Liverpool's dreamers breathe life back into game with a fantasy final

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In the grey dawn here yesterday it was hardly surprising that Liverpool still groped to grasp fully the extent of their achievement a few hours earlier. It is, after all, not every night that you grovel in the dirt and then touch the stars.

In the grey dawn here yesterday it was hardly surprising that Liverpool still groped to grasp fully the extent of their achievement a few hours earlier. It is, after all, not every night that you grovel in the dirt and then touch the stars.

Steven Gerrard, fingering for reassurance the winners' medal hanging from around his neck, was in a place he had never been before, somewhere between bliss and disbelief. But then weren't we all?

Gerrard admitted to night-long chilling flashbacks to that moment when he thought the most dramatic recovery in the history of the European Cup and its successor the Champions' League had been broken.

Andrei Shevchenko, the coldest finisher on the football planet, bore down on Jerzy Dudek. Gerrard thought like the rest of us. He believed the lights, along with the fantasy, were about to switched off.

It is history now, astonishing, unforgettable history, that the Polish keeper who was also fighting for his professional life at the top of the game made his stupendous double save.

But it is also history that has still to be understood fully by the football authorities, those men who know the price of everything in the game but apparently so little about its most precious values.

If they persist in their belief that Liverpool should be denied the right to defend the title - the club's fifth - they won here in such an unprecedented dramatic way, they will be guilty of a lot more than the failure of common sense charged by the winning coach, Rafael Benitez.

They will be airbrushing away the most glorious reaffirmation of the mystery and the brilliance of the world's most popular game. They will be saying to all those who scan the lists of next season's contenders, that Liverpool's three-goal fightback against Milan simply didn't happen. They will be asserting that it is a story that, however noble and incredible, cannot be absorbed comfortably by the money-led imperatives of the Champions' League.

So it has to be shredded? If such a view is maintained, it will be more than another football scandal heaped on top of all the others. It will be sacrilege.

More than anything, it will be to reject the bone-deep pleasure that accompanied 30,000 Liverpool fans as they wound their way back down through the hills surrounding the gaunt Ataturk stadium. They knew precisely what they were celebrating. It was a new dimension to the most important club game played in Europe each year.

We should be very sure about the meaning of this Liverpool victory on the 50th anniversary of a tournament that was once such an uncomplicated quest for the best team in Europe.

It was not about the power of wealth, because if it was, Chelsea and their oligarch owner and trend-setting coach would have won it. It wasn't about a deep education in the often black art of caution and tactical sophistication. In that case Carlo Ancelotti's Milan would have eased their way home, and the more easily after driving Liverpool to the point of despair with the authority of their football - and their three goals - in the first half. No, it was to do with the unchartable impulse of a collective spirit, a transforming belief that it you play honestly enough, if you refuse to accept the idea of defeat, anything can happen.

What happened on Wednesday night generated emotion that was as sustained - and as pure - as anyone who has been around for roughly the length of the competition can ever have experienced.

No, it wasn't as spell-binding as Real Madrid's slaughter of Eintracht Frankfurt in Hampden Park 45 years ago, when a fine German side were engulfed by the legendary men in white and the peerless Alfredo di Stefano moved so majestically downfield to score a goal that some still claim to be the best ever seen in a European Cup final.

It didn't have such a blinding moment of perfect technique as the one Zinedine Zidane produced when Real beat Bayer Leverkusen three years ago. Liverpool's triumph in the penalty shoot-out didn't represent the brilliant planning and deep strength of their predecessors when four titles were won in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Benitez's Liverpool certainly had none of the hauteur of the Milan of Gullit, Van Basten, Baresi and the young Paolo Maldini, who at 36 here this week provoked the first outrageous drama with a goal inside the first minute.

The hard truth is that when you looked closely at Liverpool this week they didn't have very much at all, not when you analysed individual performances - and detached them from the improbable glory of their earlier victories over Juventus and Chelsea. They didn't have a master-plan, by no means.

The one devised by Benitez was an embarrassing wreckage when his gamble on Harry Kewell - so shocking in the first-half absence of Dietmar Hamann - was abandoned early and Milan had picked their way to an apparently impregnable lead. They didn't have a single outstanding performance if you took away the heroics of Dudek and the magnificent impact of Hamann in the second half.

But they did have that unlikely, even illogical belief in themselves inspired by Benitez in his first year in English football.

Before Wednesday night, Manchester United held the English franchise on the breathing of life back into a dead cause in a European Cup final. In 1999 they too had been outplayed, by Bayern Munich. They too had made failed tactical lunges, with David Beckham adrift in the centre of midfield and Bayern squandering chances to build on their lead. But United merely rescued their destiny with two goals in the last minutes. Liverpool had to pick up their beds and walk.

They did it for the entire second half and 30 minutes of extra time. They undoubtedly went beyond the limits of their talent.

Now Benitez has to make a new Liverpool team, one that can compete properly in the Premiership, and as he does it he knows that he is not blessed with so many certainties. Gerrard, if he does what he is now so strongly suggesting, and takes root in his native soil, is one, no doubt. So is Xabi Alonso, who when he fully adjusts to the frenzies of English football will surely give Liverpool a thread of coherence, and passing brilliance that has been absent at Anfield for so many years. John Arne Riise, despite his shoot-out miss, is now an authentic hero after his contributions in the European games. Jamie Carragher is the heart and the sinew of the club. But elsewhere there have to be severe doubts, even with the Ataturk fantasy still so vivid.

Luis Garcia is a waspish presence, a scorer of dramatic goals, certainly but a man to rely on in all seasons? He is too often an accident in the making, as we saw when Kaka, the elegant Brazilian who threatened to control the game quite masterfully in the first half, robbed him deep in the Milan half for the chance to send Shevchenko away. Djimi Traoré performed heroics but some of his antics are guaranteed to bring a dryness to his coach's mouth. Neither Milan Baros, for all his industry, or Djbril Cissé seem likely to meet the highest demands, and much will be expected of Fernando Morientes next season.

Benitez says that there will be signings and that those men who have been touched by what has happened here, and who survive the reshaping of the team, will carry with them new levels of confidence.

One day Benitez may admit to the scale of his mistake when he left Hamann out of the initial action, but in the meantime you have to believe that he will continue to draw benefit from his passion and his cultivation of the spirit of his players. No, he said, he did not expect to be addressed as the Special One. He would continue to believe that he was nothing without the support - and the hearts - of his players.

That conviction has made Liverpool the champions of Europe once again. Maybe it has also changed the way we look at football.