My effort for Friday. Let me know if you spot any factual errors or typos, thanks:
RAWK Advent Calendar 2014 #19 – Vladimir Smicer vs. AC Milan 2005
Smicer: "Get the fuck in!!" Gerrard: "Job two-thirds done" Maldini: "Oh fuck..."
It’s tempting to be a smartarse here and say that my favourite Liverpool goal is yet to come. I won’t do that, of course; that would just be annoying, not least because it would be a dishonest answer to an honest question. Still, it would be nice, with the club currently out of contention long before the halfway point of the season, to imagine some mythical strike that clinches the club’s 19th League Championship from one of our current players. Maybe Daniel Sturridge or Raheem Sterling racing through a static backline, Phil Coutinho beating five men or an ageing Steven Gerrard rolling back the years with a 35-yard Stevie G special before parading the trophy in front of the Kop.
It’s a mental image to no doubt keep us all feeling warm and fuzzy inside over Christmas but it falls down in two key areas. Firstly, the team’s struggles of late make it difficult at the moment for even the most vivid imagination to conjure a League title for the club in the near future, at least with a straight face (even visualising that imaginary goal just now, for example, I still couldn’t prevent Lovren wandering out of position in the fourth minute of stoppage time to allow the opponents in to equalise – get the fuck out of my head, Dejan). And secondly, and more importantly, I cannot say with any real certainty or honesty that I haven’t already seen the best Liverpool goal there will ever be, scored on a night that in all likelihood will forever remain laminated in the history books as the greatest in the club’s history. League Championship clinchers, Champions League winners, I don’t know if anything will ever top it for sheer impact. It was shocking, it was earth-shattering, and while it didn’t light the fire that eventually consumed Liverpool’s opponents that night, it did toss a little petrol on a flickering flame.
So let’s set the scene here. The place is Istanbul, the date 25 May 2005. Liverpool, the unlikeliest of Champions League finalists, the fifth-best team in England, statistically worse than Everton but who have knocked out, amongst others, the recently-crowned Italian and English champions respectively, Juventus and Chelsea, to get here are attempting to come back from a 0-3 half-time deficit to AC Milan, the team of Maldini and Nesta, Kaká and Pirlo, Shevchenko and Seedorf which is in the middle of a run that will see them reach three European Cup finals in five years, winning two. Well, I say “attempting”: in reality all they’re trying to do in the early minutes of the second-half is salvage some pride, a little dignity from a contest that has rapidly turned into an annihilation. And they’re actually doing a pretty decent job of it, that is if you ignore a calamitous (and vintage) piece of miscontrol by Djimi Traoré that sends Kaká running full-pelt at Sami Hyypiä, leading to a free-kick that Jerzy Dudek saves smartly to stop it going 4-0. Moments later, Jon Arne Riise puts a cross onto the head of his captain at the second attempt and Steven Gerrard powers a header past a scrambling Dida from the penalty spot to make it 3-1.
Game on? No. Pride salvaged? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. There’s still 35 minutes left for Milan’s superior technique and quality to wreak havoc once again. They’re still going to win; but now Liverpool win a throw roughly level with the edge of Milan’s box, quickly taken by Riise to Xabi Alonso. Alonso wastes no time in moving it to the recently-introduced Didi Hamann, who in turn lays it into the path of Vladimir Smicer. The Czech finds himself in what I can only describe as a massive hole of space 20 yards from the Milan goal. Only Seedorf makes any attempt to close him down, but he’s trying to get back across from challenging Hamann and he doesn’t make it in time. Smicer lines up the shot, sends a missile towards the bottom corner and…
…bedlam. Just under five minutes later, the comeback was completed, and less than two hours after that Liverpool were crowned champions of Europe for a fifth time.
Now, Gerrard’s goal was obviously what started it all. Without it, what followed could have never come to pass, not without that first step, that foot jammed in a rapidly-closing door a split-second before it slammed shut. The first of Liverpool’s three in Istanbul will also have that iconic image forever associated with it of the captain motioning defiant belief to his teammates and supporters, to AC Milan and the world as he made his way back to the centre circle. And even leaving aside all of the goal’s additional significance, the header itself was pretty good too. Alonso’s penalty, meanwhile, also has plenty to recommend it as a favourite goal. It was far more than a mere spot-kick because this was when it all became real, when the feeling that something magical might be unfolding before our eyes became tangible as the Spanish maestro, displaying both the balls of steel and quickness of thought that have defined him as a player (but unfortunately not the realisation that Dida was only diving to his right on this particular night) stepped forward, passed the ball low to his left towards the bottom corner, then reacted first when the goalkeeper’s superb save rebounded into his path and finished into the roof of the net moments before Luis Garcia, who had already been first in to pick the ball out of the net after Gerrard’s first, arrived. A lesser player would have been looking on helpless at that point, maybe head in hands, but not Xabi Alonso who was already moving goalwards before Dida had even touched it. And it was
a penalty, of course; but you already knew that.
