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‘The Miracle of Istanbul.’ When Liverpool produced one of soccer’s greatest comebacks

<i>FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images</i><br/>
FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

By Matias Grez and Don Riddell, CNN

(CNN) — It’s not often that a soccer match can be encapsulated in just a single word.

But mention “Istanbul” and every fan in the world will know exactly which game you’re talking about.

On May 25, 2005, Liverpool and AC Milan contested the Champions League final at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, which also hosts this year’s showpiece between Manchester City and Inter Milan.

That match 18 years ago would go down as one of the most memorable and iconic in sporting history, one which is still referred to by Liverpool fans as the ‘miracle of Istanbul.’

Leading 3-0 at half time thanks to Paolo Maldini’s opening-minute goal and a brace from Hernan Crespo, AC Milan already had one hand on the trophy when the teams returned to the dressing rooms.

What happened in the second half, however, made the 2005 Champions League final the mother of all “I was there” moments.

“Every football fan, it doesn’t need to be a Liverpool or Milan fan, remembers that game,” former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia told CNN Sport in 2020 of that night.

“It was incredible that we were 3-0 down against an Italian side at half time and we managed to win it at the end in the penalty shootout.”

What makes the events of that night all the more remarkable is that Liverpool’s comeback was completed almost as soon as it had started.

There were just seven minutes between Liverpool captain and talisman Steven Gerrard scoring Liverpool’s first and Xabi Alonso leveling the scores just after the hour mark, a thrilling, chaotic period in which the Reds seemingly did the impossible.

Rafael Benítez’s men emerged for the second half looking like an entirely different team, one full of belief that played with courage and purpose. But what sparked this sudden turnaround?

“I think the most asked question is: ‘What happened at half time?’” Hyypia said. “I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve explained what happened. It was very quiet at first and we heard the crowd singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ outside and that’s incredible.

“Your team is 3-0 down and the crowd is singing for the whole of halftime and maybe that gave us a little bit of strength, but then Rafa Benítez was quite calm and he just said: ‘Look, boys, it can’t continue like this. We have to give the fans something to cheer about in the second half, many of them have traveled a long way – even in cars to Istanbul to support us.

“I wouldn’t think that he expected for that to happen, what then happened.”

Even after Gerrard scored the first – a looping header that he celebrated by frantically waving his arms and bellowing in an attempt to gee up his teammates – Hyypia said the team still didn’t quite believe they could mount a comeback.

But when Vladimír Šmicer’s sweet strike made it 3-2 just two minutes later, Hyypia said everything changed.

“I think the second goal was the turning point when we started to have belief that we can come back,” the Finnish defender recalled.

“The third one came quite quickly after that and I think it was a bit of shock for Milan that we came back to 3-3 and then they started to play again and it went a bit more even again.

“They had a great chance that Jerzy [Dudek] saved in extra time, the double save from [Andriy] Shevchenko, which was an incredible double save from Jerzy and of course he was the hero then in the penalty shootout as well.”

Indeed, that truly incredible double save from Liverpool’s Polish goalkeeper was as important as any of the team’s three goals.

Even today, the second of Dudek’s saves to deny Shevchenko in the dying minutes of extra time still seems almost physically impossible – a touch off the glove from point-blank range that somehow diverted the ball over the crossbar.

Without that save, then Dudek’s famous “wobbly legs” that helped to win the penalty shootout and Liverpool’s comeback would forgotten; “Istanbul” would likely never have become part of soccer’s lexicon.

For Hyypia, these moments just made the occasion all the more remarkable.

“Every footballer in the world would like to win the Champions League once and that night I managed to win it and nobody has taken that from me,” Hyypia said. “It’s in the history books and I think that’s the biggest thing you can win in club competitions.

“We managed to win it then and I’m happy for that and I thank all of my teammates and the people who helped us on the way to the final and to win it.”

The night was also an unforgettable one for AC Milan and its fans, but for all the wrong reasons.

At halftime, the supporters in the stadium and back home in Milan would have been forgiven for starting their celebrations early. The 3-0 lead was a deserved one which reflected the gulf in class between the two teams.

Legendary Brazilian goalkeeper Dida played for AC Milan that night and did everything in his power to maintain his team’s lead, saving Xabi Alonso’s penalty in the second half, but he was beaten to the rebound by the Spaniard.

Even 15 years after that night, Dida admitted he still plays that final over in his head and wonders how his team squandered a seemingly unassailable lead.

“It is one of those things that we certainly still think about to this day, whether it was true,” Dida told CNN in 2020. “Because once in a while when we look at that game and we ask ourselves, we say, ‘It can’t be possible.’

“So that image, I believe, will remain in everyone’s heads. The cup [we thought] was practically ours, but football is this way, it’s beautiful because until the referee ends the game, anything can happen.”

AC Milan did get its revenge two years later, beating Liverpool 2-1 in the final, a game that Dida said helped to ease the pain of Istanbul.

“Obviously talking about 2007 is much nicer,” he said. “We’re a lot happier, especially because we won.

“It was proof that we could have done the same thing two years before, but time has passed and we must try and forget about the match we lost and focus more on the one we won.”

If Saturday’s contest between Man City and Inter is half as thrilling as the 2005 final, then fans are in for another special occasion.

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