Alonso adds touch of the sublime to Anfield armada

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The Independent Online

Out on the pitch, Xabi Alonso remains serene and precise when others are losing their composure and range. As a reluctant spectator when Liverpool earned the right to a shot at immortality against Milan in the Champions' League final tonight, the metronomic midfielder was no more immune than 40,000 fans to the emotions unleashed by the victory over Chelsea.

Out on the pitch, Xabi Alonso remains serene and precise when others are losing their composure and range. As a reluctant spectator when Liverpool earned the right to a shot at immortality against Milan in the Champions' League final tonight, the metronomic midfielder was no more immune than 40,000 fans to the emotions unleashed by the victory over Chelsea.

In the first leg of the semi-final, Alonso had been shown a yellow card after Eidur Gudjohnsen reacted theatrically to his challenge. It meant he was banned for the return at Anfield, a "shattering blow" which briefly reduced him to tears in the dressing-room. However, his colleagues vowed to get him to Istanbul - and since when did suspension stop anyone from becoming a singing, chanting Red for a night?

Alonso takes up the story. "As I sat there in the stand, I found myself joining in with the crowd. I just couldn't help myself. I was excited, got carried away and ended up singing along. I must admit I became emotional, so when the final whistle went I had to get on the pitch.

"It wasn't easy. I tried to climb over the front of the press box but I could tell there was no way through all the fans in the seats below. So I turned and sprinted down the stairs and out through the tunnel. I had to share the moment with my team-mates. I wanted to say 'thank you' because they promised me a Champions' League final and they delivered for me. I owe them for that."

The Basque Beatle owes nobody anything after a first season in which he has comfortably justified Rafael Benitez's £10.6m outlay to Real Sociedad. True, the partnership with Steven Gerrard has not blossomed as spectacularly or consistently as Liverpool hoped. Yet that has been due to factors beyond his control, like his three-month lay-off with a broken ankle, and he is confident they are as good a duo as any in Europe - including, he said pointedly, Milan's Andrea Pirlo and Kaka.

Alonso seldom marauds like Gerrard and is not the out-and-out holding player Dietmar Hamann is. His natural gift, unusual in one who is only 23, is for linking the back to the front; for keeping the ball and the shape of the side. More so than Gerrard, for all the captain's inspirational qualities, he is Benitez's organiser on the park.

Intriguingly, given that Gerrard may yet leave Liverpool, the England player was indisposed when Alonso played the part to perfection. That was in Turin, where he returned from his long absence after just 45 minutes' reserve football, and did more than anyone, with the arguable exception of Jamie Carragher, to ensure Juventus seldom got a sniff of the goal they needed.

So much for British successes in Europe being based on passion, lung power and the long ball. Liverpool's display was a classic of "Continental" sophistication. Alonso knew Benitez worked that way from their respective spells in San Sebastian and Valencia. Indeed, he spurned Real Madrid to join the so-called "Rafalution".

"The manager is a great professional," the Spanish international said. "He always prepares thoroughly and knows everything about each team we play, their strengths and weaknesses. Tactically, he is very astute and he makes sure we all have the same idea and know exactly what is expected of us.

"He doesn't go round shouting at players. That's not his style. Funnily enough, you're more likely to hear him raise his voice in criticism when we're winning. He wants to make sure we keep our feet on the ground, and he believes there's always room for improvement."

That is certainly true of Alonso's medal collection. "I've never won one or even played in a cup final at any level," he said. "What a way to start if we could win this one. I know all about the era when Liverpool were England's most successful side in Europe. To be walking out in a Liverpool shirt 20 years on from their last final is something to savour. It will be great to be part of the club's history.

"No one can question our right to be in the final after the way we beat Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea. Milan may be favourites, but we're here to win. It's probably fair to say the final won't be an open affair with lots of chances at both ends. They have a great defence and we've done very well defensively too, so there will be a lot of mutual respect."

Similar predictions were made when Liverpool last contested a European final, against Alaves in the Uefa Cup four years ago. It finished 5-4 to the Merseyside club. With Alonso on song, Benitez's men are more likely to be calling the tune than facing the music.

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