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“In 20 years’ time, that could be us.”

These were the words announced by Rafa Benitez,

2005 Champions League Final - Why Dietmar Hamann's introduction was so crucialAfter showing his Liverpool players a video montage of the club’s previous four European Cup victories at their final team meeting, before the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan.

The spectacular events of that night not only ensured they’ll be remembered 20 years from now, but also forever. It was undoubtedly one of greatest European finals in history, if not the greatest. Liverpool went into the sheds at half time 3-0 down, completely on the ropes. A brilliant volley by Paolo Maldini from an Andrea Pirlo set piece inside a minute and a clinical brace from Hernan Crespo saw the tie virtually over at the interval.

Carlo Ancelotti’s men were playing with plenty of verve, as Pirlo, Kaka, Gennaro Gattuso and Clarence Seedorf were right on top of things in midfield. Liverpool weren’t actually as bad as the scoreline suggested, but the 39th and 44th minutes goals from Crespo appeared to be the nails in their coffin.

“I remember walking off the pitch basically thinking what’s going on? We haven’t got started. If there was one positive in my mind that’s what I was thinking, “There’s going to be a stage in this game where we come alive and we play’, but we hadn’t in the first half,” recalled Steven Gerrard.

After Benitez’s gamble to start Harry Kewell, a gamble that failed miserably, with the Australian having to be subbed off inside 24 minutes due to injury, the Spanish manager needed to get his half time decisions spot on. By bringing on Dietmar Hamann for the injured Steve Finnan and changing to a back three, which allowed Gerrard to play in a more advanced, attacking role, he did just that.

“We had played in that formation, with that system (three at the back), quite a few times. And it was quite a regular thing for me to play in the middle with Xabi—Stevie a bit further forward—so it wasn’t difficult to settle into the rhythm of the game. We didn’t have to worry about that because we didn’t have any rhythm in the first half anyway” said Hamann on the crucial tactical tinkering by Benitez.

Scott Murray of the Guardian even believed the move was the key to Liverpool’s astonishing comeback, noting: “The most fundamental aspect was, without question, bringing Didi Hamann into midfield and creating a basis from which the comeback could begin. Without that control in midfield, they would never have been able to get back into the game.”

The German shrugged off the disappointment of not starting the game tremendously well to have a profound and almost immediate impact. With Hamann’s introduction, the Reds now had some much needed stability and balance in midfield. The constant first half occurrence of Kaka exploiting space in behind Gerrard and Alonso now became an infrequent event, not the norm.

Courtesy of their new found assuredness in midfield and having survived some early second half scares from the Milanese giants, Liverpool got into their groove, with the brilliant understanding shared between Alonso and Hamann now providing the perfect platform for the Merseysiders to flourish.

A freed up, more attack-minded Gerrard now began to have the impact his manager had envisioned and desired. The Kopite legend began to drive his team forward, giving them a far greater attacking impetus than they enjoyed in the first half. All it took was six minutes for Liverpool to remarkably score three goals and draw level. What seemed an unimaginable task at the break, quickly become a reality.

Gerrard’s expertly executed header, following a tasty John Arne Riise cross, provided the catalyst for the comeback. The atmosphere changed instantly inside the Ataturk Stadium. Liverpool’s traveling fans arose from their state of dejection and into a state of optimism.

Two minutes later, in the 56th minute, Vladimir Smicer slammed home a sizzling low thunderbolt from range. A check of the volume level inside the arena would’ve registered a further amplification. Then Gerrard’s surging run into the box culminated in him being bowled over by Gattuso. Alonso stepped up. And despite Dida saving his initial attempt, he made no mistake with the rebound – the leveller sending the crowd into raptures. Somehow, Liverpool, against the odds, had overcome what seemed an impossible deficit.

With 30 minutes still to play and Milan intent on regaining their lead, the Reds needed to remain compact, concentrated and disciplined. And for the most part, they managed to achieve this to send the game into extra time.

Hamann’s instrumental defensive work was vital. He cut out attacks masterfully, making plentiful interventions in crucial areas, while also remaining positionally astute to deal with the vast variety of threats that the Rossoneri posed. Tracking Kaka effectively limited the Brazilian’s influence heavily in the second stanza, plus the former Bayern Munich midfielder slid across cleverly from his predominant station on the left side of central midfield (he occasionally switched sides with Alonso) to help cover Riise from the onrushing Cafu.

In terms of organisation and structure, the change improved things markedly. On top of the aforementioned, when he and Alonso had to crossover markers, they did so seamlessly and without fuss. Order was restored in the centre of the park and the chaos from the first half became a distant memory. Put simply, in times of desperation and desire to do whatever he could for the team, Hamann stood up and was counted, sticking to his task with a high level of both intelligence and diligence.

Hamann’s calmness, composure and experience in such tight situations really was of huge benefit to his team. His slick passing and link up play also meant his positive impact spilled over into the attacking side of the game. Some nifty movement to find space in which to receive possession also saw him supply the assist for Smicer’s goal. The fact he battled on despite a sizeable injury setback near the end of normal time illustrated the sheer will of the man to fight and sacrifice his own health for the cause.

“I actually broke a metatarsal in my foot landing after a header about six minutes from time. But there was no question about going off,” he explained. “We just had to hang on in there and get to penalties. Even at the time, I felt that was going to be our best chance to win it.”

A similar pattern eventuated in the proceeding half hour, but Liverpool hung on, with Jerzy Dudek’s superlative, barely believable double save from Andriy Shevchenko saving his side and sending the contest to penalties. The dreaded shootout followed. An unfazed Hamann stepped up and slotted Liverpool’s first penalty cooly past Dida to give his team an imperative ascendency. Ultimately, Milan never got back on level terms. Fittingly, Dudek denied Shevchenko again to seal the dramatic, scarcely believable victory.

From nowhere at half time, Liverpool were astonishingly crowned Champions of Europe. The comeback officially rewarded. Now, a little over ten years on from that drama-filled night in Turkey, the feats of that Liverpool side are still talked about and remembered with a great deal of fondness and passion.

To witness a team bind together and overcome such adversity spoke wonders for their unity. This, of course, wasn’t the first time they’d overturned a three goal deficit in their 2004/05 Champions League campaign, for they also did so against Olympiakos in the group stage.

Going into that match, Liverpool needed to beat the Greek giants by two goals to progress beyond the group stage. Things certainly didn’t go to plan, with Olympiakos ahead at the break through a Rivaldo goal. A rousing three goal fightback, led by Gerrard, ensued though, with the captain’s 20-yard belter in the 86th minute securing their passage into the knockout stages.

“We always had a great team spirit and great togetherness. We never knew when we were beaten, and we always found ways out of difficult situations,” said Hamann on the team’s powers of recovery.

Although the performances of Gerrard and Dudek are often looked back upon with the highest regard from the famous final, Hamann’s importance can’t be underestimated. His presence was the backbone for the comeback, and should hence never be forgotten. It was a performance for the ages, and gave a superb indication of just how vital having an experienced head in the hottest of situations can be. Words like reliable and consistent are regularly associated with the rangy Hamann, and he lived up to those tags supremely well in the biggest match of his career.

“It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of my career, especially the way we did it and especially doing it for a club such as Liverpool,” he remembers.

All the praise and recognition he’s received for his sterling efforts against Milan are most definitely well deserved. He earned them, for without him Liverpool, in all likelihood, would have never come back to make history on that magical night in Istanbul.

Originally published at licencetoroam.net

Post written by Edward Stratmann
for Licence to Roam, Blog: licencetoroam.net, Twitter: @licencetoroam

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