Liverpool in better shape for latest bout with AC Milan
Liverpool will head into Wednesday's re-match with AC Milan in far better shape than they did for their amazing Champions League triumph in 2005.Updated: May 18, 2007 11:14 IST
Liverpool will head into Wednesday's re-match with AC Milan in far better shape than they did for their amazing Champions League triumph in 2005.
Two years after Liverpool came back from the dead to draw 3-3 with Milan and then beat them in a penalty shoot-out, Liverpool have improved both on and off the pitch in their bid to bring a sixth European Cup back to Anfield.
Spanish coach Rafa Benitez has strengthened the rearguard and built a defensive midfield wall that should prevent the Italians from racing into another 3-0 lead by halftime.
Though Polish keeper Jerzy Dudek produced the shoot-out heroics with his 'rubber legs' antics in Istanbul, Jose Reina offers a great deal more security over 90 or even 120 minutes.
The Spaniard is also no slouch when facing spot-kicks, his prowess having secured Liverpool's place in the Athens final on penalties at Anfield against Chelsea last month.
Danish centre-half Daniel Agger, whose goal against Chelsea levelled the tie at 1-1, is sharper than Sami Hyypia and also has an eye for goal, while John Arne Riise, a left midfielder last time, should now start at the left back slot occupied in Istanbul by Djimi Traore.
Before they come into play, though, Milan must find a way past likely midfield pair Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso.
The two men, whose presence would force skipper Steven Gerrard out to the right, have struck up a good rapport since Mascherano joined from West Ham United earlier this year.
Liverpool are now very effective at denying opponents time and space on the ball — a key weapon if they are to muzzle the attacking threat from Milan's Brazil playmaker Kaka, who tore Manchester United's defence to shreds in the semi-finals.
For their part, Liverpool's goal threat is likely to come from lanky striker Peter Crouch, who has scored seven times in Europe this season, and Dutchman Dirk Kuyt, who was a constant menace to Chelsea at Anfield.
Both are a lot more dangerous than Milan Baros was last time.
Two years on, Benitez also has a tighter grip on his squad and his men have a clearer idea of how they need to play.
Liverpool's future is also far more assured than in 2005, when the club was linked with the first of a series of suitors in their search for a backer to build a new stadium at Stanley Park and to increase the size of Benitez's transfer kitty.
Now they have new owners in US sports tycoons George Gillett and Tom Hicks and the early signs have reassured players, coaches and a majority of the fans.
On top of that, there is also a sense that Liverpool have spent the last four months preparing for this game.
Unlike semi-final casualties Chelsea and United, who were locked in a long-running duel for the Premier League title and who will be FA Cup final adversaries on Saturday, Liverpool's domestic season pretty well ended at Anfield in January.
A 3-1 FA Cup defeat by Arsenal and then a 6-3 demolition in the League Cup by the same opponents three days later meant trophy success could only really come from Europe. On Wednesday, they finally get their chance.