Both were outstanding goals that were every bit as crucial as the one I’ve chosen to the greatest football night many of us will ever know, but it’s the meat in this three-goal sandwich that stands out the most for me. Vladimir Smicer, inconsistent even at his best, had enjoyed some good moments in a Liverpool jersey but by May 2005, having struggled with injuries that season and failed to make much of an impact under Rafa Benítez, it was clear that he wasn’t long for the club. Sure enough, that night in Istanbul went on to be his last appearance, his penalty in the shoot-out his last touch of a ball, and only the manager will ever truly know whether the Czech was even in his plans before Harry Kewell limped off after twenty minutes or so. Smicer certainly wasn’t prepared to come on at that point: the Australian was pressed into staying on the pitch and moped around for an interminable handful of minutes as his replacement scrambled to get ready, and the cramp he suffered later (about as bad as anyone that night bar maybe Carragher) suggested strongly that he was far from match-fit. Yet now he popped up, seemingly out of nowhere, to take his place in the long line of unlikely, even impossible heroes that had powered Liverpool’s run to the Istanbul, joining the likes of Bišćan (superb runs leading to crucial goals against Deportivo and Bayer Leverkusen), Pongolle and Mellor (the first two in the crucial game against Olympiakos) and Garcia (five goals in the knockout stages, including the winners against Juventus and Chelsea).
Smicer’s low, powerful strike which proved far too hot for Dida to handle was the moment when the impossible, all of it, every last single molecule of it, dropped a couple of letters and became something else entirely. Let’s be honest, Gerrard’s first had mostly been a question of pride, a consolation to cling to afterwards that at least the Liverpool players had gone down fighting. That’s how it felt at the time. Naturally we’ll never know what went on inside the minds of AC Milan’s players that night, so confident must they have been of victory having gone in at half-time 3-0 up on their massive underdog opponents and yet with the loss of a 4-1 first-leg lead against Deportivo the previous season surely still recent enough to have allowed a few doubts to creep through at some point.
It’s impossible to tell at what precise point this happened, if it happened at all, but the odds are that Liverpool’s first wasn’t the catalyst for the Italian collapse which followed because, on the surface, it didn’t appear to change much of anything. Milan, in almost every conceivable footballing measurable, still towered far above their opponents; Shevchenko, Crespo, Pirlo, Kaká and Seedorf, with well over half an hour of normal time to go, retained just as much terrifying potential to find their opponents’ weak spots (and there were many) once again and manipulate them into catastrophe as they had three times in the first-half; meanwhile Baros, Smicer and Garcia, comprising for the most part Liverpool’s attacking threat, were still facing that titanic back-four of Maldini, Nesta, Cafu and Stam on which they had barely made so much as a scratch in the opening 55 minutes or so; even at 3-1 and with the hint of a breeze finally filling red sails, a 4-1 or 5-1 final score still seemed more likely than 3-3; and the knowledge lingered that even if Liverpool could
find it in themselves to go on and somehow summon two more, the mammoth task of surviving the resulting Milan onslaught lay ahead.
But Smicer’s goal…whether it was the patently ridiculous idea (right???), whispered since Graz in August, that a Liverpool side on its way to finishing 37 points off the pace in the League could win a fifth European Cup or the more pressing requirement of overcoming a 0-3 deficit against AC Milan’s awesome, once-in-a-generation array of talent, after Smicer struck it all suddenly started to seem almost, sort of, inevitable. In a season of highs and lows like few others, where improbable victory had walked hand-in-back-pocket with equally improbable defeat all the way from August to May, where Southampton, Crystal Palace and Burnley had done what Juventus and Chelsea (when it mattered most) couldn’t, where pundits had been scrambling for rational explanations for irrational events and tying themselves into contradictory knots in the process, and where winning and losing had often seemed to be a mere toss of a coin for Liverpool domestically, in European competition the signs (and I’m not talking about Ken and Deirdre fucking Barlow), the belief that something special was in gestation and that a phoenix, or maybe some other kind of legendary bird, was stirring in its own premature ashes had been building for months. When Smicer’s goal, as imperfect aesthetically as his team’s entire season, as his own career at the club had been (Dida got a good hand on it and probably should have saved it if we’re being honest, although the power he got behind the shot still packs a visual punch to this day), any ideas of coming back from 0-3 down in a Champions League final against a vastly superior team and winning that glorious trophy for a fifth time were no longer impossible, nor were they just ideas.
