seven minutes earlier. But still Liverpool were underdogs. They were level on the scoreboard but there was half an hour to play. Plus, as became the case, the possibility of extra-time. So, an hour more football would be played. Alonso’s goal effectively came at half-time.
But what a match this had become. Six goals remain the most in any Champions League final and the most in a European Cup final since 1962 (Benfica 5-3 Real Madrid).
Liverpool had the momentum, but it was Milan who re-exerted their superiority for the rest of the game. After Alonso’s equaliser, there were 20 shots taken by both sides in the match and Milan had 14 of these. In fact, Alonso’s goal was the last time Liverpool would manage to have a shot from inside the box for the rest of the tie.
This was effectively now a case of whether Liverpool could hold on for the penalty shootout. And the final story of the match was a battle between a striker and a goalkeeper. Andriy Shevchenko vs. Jerzy Dudek.
The Polish ‘keeper made seven saves in the final, five of which were from shots by Shevchenko, including four after Liverpool’s equaliser and three in extra-time.
With six goals that season, the Ukrainian was Milan’s top Champions League goalscorer coming into the 2005 final. He had scored in the quarter-final and semi-final to help his side reach the showpiece event. In fact, Shevchenko was one of the top five Champions League scorers of all-time on the date of the 2005 final.
But here he was being consistently denied by Dudek. And most famously of all was a double stop late into the second half of extra-time. The first was from a header, which Dudek parried downwards, allowing Shevchenko to react. The rebound was barely two yards out. But somehow, Dudek managed to stick out a strong enough arm to deflect the shot over the bar.
We all know about Jerzy Dudek’s penalty shootout heroics in Liverpool’s win in Istanbul…— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) May 25, 2019
But this double save in the *117th minute* to deny Andriy Shevchenko was absolutely crucial!
It was one of those moments where, from a Milan perspective, you just knew it wasn’t to be for them that night.
It was Milan’s 25th and final shot of the final. Since 2005, only one side has fired in more in a Champions League final – Bayern Munich’s 43 against Chelsea in 2012, which they also went on to lose on penalties to an English club.
But, thanks to Dudek, Liverpool had survived Milan’s barrage. And so, to penalties. For only an eighth time, the European Cup/Champions League would be decided by a shootout.
Milan had won the last-such final to go the distance, beating Juventus 3-2 on penalties in 2003. But Liverpool came into this final with an exceptional shootout record, winning seven of eight in all competitions beforehand, with Dudek the goalkeeper for two of those.
Milan would miss both of their first two penalties in the shootout through Serginho and Andrea Pirlo, putting Liverpool firmly in the driving seat now.
The Reds saw three of their first four penalties find the net, which left Milan’s final taker needing to score. Shevchenko against Dudek, one last time.
Shevchenko had scored Milan’s fifth and final penalty in the 2003 final. But having been denied by Dudek five times over the course of the game, with that late double stop fresh in his mind, he saw his kick saved. Dudek was Liverpool’s hero.
Liverpool had won the European Cup for a fifth time, and first since 1984.
Fast forward to 2022, and the Reds are facing a Carlo Ancelotti side in the final again – for a third time to be exact. The Italian won’t want to be reminded of the events of 2005, but he no doubt will be in the build-up. He, and Milan, got their revenge over Liverpool in 2007. This time, it’s Real Madrid that Ancelotti leads into the final.
Ancelotti’s Madrid side have already had more than their fair share of drama in this season’s Champions League. But if there’s one thing that 2005 taught us, it’s that you can’t rule anything out.
You can watch extended highlights of the game here.
Enjoy this? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive exclusive content.