Gerrard sees miracle halfway to paradise

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The Independent Online

Half-time in the Ataturk Stadium on Wednesday night and as a shell-shocked Liverpool team slumped down on the benches of their changing room there was only one sound they could hear above the singing of "You'll Never Walk Alone" drifting in from the stands. It was the sound of Milan's players next door, whooping and celebrating a three-goal lead that they considered insurmountable.

As victory celebrations go it was 45 minutes premature but, on the evidence of the first half, entirely justified. In the lobby of his hotel yesterday morning, Steven Gerrard touched the European Cup winners' medal around his neck and recalled his state of mind at that point. "I didn't know what was going through my head, it was weird, I thought it was over." he said. "Completely over."

Rafael Benitez had come into the changing rooms just seconds earlier and, even this man who is not given to panic, knew that he was going to have to deliver the team-talk of his life. First he spent a few minutes explaining the details of the role he wanted Dietmar Hamann to perform and then sent the midfielder out to warm-up with his assistant Pako Ayestaran. And it was from there that the greatest comeback in Champions' League history was launched.

Up in the stands the Liverpool chairman David Moores was approached by Michel Platini, once a brilliant footballer and now one of the most powerful men in Fifa. The man who had led Juventus to victory over Liverpool in their last European Cup final 20 years ago was polite but his remark left no room for sentiment. Moores recalled the moment yesterday: "He said 'Mr Chairman, I think that the second half will be a damage limitation exercise for your team'."

The point that Benitez made to his players at half-time was simple. There were no recriminations, and no blame assigned, he simply reminded them that they had prepared for this match for 10 days and had so far not been able to put a single aspect of those sessions into action. "I said 'Raise your heads'," Benitez said. " 'We cannot concede any more goals because of all the supporters that have travelled here to see us, but if we score one then everything can change'.

"It was difficult because we had to change players, we had already made one substitution and we were losing. We didn't talk about winning, we talked about scoring and after that we would see what the reaction would be. You cannot say to your players, when they are losing 3-0, 'We must win' but you can say 'We must do something different'. I told them to keep the ball and press them in midfield."

The crucial change was Hamann who allowed Liverpool to break up the deadly link that Kaka and Clarence Seedorf had provided between Milan's defence and attack. They had taken turns at assuming the playmaker role behind Andrei Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo to devastating effect. With Hamann pushing on to whoever occupied that role, and Xabi Alonso providing extra cover, the threat disappeared.

"We talked about many things but for me the most important thing was that we had worked really hard to get there," Benitez said. "Now that we were in a final we had to fight to the end."

Even for Gerrard, who had barely figured in the first half and had been left standing when Kaka set up the third goal, there was some hope in the words of his manager. "He calmed us down, made a few changes and told us that we needed to score early," he said. "He said if we scored early that would change the game."

What the Liverpool captain had not counted upon was the physical toll that chasing Milan in the first half had taken upon him and his team-mates. This colossus of Liverpool and England's midfield admitted that even with 10 minutes of normal time left he was "running on empty" - exhausted by the first half and then the thrilling fight-back.

"The football they played was unbelievable," he said. "I never thought in the game that we were going to win it - I was just trying to get the three goals back. In extra time we just wanted penalties because six or seven of us had nothing left. When did I think we could do it? When Jerzy made that double save [from Shevchenko]. I had just thought 'goal' at first. Then when that first penalty went over I realised it was our day."

For Jerzy Dudek the game's course had been impossible to comprehend. "It was a bit weird when we went 3-0 down," he said. "I was thinking 'What's going on? We shouldn't be 3-0 down'." As the comeback unfolded at the other end of the ground, however, Dudek was not to know that he would be called upon to make the "most important save of my life" in the dying seconds of extra-time.

"I saw that Shevchenko had got between the defenders and all I could do was prepare myself to make the save from his header," he said. "It was obvious he was going to get the rebound. I just jumped up and made myself as big as possible. The ball hit my arm and went over. I looked up afterwards and saw there was only a minute to go."

Dudek's recollection of the penalties began, he said, with Jamie Carragher's breathless advice: "Jerzy - remember Bruce!'" But Dudek did not need reminding of the "wobbly legs" act that Bruce Grobbelaar had used to put off Roma's players in the 1984 European Cup final penalty shoot-out.

"Carra said 'Bruce did crazy things to put players off and you have to do the same'," Dudek explained. "He told me I would be the hero. I said 'Okay Carra, take it easy. I've seen the video of Bruce many times'."

Whether it worked or not, Dudek could not be sure but he did say that he would now approach the last two seasons of his Liverpool career differently, that he was "not afraid of anyone". On the pitch, Liverpool's players looked re-born. In the stands, their chairman was the toast of Uefa. "Platini came back to see me at the end," Moores said. "He said he was sorry for what he had said at half-time."

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