The goal, even leaving aside the occasion and all of the things it made possible, and ignoring the aesthetics of Dida’s clumsy attempts at a save, had two things going for it in spades that all the great goals have (three if you count little oddities as an integral part of a great goal e.g. Liverpool were flagged offside in the run-up to Smicer’s strike only for the referee to play an advantage to Milan which quickly led to Liverpool’s throw, or the curious sight of Kaká bent over tying his boot as Liverpool moved the ball across Milan’s back four): it was a surprise (actually it was a fucking shock) and it mattered
. Had it taken much longer to build on Gerrard’s first, to add a thundering right hook to that initial left jab, had it stayed 3-1 for, say, another ten or fifteen minutes, this game was over; Milan would have settled gently back into their rhythm and Liverpool’s purpose would have ultimately ebbed, but Smicer struck a mere two minutes after Gerrard’s header.
Think about it: anyone watching that game, be it the supporters of either team or neutrals watching at home, or, most importantly of all, AC Milan’s players, were in that very moment more than likely still processing Liverpool’s first as nothing more than a consolation, a case of simply reclaiming a bit of pride. Suddenly the unlikeliest of goalscorers unleashed a thunderbolt like that. If Gerrard’s goal was a fist-pumping snarl of defiance and Alonso’s a bear-hugging embrace, Smicer’s was jumping around the place screaming with limbs flailing involuntarily as people look at you weirdly. The sheer visceral impact of the moment was only matched by two others on the night, namely the referee pointing to the spot after Gattuso clipped Gerrard (nicely captured by Baros’ “what the fuck is happening here” expression) and Dudek’s penalty save from Shevchenko that ended it. And the reason it was so powerful is that this was the moment that truly staggered Milan and empowered Liverpool. The first got their attention and the third put them on their arse, but it was the second that turned their legs momentarily to jelly.
And for me it was only made sweeter by the fact that, just like Bišćan against Deportivo and Bayer Leverkusen, Pongolle and Mellor against Olympiakos, Garcia against Juventus and Chelsea, Dudek later that night in making an impossible (that word again) save from Shevchenko and stopping two penalties, this was the little guy, the overlooked and unheralded, the punchline of a thousand jokes stepping into the limelight as the hero of the hour. Sport can be a glorious thing and, to be fair, there are few things more glorious than seeing the very best be the very best. Even in our first-half misery, there was no denying Kaká’s genius that night, and even though it put us in a hole that we’re currently ill-equipped to climb out of, there was undeniable beauty in the pass from James Rodríguez and finish from Cristiano Ronaldo for Real Madrid at Anfield a couple of months back, to name just two examples. Even in a sport where, these days, cynicism is both easy and very often justified, where it’s increasingly possible to see a goal like the latter as nothing more than a £63m price tag all in white clipping a pass through to an £80m jersey-selling machine, moments like that still retain their appeal.
Yet sport, football perhaps most of all, is surely at its absolute best when the underdog, and I’m talking about Smicer now, rises up and makes an impact that the world not only thought impossible of him or her but one that will forever loom large in history, in this case the history of the club, the European Cup, the sport itself, Vladimir Smicer rubbing shoulders with Kenny Dalglish, Graeme Souness, Steven Gerrard, and beyond Liverpool Alfredo di Stefano, Eusebio, George Best and Johan Cruyff. Incredible. Real life tends to see the fastest, the strongest, the smartest and, too often, the most cutthroat and amoral of us, the greediest, rewarded the most. And since most football supporters have traditionally been working-class with little in the way of power or clout, that has tended not to be us. Football instead is best enjoyed as an escape from all of that, an opportunity to dream through whichever players are wearing the red shirt at any given moment in time. That AC Milan team was spine-tinglingly good, it oozed greatness from its pores, but if the best simply must
win every time then this game would be very boring and even pointless.
It’s said that every dog has its day, or night as the case may be. Istanbul, 10 years ago next May, was the night when an old dog who hadn’t shown a trick in years pulled a brand new one out of his hat as he bid us farewell. In the process, he shook the world. It's still shaking.