Not sure if it will be on in time, so here's my Champions League Final preview.

May 23rd, 2007

UEFA Champions League Final Preview
Rematch of 2005 classic

Two years ago in Istanbul, fans of the beautiful game were treated to one of the more bizarre matches in the history of the Champions League. The meeting between Italian side AC Milan and Liverpool of the English Premier League will forever be remembered as one of the all-time greats. Behind a goal in the first minute from Paolo Maldini, “Il Capitano”, and a pair of strikes from Hernan Crespo, the Rossoneri jumped out to a 3-0 lead after the first half.

But six of the wildest minutes the final had seen in its history, the Merseysiders got the match back to three goals apiece thanks to Steven Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso. From there, it seemed like a dreadful formality for followers of the Rossoneri, eventually falling in penalties due to the excellence of then-Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek. Now they meet again, with the location being just across the Aegean Sea in Athens. Here is a preview of the match, along with my prediction.

AC Milan (Serie A- Italy) vs. Liverpool (EPL- England)
Location: Olympic Stadium (OACA Spyro Louis Stadium), Athens, Greece
Time: 2:30 PM EST (ESPN2) - network coverage begins at 2:00 PM EST

Road to the Final

Liverpool- Just like 2005, many tended to ignore Liverpool in favor of English sides (Chelsea and Manchester United, most notably) that seemed to have better individual talent. But just like their run to the crown two years ago, the Merseysiders play well as a team, and in Rafael Benitez they have one of the best coaches in the game today. Liverpool began their run in the third qualifying stage of the Champions League, elimination Maccabi Haifa (Israel) by a 3-2 aggregate score over the two legs. From there it was onto the group stages for the Reds, winning Group C over PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands), Bordeaux (France) and Galatasaray (Turkey).

The first knockout stage brought on defending Champions League winners Barcelona (Spain), and the Reds sent them home with a 2-2 aggregate thanks to two away goals scored (The first tie-breaker in case of an aggregate tie is the number of away goals scored). From there it was a rematch with fellow Group C competitor PSV, but the Dutch side offered little resistance, falling 4-0 over the two legs. The semifinals meant a matchup with fellow EPL side Chelsea, armed with many high-priced acquisitions with the goal of taking over Europe.

But Liverpool failed to comply with Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho’s (he refers to himself as the “Special One”) plans, advancing on penalties after negating a 1-0 deficit heading into the second leg at home. The performance (especially Pepe Reina in goal) combined the heart of the Liverpool team with the managing abilities of Benitez, who got the better of Mourinho on this night. Now the most successful club in the history of English football looks to add a sixth European title to their name.

AC Milan- In what has been a tumultuous year in Italian football, the Rossoneri didn’t get off to the best of starts. In the months between the Italian National Team winning the World Cup and the start of the domestic season, it was unknown what the penalties handed down would be. At the end of the day, however, Milan were allowed to compete in the Champions League despite their punishment (docked eight points in the Serie A standings).

But instead of advancing directly into the group stages as their second place finish in 2005-06 (Serie A) would have dictated, the Rossoneri had to face Red Star Belgrade in the third qualifying round. The tardiness of the disciplinary action made things tough for Milan; with a good chunk of their key contributors either just coming back from vacation or still away from the team after the 2006 World Cup. But they managed to advance due to a 3-1 aggregate score. From there it was on to Group H, where they outlasted Lille (France), AEK (Greece) and Anderlecht (Belgium) despite losing their final two group matches.

The first knockout stage brought on Scottish power Celtic, with Kaka scoring in extra time of the second leg to give Milan the 1-0 aggregate. The quarterfinals brought about another close call with elimination thanks to Milan allowing Bayern Munich (Germany) two away goals (both scored by defender Daniel Van Buyten) in the first leg at the San Siro. But in what would be a harbinger of things to come in the next round, Milan put together a masterful performance in winning the second leg 2-0 to take the aggregate 4-2.

The semifinals meant a meeting with English power Manchester United, led by the likes of Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. And the star power on the pitch didn’t disappoint in the first leg at Old Trafford, with Kaka scoring twice for the Rossoneri after a Cristiano Rolando strike to give Milan a 2-1 lead. But Rooney stole the show with two second half tallies to give United a 3-2 edge heading to Milan’s home ground. But Milan put together their best performance of the season, routing United 3-0 thanks to goals from Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Alberto Gilardino. Milan will now attempt to win their seventh Champions League (or its equivalent) title.

Key Players
Liverpool- G Pepe Reina, D Jamie Carragher, M Steven Gerrard (captain), F Peter Crouch, F Dirk Kuyt.

AC Milan- G Dida, D Alessandro Nesta, D Paolo Maldini (captain), M Gennaro Gattuso, M Andrea Pirlo, CAM Kaka.

Personnel Question Marks
Each team heads into the final with a key question in terms of who they put on the field in Athens. For the Reds, will it be Boudewijn Zenden or Harry Kewell in one of the midfield positions with Zenden battling an ankle injury. However, Zenden did work out with the team on Tuesday at the stadium, so he could be fit to start.

Kewell fits into this two-fold, with the obvious reasoning being he stands to start if Zenden is unable to go. But going back to the 2005 final, Kewell started despite injury troubles, only to be subbed for Vladimir Smicer before the first half was even complete due to his ailments. Using a substitute that early could have been costly for Liverpool, but as history shows they were able to persevere.

As for Milan, Paolo Maldini should be able to go tomorrow, but if not look for Kahka Kaladze to fill in for the legendary defender. This leaves the question of which forward starts: Gilardino or Filippo Inzaghi? Gilardino has the younger legs of the two, but he’s had a tough time scoring in Champions League competition this season, scoring only two goals in his ten appearances. Neither forward has filled the net this Champions League season (Inzaghi has four goals in eleven CL appearances), but both provide Coach Carlo Ancelotti with experienced options.

Three Keys to the Match
1. Kaka (Milan) vs. Gerrard (Liverpool): Which team can do the better job of slowing down the opposing star?

Kaka comes into the CL Final on a roll, leading the league with ten goals to this point. Gerrard is the catalyst of the Liverpool attack, possessing the ability to score himself as well as feed the likes of Kuyt and Crouch up front. Slowing down these two stars will be key for both teams, with the more successful side holding an advantage in winning the title.

2. Peter Crouch (Liverpool) and Dida (Milan): Which one will show up?

Both Crouch and Dida had some bouts with inconsistency this CL season. Crouch, who stands 6’7” tall, is a danger to opponents either in the air or on the ground when he’s on. But he’s also shown the ability to disappear at times as well.

This could also be said for Milan goalkeeper, who has followed up solid performances with questionable displays this season as well. While Dida had a tough go of it in the first leg against both Manchester United and Bayern Munich, he did recover for clean sheets in both return legs. But you don’t get a return leg for the final, so we’ll see what happens.

3. How much of a factor will the weather play?

Many anticipate bad weather for tomorrow’s final, expecting a low scoring game as a result. A muddy field should favor Liverpool, as it could slow down Milan’s quick passing game plan. But as we saw two years ago, it can be good to expect the unexpected. Both managers predicted a low-scoring affair in 2005 (without the weather concerns), and we all know what happened.

My Prediction
This one will also be a well-played match, but I do not expect the emotional roller coaster of 2005. Although they’ve said all the right things about 2005 being in the past and it isn’t going to serve as extra motivation, I like the Rossoneri to win the rematch by a final of 2-1, with Kaka being the man of the match.