RIGA - I hate moustaches. That's why I vowed to grow one if Liverpool could come back from 3-0 down at halftime in the Champions League final against AC Milan. That's how utterly hopeless their cause seemed.
Few people expected Liverpool to make a game of it, much less actually win. AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti had predicted his team would score within three minutes, but a minute sufficed under the circumstances. The veteran Milan captain Paulo Maldini volleyed in the first from Andrea Pirlo's free kick, and AC Milan seemed set to ease toward the victory that everyone expected of them.
Liverpool steadied their nerves and played some good soccer but lacked any incisiveness close to goal. Harry Kewell was substituted in the 23rd minute with a groin strain, forcing Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez to bring on Dietmar Hamann in his place.
Liverpool doggedly pursued the game but were simply outplayed by a Milan side brimming with confidence. Luis Garcia had the only real chances for Liverpool in the first half but he squandered them with an almost embarrassing profligacy.
Milan got their second in the 39th minute when Clarence Seedorf found Kaka, whose beautiful pass inside Traore let Andriy Shevchenko set up Crespo to score at the far post. And then with just a minute to go until halftime, Kaka again split the Liverpool defense to set up Crespo, who elegantly chipped the ball over Jerzy Dudek. A rout seemed inevitable, and Liverpool's players could only shake their heads in disbelief as they trudged off the field at half time.
But then, in the space of six extraordinary and bewildering minutes, came one of the greatest comebacks in modern soccer history. Nine minutes after the break, John Arne Riise crossed from the left and Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard jumped high to head home a wonderfully taken goal.
Liverpool seized the opportunity to attack with aplomb, and two minutes later Hamann played the ball into the path of fellow substitute Vladimir Smicer, whose low 20-yard drive narrowly beat the Milan keeper.
The Ataturk Stadium, which was three-quarters filled with Liverpool fans, became a deafening roar of noise as the game took on an almost surreal quality. Then in the 60th minute Liverpool defied history to complete their comeback.
The inspirational Gerrard ran straight through the tattered Milan defense to be brought down by Gennaro Gattuso. Dida managed to save the ensuing penalty kick by Xabi Alonso, but the Spaniard was quick to knock the rebound in.
The game went into extra time as both teams seemed to struggle to take in what was actually happening. Liverpool were lucky to hold on to their position as Milan staged a late comeback, which saw a shot cleared off the line and Dudek make a brilliant save right at the end of the game from Shevchenko. Two key Liverpool players also collapsed in a heap with cramps, which is always a sure sign of a classic game.
Dudek was the hero of the penalty shootout, employing some questionable tactics to distract the Milan players in an almost exact repetition of ex-Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar, whose clowning about secured Liverpool victory against Roma in the 1984 European Cup final.
But Dudek managed to save Shevchenko's penalty without resorting to such subterfuge, sealing a victory for Liverpool that will be talked about for years to come.