Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Champions League Final Preview: Milan vs. Liverpool

I would dearly love to ignore all the hoo-ha about this game being a rematch of the 2005 final, but let's be realistic. Even leaving aside the hype, both teams are unquestionably going to be influenced by the result that night, with both sides hoping to learn from their mistakes then.

So I'll say the same things now as everyone did two years ago: I expect it to be a cagey, low-scoring game, with both teams being very cautious. That all goes out the window if Milan score in the first two minutes again, but Liverpool's defence looks stronger this year, simply by virtue of the fact that it no longer includes Djimi Traore. (I kid, but actually I'm not sure who Liverpool should be starting at left-back; probably Jon Arne Riise, although that depends on whether they've got anyone else fit to play on the left of midfield.) And Milan's strike force looks weaker, after the departures of Crespo and Shevchenko.

Key matchups

  • Pippo Inzaghi vs. the Liverpool back line: Carlo Ancelotti's biggest selection dilemma is probably whether to pick Inzaghi or Alberto Gilardino to start up front. I'm leaning towards Inzaghi, because he's got more experience and is a better finisher than Gila. But the Liverpool offside trap is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, and I want to Jamie Carragher swatting Pippo around like a fly.

  • Kaka vs. Mascherano: You can't neglect the rest of their midfield, but containing Kaka is obviously vital if you want to contain Milan. United didn't have the resources to do this -- in fact, they didn't even try, if you believe Sir Alex's claim that they decided not to man-mark him -- and it cost them dearly. Liverpool won't make the same mistake, and in Javier Mascherano they have the right man for the job. In 2005, bringing on Didi Hamann at halftime to anchor the midfield completely changed the game for Liverpool, and Mascherano, with the experience of playing against Kaka for Argentina, will be expected to do the same here.

  • Gerrard vs. Gattuso: Captain Fantastic vs. the man he's referred to as a kitten. Both players are the heart of their team and will run themselves into the ground to win, although they play a very different style. Gattuso is a terrier, snapping at the ankles of opponents, while Gerrard is...well, Animal from the Muppets is still the best analogy I've managed to come up with. Plus the ability to score 30-yard screamers and send commentators into hysterics. RAAAAAAAAAAR.

  • Alonso vs. Pirlo: Both deep-lying playmakers, so they probably won't spend a lot of the game going up against each other directly. But in both cases, their ability to find space and pick out a teammate with a pass is vital to how their team performs. Alonso has been dropped for a few games recently, including the second leg of the semi-final, but I expect him to be back against Milan, where retaining possession is more crucial than it was against Chelsea.

  • Liverpool's toothless strikers vs. Milan's ageless defence: I really have no idea who's going to start up front for Liverpool, or whether they'll be able to unlock the Italians' defence. Let's face it, Paolo Maldini is hardly going to be panicked by the sight of Peter Crouch, no matter how discombobulating his robot dance may be. I kind of lean towards starting Dirk Kuyt, who may not have much pace but always works hard and may be able to wear them out. Crouch is probably their best finisher, though -- and in that department, they're no worse off than they were in 2005, with Baros and Cisse playing like headless chickens in front of goal.

  • Reina vs. Dida: Pepe Reina has had some shaky moments for Liverpool, particularly earlier in the year, but compared to Dida, he's a model of consistency. He's become much more confident and dependable over the course of the season, and if the game comes down to penalties again, having Reina between the posts will be a massive advantage for Liverpool, after his performances in the semi-final and in the FA Cup final last year.

Injury news
Harry Kewell has apparently recovered from his long-standing injury problems just in time for Liverpool, so he may get the chance to limp off before halftime in yet another cup final. (It's okay, Harry, I still like you, especially now that you've chopped off that idiotic ponytail.) Bolo Zenden is a doubt, having knacked his ankle in training, which is probably bad news for Rafa but good news for the eardrums of everyone within a 100-mile radius of YNBA's screeching.

For Milan, Paolo Maldini and his 138-year-old knees are expected to be fit enough to partner Alessandro Nesta in the centre of defence, although I suspect that he may not be able to last the full 90 minutes. Milan rested their entire first team for their Serie A game this weekend, so they should be fresh, but then Liverpool have essentially been resting for the past three weeks, judging by their performances against Fulham et al.

Team predictions
Attempting to predict Rafa's lineups is always a crapshot, but nevertheless...
  • Milan: Dida; Oddo, Nesta, Maldini, Jankulovski; Pirlo, Gattuso; Ambrosini, Kaka, Seedorf; Inzaghi
  • Liverpool: Reina; Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Arbeloa; Gerrard, Alonso, Mascherano, Riise; Crouch, Kuyt

I'm not even going to try to predict the outcome; Liverpool never seem to do things the easy way, and I'm trying not to be either too pessimistic or too optimistic here. That game in Istanbul is what made me fall in love with the team in the first place -- not really the fact that they won, but more the way that they won it. And I expect Athens to be another emotional rollercoaster. I'll be watching the game at Scallywag's, with a beer in my hand and my heart in my throat.


Anonymous said...

come on you reds

liverpool fan from london

Tepid said...

I heard Bolo's passed fit...

Jen said...

Yeah, I heard that too. Yay?

Anonymous said...

com on liverpool
com on liverpool
cus wer gng ta win
da european cup
walking in a liver wonder land