Glory for AC Milan as Inzaghi nets double

by James Mulligan

ATHENS — AC Milan exacted revenge for the nightmare of Istanbul two years ago but it took the Italians a little bit of luck allied with a slightly superior creativity to beat a dominant but uninspiring Liverpool in the Champions League final on Wednesday night for their seventh European Cup crown.

News photo
Paolo Maldini, captain of AC Milan, holds the Champions League trophy aloft at Olympic Stadium in Athens on Wednesday night.
AP PHOTOS

Two goals from Filippo Inzaghi, one fortuitous, one devastatingly simple, gave a 2-1 victory that was enough to banish memories of their second-half capitulation at the hands of the Reds in the 2005 final, despite the Milanese looking second best to their well-organized opponents for much of the game in front of 74,000 at Olympic Stadium.

It was Milan’s little bit of extra class that told in the end, though, with Brazilian Kaka and Inzaghi unlocking the Liverpool defense with eight minutes to go to kill off the game, that after the Italian striker had deflected in a free-kick on the stroke of halftime for the lead.

Dirk Kuyt’s header with a minute to go was merely a consolation in a match that never really threatened to break into something approaching the battle by the Bosphorus.

Captain Paolo Maldini lifted the coveted cup after his eighth appearance in the final, matching the record set by Real Madrid’s Francisco Gento in the 1950s and ’60s.

Milan’s previous victories were in ’63, ’69, ’89, ’90, ’94 and 2003. The 4-0 victory over Barcelona in ’94 also was in Athens.

For Milan’s opening goal, free-kicks cannot be given away in worse places than where Xabi Alonso bundled over Kaka and goals cannot come at a worst time, Andrea Pirlo’s tamely struck free-kick ricocheting off Inzaghi’s left side — the hint of handball as the ball hit his upper arm surely only visible in the replay — and past the helpless Jose Reina on the cusp of halftime.

It was far from what Milan deserved after the Reds had grabbed the game by the scruff of its neck from the start.

Canny Rafa Benitez had his tactics spot on from the offing. The twin threats of Pirlo and Kaka were negated simply by Liverpool taking the game to Milan.

Whereas Benitez’s bullish tactics proved folly in 2005 when a chastised Reds trudged off at halftime 3-0 the worse to wear, this time the Milanese didn’t appear, at first, to have the tools to punish such effrontery.

But then neither did Liverpool have such hardware to kill off the game in the first period — not for the want of chances, however.

News photoLiverpool’s Steven Gerrard walks off the pitch after his side lost Wednesday’s Champions League final to AC Milan.

Jermaine Pennant was the first to test Dida, who got down to swat his shot away.

John Arne Riise and Alonso stirred the crowd with shots struck high and wide.

But for all their possession, and the manager’s guile, the Reds were let down by players who were, are and, barring a miracle, will never be, up to scratch at the upper echelons of Champions League soccer.

Kuyt is always a 100 percent grafter, but never looked a game-changer up against Alessandro Nesta and Maldini.

Bolo Zenden, a technically and tactically astute performer, was let down once again by a lack of pace and inability to cross a ball with any menace. Left wing is thus an unfortunate position for him to be occupying.

If Harry Kewell, on the bench, was as near to fitness as Benitez suggested, his second-half cameo in place of Zenden came much too late.

When Milan did steal the ball in the first period, the sole threat was Kaka, despite the shackles of Argentine Javier Mascherano.

It was the Brazilian playmaker, the best and most beguiling to watch in the world at this moment, at the center of all that was good for Milan. His shimmies, his sways, his utter mastery of the ball were captivating.

One snapshot from 25 meters reared up and needed Reina to keep his eye on it, before an outrageous turn in the middle of the park had the crowd not swathed in Red cooing.

With Mascherano ably assisted by Alonso, who was baring his teeth more than usual in a battle for supremacy with Milan pit bull Gennaro Gattuso, Liverpool was controlling the ebb and flow of the game.

But after Inzaghi’s fortuitous deflection, Benitez’s men found themselves once again in the unenviable position of playing catch up against a Milanese side not afraid to shut up shop should they have the lead.

But with Steven Gerrard, appropriately, inevitably Heraclean once more, the seemingly impossible couldn’t be ruled out.

Their inspirational captain came out all guns blazing, and for a while it threatened to be Istanbul redux.

In his advanced position just behind Kuyt, Gerrard was in his pomp, first storming through on the left only to see his side-foot shot saved before a long-range effort scorched the wrong side of Dida’s upright.

But for all the head of steam built up, Liverpool failed to capitalize. Substitutions were badly needed.

First Kewell on for Zenden, and then, perhaps too late, Peter Crouch for Mascherano.

Beanpole Crouch thrashed in a shot that Dida tipped over soon after arrival and the striker’s presence was obviously unnerving for the Milanese defenders.

The Crouch substitution ultimately benefited Milan. Free from the bothersome Mascherano, Kaka gathered the ball in front of the Reds defense, teasing and tormenting simply by holding the ball and waiting, before releasing a perfectly timed through ball to Inzaghi, the striker strolling past Reina before sliding the ball into the empty net from an angle.

With time against them, the Reds would have needed a bigger comeback than the Lazarus-style one in Istanbul, and for the slightest moment the possibility reared its head.

Pennant whipped in a corner on the left on 89 minutes, Daniel Agger climbed high, forcing Pirlo to deflect the ball across the box and Kuyt was there to power in a header from close range.

Alas, the referee had apparently seen enough already. He blew the whistle a few seconds early, despite three minutes added time, to the vexation of the precise Benitez, who continued his protests after the whistle.

But it wasn’t to be the Reds’ day, beaten by men neither as organized nor tactically prepared but still an infinitely classier proposition — and, in as such, a worthy winner of their seventh crown.