High drama as Liverpool relive their European glory nights

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The Independent Football

It was always a story that had tugged at credibility and here in the furthest corner of Europe it took on new levels of fantasy.

It was always a story that had tugged at credibility and here in the furthest corner of Europe it took on new levels of fantasy.

Liverpool were dead, three goals down to the grandees of Europe - and then they were alive again.

The Ataturk stadium was caught in strange and stunning forces. Liverpool's initial collapse was to be avoided by the extraordinary feel for the tactics of the Champions' League displayed by Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez - and his uncanny knack of producing a different, and more resolute team in club football's most demanding arena.

But all of that belief engendered in the staggering assault on the high ground of the game couldn't be sustained against old and brilliant fighters who showed that their link with a great tradition still had life - vibrant, beautifully expressed life.

Milan were supposed to be weary, shot through by expectations and the tyranny of the passing years.

Liverpool believed they could exploit such time-expired grandeur. But they were caught in a myth and their fate was a terrible ambush. Or so it seemed until Steven Gerrard headed in a cross by John Arne Riise early in the second half. That meant Liverpool had merely a mountain to climb, and then it was hillock when Vladimir Smicer shot home. Two goals in three minutes was one of the great recoveries - and then Gerrard was hauled down in the box by Paolo Maldini, and Alsonso converted the penalty on the rebound.

Belief in the fate of this amazing game had to be in suspense.

For the last act of what he knew could be the greatest drama of his football life, Benitez made the most startling move of a brief but extraordinary reign at Anfield.

He brought Harry Kewell back from the football dead to play alongside Milan Baros, who was expected to give way to a renascent Djbril Cissé. Benitez was saying that if this was a stage - the most important match in Europe's football year - the Australian enigma scarcely deserved, it did provide the chance to redeem himself in the eyes of the public - a jury which some time ago judged him to be a killing example of misused talent.

However, if Benitez's initiative was a bold statement of ambition - and maybe acceptance that his only real chance was to put pressure on Milan's ageing defence - it was greeted with the equivalent of an old fashioned left hook inside a minute. It was delivered by the oldest champion on the field - 36-year-old legend Maldini. The strike, from a free-kick, was precisely the nightmare Benitez feared most.

It was the classic worst case scenario for any side hoping to hustle a team of Milan's defensive instincts out of their rhythm, and for a moment there was a terrible prospect for the 30,000 Liverpool fans who had been pouring into the city for three days. It was of seeing their heroes, the most improbable of finalists before the stunning upsets of Juventus and Chelsea, the champions of Italy and England, disintegrate before their eyes in the first heat of battle.

Though that didn't quite happen, there was a moment of huge deliverance soon after the Kewell experiment came to an early and, it has to be said, forlornly familiar end with him walking off the field holding his groin, to be replaced by Vladimir Smicer. Luis Garcia, who can move more quickly between glory and folly than any of his team-mates, with the possible exception of full back Djimi Traoré, who gave up the early, potentially fatal free kick, surrendered the ball to the swift and graceful Kaka and as the Brazilian flowed downfield, Liverpool faced a moment of crushing breakdown. Kaka's pass was slipped beyond Jerzy Dudek by the predatory Andrei Shevchenko, but the goal was ruled offside.

With Liverpool showing some considerable spirit, and Garcia claiming that Alessandro Nesta had handled the ball when the Spaniard moved to round him in the box, there was a sudden spurt of hope in the cavernous Ataturk Stadium. Maybe they had after all got a chance of getting into Milan's old bones.

It was an idea that died almost as soon as it was born. Hernan Crespo, injecting more irony into a single football match than any player for many seasons, destroyed the last of Liverpool's hopes with two goals of easy fluency. On loan from Chelsea, so impotent in front of goal in both the semi-final legs, Crespo was the man who had taken hold of this game which for Benitez's men suddenly presented only the challenge of avoiding a sustained and scarring embarrassment.

Liverpool's improbable glory was blowing like a piece of discarded sweetpaper along Scotland Road.

But then we had the avalanche of their recovery. It was staggering in its force and its origins - which was from the certainty of defeat.

Benitez's gamble on Kewell, which had gone so wrong was now replaced by the presence of the man many believe was crucial - Dietmar Hamann.

The arrival of the German international sent waves of authority through the midfield, helped trigger the passing game of Alonso and brought assistance to a previously stretched defence. Jamie Carragher was the hero again and so was Traoré when he cleared on the line.

As the game went to extra time Liverpool had healed the wounds and it meant that whatever happened, their incredible story had been saved from a humiliating ending.

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