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ATHENS — AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti hailed the Italians’ victory over Liverpool in Wednesday’s final as “the greatest victory we have ever had.”

News photoAC MIlan’s Filippo Inzaghi scores the decisive goal past Liverpool’s Jose Reina in the second half of the Champions League final in Athens on Wednesday night. AC Milan won 2-1.
AP PHOTO

Ancelotti paid tribute to his players after they not only avenged their heart-breaking penalty shootout defeat to Liverpool in the 2005 final, but also showed their depths of recovery after becoming embroiled in last year’s Italian match-fixing scandal — which briefly threatened their place in this year’s competition until UEFA gave them the green light to enter.

“Few people thought we could do it and I think it is an extraordinary thing,” said Ancelotti. “This joy is to be shared with all those close to the club, all those who have sustained us, all the fans.

“It was a tough game, much like our season. We started slowly, but grew in confidence. It wasn’t spectacular, but Liverpool is a team that can stop you playing.”

Ancelotti is now a two-time winner of the Champions League as Milan coach, having first done it in 2003. He became the 14th coach to win the tournament twice. He also won the European Cup in 1989 and ’90 as a player for the same club.

Liverpool coach Rafa Benitez was in line for the same accolade after his triumph two years ago, but couldn’t inspire the same fight back seen in Istanbul, when the Reds rallied from a 3-0 deficit at the break and won the match in a nail-biting shootout.

This time his men ran out of time — something the Spaniard wasn’t too happy with — but Benitez still felt his men had done enough to avert the Greek tragedy.

“I don’t want to use this as an excuse . . . but I counted 2 minutes, 45 seconds, and 51 hundredths (of time added on),” Benitez said. “I had confidence but was surprised with the stoppage time. We did not have time. (But) we were there. We were really close. We had chances,” Benitez said.

Benitez’s expected cautious approach never materialized as Liverpool took the game to Milan, but the coach dismissed accusations his side could have been even more adventurous.

“Risk more? Against a team like Milan when you make a mistake they’ll kill you and you have to be very careful about that.”

Milan captain Paolo Maldini, appearing in his eighth European Cup final, claimed his fifth winner’s medal, and the 38-year-old sounded far from weary after such a glittering career.

“The fifth is still beautiful,” Maldini said. “It would be a great way end to my career but I want to play next season and then it would be very beautiful to reach this point again and win again.”

Steven Gerrard’s heroics of Istanbul — his goal started the magical comeback — could not be repeated despite another powerful performance in a big game from the Liverpool captain.

“It’s the complete opposite,” said Gerrard. “You’ve got to take it on the chin, move on and pick yourself up, but at the moment it’s heartbreaking. We gave it everything but it wasn’t to be tonight.”

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