LIVERPOOL 3-3 AC MILAN (3-2 PENS)
History repeated itself for Liverpool here when they amazingly won the Champions League in a penalty shoot-out after staging a stunning comeback in normal time from three down.
For Rafa Benitez's side completed the most remarkable comeback in the history of European finals to write a glorious new chapter in the club's already rich history.
Carried on the back of Steven Gerrard, their inspirational and defiant captain, Liverpool somehow recovered from a 3-0 half-time deficit with three incredible goals in six breathtaking minutes.
It was simply unbelievable.
But they were not finished there, with Jerzy Dudek producing two amazing late saves in extra-time before denying both Andrea Pirlo and Andriy Shevchenko amid the drama of a penalty shoot-out.
In 1984, they had last won the European Cup on penalties, with Bruce Grobbelaar's wobbly knees and Alan Kennedy's decisive strike.
This time, it was penalties again and Dudek dancing his way to hero status on the line, but that did not even tell half the story of a truly unforgettable night in Istanbul.
Rafa Benitez's side had seemed down and out after Paolo Maldini's first-minute strike was followed by two goals by on-loan Chelsea striker Hernan Crespo.
Many fans were even feeling sorry for themselves, having been harshly denied a penalty for handball at just 1-0 down, only seconds before Crespo's first goal.
However, that was reckoning without a tactical half-time masterstroke by Benitez, the talismanic qualities of Gerrard or the reactions of the often-doubted Dudek.
Given licence to push forward by Dietmar Hamannn's arrival, Gerrard headed his side's first goal on 54 minutes to restore belief and won the penalty for Xabi Alonso's third goal six minutes later.
With Vladimir Smicer having scored in between, Liverpool were now level and Serginho missing from the spot, while Shevchenko and Pirlo were both denied, Liverpool's players danced with unrestrained joy.
And so Anfield has a new crop of legends after surely the most improbable success of their five European crowns.
This was when even Manchester United's dramatic late comeback against Bayern Munich was eclipsed and few had imagined that could ever be possible.
But having confounded the odds to beat Juventus and Chelsea, a Liverpool side that had finished just fifth in the Premiership defied their underdog status once again.
It had all started so differently.
Benitez may have made the bold move of starting with Harry Kewell, but his side were behind after 52 seconds as the anticipated chess match between two supposedly cautious sides was turned on its head.
Pirlo's free-kick was met with a volley by Maldini, which struck the turf but still flew past Dudek, who was seemingly unsighted until the last moment.
Liverpool were stunned and struggled to recover their poise, with Kewell limping off injured amid jeers to be replaced by Smicer.
Still Milan pressed, with Garcia clearing off the line and Shevchenko harshly denied when his 'goal' was ruled offside.
Liverpool were nevertheless also foiled as Garcia turned inside Alessandro Nesta, who looked to have handled the ball, but referee Manuel Gonzalez waved play on.
Within seconds, Milan had scored, with the superb Kaka sending Shevchenko hurtling down the right channel and his cutback teed up Crespo to tap home from close range.
It was a harsh blow, but Milan's class was evident as Kaka played a pass of such exquisite perfection that Jamie Carragher was left stretching in vain as Crespo burst through to score.
It seemed all over. Not to Gerrard, however, and not to those in the Liverpool end who defiantly chanted 'we're going to win 4-3' as the teams re-emerged after the interval.
Few others believed them, but Benitez shifted his side around to near-magical effect at the break.
With Hamann on for Steve Finnan and three changes in a defence that effectively now became a back three, Gerrard was finally given the stage upon which to perform. And how he performed.
Dudek still had to produce a superb save from Shevchenko but Liverpool had an ace up their sleeve in their irreplaceable captain.
From Riise's cross, Gerrard looped a header past Dida before turning to exhort the crowd to follow his lead.
If some were still uncertain, those doubts were blown away when Smicer let fly from 25 yards out and Dida allowed the ball to slip through his grasp inside the far post.
Surely it was not possible? But Gerrard somehow forced his body forward onto Smicer's pass and was clipped on the back of his heels by former Rangers midfielder Gennaro Gattuso. Penalty.
Up stepped Alonso and although Dida flung himself to parry the spot-kick, the Spaniard smashed his follow-up effort into the roof of the net.
Milan rallied again but Liverpool were defiant, with Traore clearing off the line and Carragher producing last-ditch tackles on both Shevchenko and Kaka, while Jaap Stam's header also flew wide.
And so to extra-time, with Djibril Cisse by now on for Baros and Gerrard now effectively at right wing-back as Benitez countered the introduction of winger Serginho.
Even there, Gerrard was still immense, but bodies were being stretched to breaking point at the end of an arduous season, with Carragher playing through the pain barrier.
Liverpool were hanging on, but Dudek rescued his side with two amazing reaction saves from Shevchenko at point-blank range to force penalties.
Liverpool had hardly practised spot-kicks but neither, it seemed, had Serginho, who blazed the first effort way over the bar.
A German - Hamann - was rather more reliable before Dudek denied Pirlo but while Jon Dahl Tomasson scored, Riise's effort was saved by Dida.
Smicer nevertheless struck a superb penalty, setting up Dudek to crown a night of unbelievable drama in Istanbul.
After a 21-year absence, Liverpool are back at the pinnacle of European football. Surely UEFA cannot stop them defending a trophy won with this much drama and determination?
AC Milan: Dida, Cafu, Maldini, Stam, Nesta, Gattuso (Rui Costa 112), Seedorf (Serginho 86), Pirlo, Kaka, Shevchenko, Crespo (Tomasson 85).
Subs Not Used: Abbiati, Kaladze, Costacurta, Dhorasoo.
Liverpool: Dudek, Finnan (Hamann 46), Traore, Hyypia, Carragher, Riise, Gerrard, Luis Garcia, Alonso, Kewell (Smicer 23), Baros (Cisse 85).
Subs Not Used: Carson, Josemi, Nunez, Biscan.
Booked: Carragher, Baros.
Ref: Manuel Enrique Mejuto Gonzalez (Spain).
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|Match Report filed: 27 May 2005|