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Champions League Final: Key Battles & Bonus Bingo

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Kieran McHugh

Kieran McHugh claims to be part man, part football...
[full biography]
23/05/2007 12:15:00.
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As with so many games at the highest level the midfield battleground is likely to determine the outcome of this seasons Champions League. If Milan prevail they confirm their position as second only to Madrid in the premier club competition in the world. A Liverpool victory would see them pull further away from Bayern Munich and Ajax (4 wins each) and draw level with the Italian giants on 6 wins.

The ghosts of Istanbul will be much in evidence in Athens which may have lead many to identify a battle between Milan’s Gattuso and Liverpool’s Gerrard as being potentially decisive. Whilst it’s probable that one or other of the two midfield dynamos will have an impact on the match, with Gerrard possibly deployed on the right of midfield, direct clashes between the two may not be much in evidence.

However, with Benitez revelling in his ability to pull off surprises in big matches, rumours are spreading that Gerrard will in fact start in a withdrawn striking role, behind Dirk Kuyt and able to take up a position in midfield when Liverpool are not in possession. This “free role” would suit Gerrard’s roving style and thirst to be in the heat of the battle. It would also make it much more likely that Gerrard and Gattuso are in direct confrontation more often.

However, a more likely pointer to the result may be the manner in which Liverpool choose to deal with the threat of Kaka. Devastating in both matches against Manchester United in the semi final, Kaka’s ability on the ball, whether carrying it from deep or getting on the end of through passes, will be the key to the way Liverpool set up their midfield.

If Benitez is happy to let Kaka wander and be picked up by whichever of Mascherano or Alonso is better placed there is the distinct possibility that he could do again what he managed in the first half of the 2005 final in Istanbul. However, once shackled by the constant attention of Didi Hamman, Kaka’s influence in the second half of that match waned. This decision, whether to man mark Kaka or not, may well be the only decision Benitez needs to get right or wrong.

The Spaniard is famed for his incessant notetaking during matches. These notes have an immediate worth in helping to crystallise his thinking for the match in hand, but are also valuable after the event. Benitez is a canny operator and keeps all these scribbled aide memoires for use when required. If he looks back on those dated May 2005, he will surely add two and two and come up with “man mark Kaka”. If so, the man detailed to do this will be Mascherano.

Whether the Argentine can successfully restrict the Brazilian will be key to Liverpool’s chances of stifling Milan’s attacking verve and launching their own counter attacks. Many have argued that it is more important to cut off the supply lines to Kaka, but with Gattuso and Ambrosini buzzing around midfield and Andrea Pirlo able to pick out a range of passes, it might be far easier for Benitez to address the problem head on and attempt to mark Kaka out of the game.

Milan’s ball retention against United, especially in San Siro, could render any attempt to win the ball high up the pitch fruitless. If Benitez chooses to go after Pirlo Liverpool might find themselves chasing shadows. Adept on the ball and able to withstand a high tempo pressing game from the opposition, Milan could move the ball around midfield and their renowned back four until the Reds are dizzy before looking forward to their frontmen. It might be that Liverpool sit off and allow the Italians a degree of possession in certain areas, holding their line and attempting to find their strikers with one ball over the top.

This brings me to the second key battle. If Dirk Kuyt plays effectively as a lone striker his industry and willingness to chase lost causes will be vital. Whilst he may not prove to be the match winner, he will need to maintain a high workrate in order to keep the Milan back four honest. Chasing down full backs might not be the most glamorous of jobs carried out by strikers, but if Kuyt plays up front on his tod, he’ll need to run himself into the ground.

This might be the hard work that allows Benitez to bring on a pacey substitute, Bellamy perhaps, in the second half if Milan start to look leggy. The longer the game goes on goalless, and I expect a very cagey first half of few chances, the more I fancy Liverpool to win. The goal threats from Milan come mainly from their midfield maestro Kaka and their ability to play killer balls from this area to whichever striker Ancelotti goes with.

For Liverpool, they’ll have a job on their hands to win the midfield battle. Kuyt will also have to run his socks off to stop Milan playing easily out of defence. I expect the Dutchman to make way for Crouch late in the game as Benitez attempts first to stop Milan from playing, and then to nick a goal and make off with the trophy.

In another pointless attempt to second guess the Spaniard, the Champions League Final brings a Bonus Benitez Bingo. Having got nowhere in my attempts earlier in the season to pick out Rafa’s starting XI, I have chosen this showpiece event of the European football calendar to have another stab at it.

The back four and Pepe Reina should be a fairly safe bet. The midfield could be an area where Benitez throws in a surprise, possibly going for two banks of four which could see Gerrard on the right. Up front it’s clear that Benitez no longer trusts Bellamy and I think Kuyt discipline and industry will give him the nod.

Reina, Riise, Finnan, Carragher, Agger, Pennant, Zenden, Mascherano, Alonso, Gerrard, Kuyt.

Prediction: Liverpool 1 AC Milan 0

European Cup Final 2007

AC Milan: Recent Champions League History
Liverpool: Recent Champions League History
Champions League Final 2007: How will it all end?
Champions League Final 2007: Will Milan win the first-half again?
Champions League Final 2007: Can Gerrard enhance his Sports Personality chances?
Champions League Final 2007: £20m to be wagered on Liverpool v Milan
Card count likely to mount in Athens
Champions League Final – It’ll Be So Tight On The Night
Champions League Final - money piles on Milan victory
Champions League Final 2007: Kaka Specials
AC Milan vs Liverpool: Spreads, cramp, Kaka and Kuyt

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Bayern have only won 4 European Cups and not 5. [Ed: Apologies, now corrected. The list of winners with more than two titles is currently: 9 Real Madrid 6 AC Milan 5 Liverpool 4 Ajax, Bayern Munich ]


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