AC Milan 2-1 Liverpool: Pippo punishes Reds

This time there was to be no miracle escape and no sixth European Cup.

Even though Dirk Kuyt's last-minute header raised the prospect of a comeback equally as memorable as the one Liverpool produced in Istanbul two years ago, ultimately only a Greek tragedy was awaiting Rafael Benitez as his side fell victim to AC Milan's Champions League revenge mission in Athens' Olympic Stadium.

There will be no consolation for the Merseysiders' vast following that Milan's crucial opener was a fluke, Andrea Pirlo's 45th-minute free-kick flicking off Filippo Inzaghi to give Pepe Reina no chance.

All they can reflect on is the knowledge that, in a tight contest, infinitely more watchable than Saturday's woeful FA Cup Final, the Anfield men had enough chances to emerge victorious and squandered them.

For once Steven Gerrard's shooting boots failed him when it mattered and with Liverpool unable to find a second in a frantic late scramble, it was Inzhagi's 82nd-minute second that allowed Milan to complete a British hat-trick, having already eliminated Celtic and Manchester United from the competition.

Of far more significance to the Serie A giants, whom some will remain convinced should not have been allowed back into the tournament after initially being expelled in the wake of the Italian match-fixing scandal, is confirmation of a seventh European triumph - only two behind Real Madrid - and a fifth winners' medal for the remarkable Paolo Maldini.

Unlike on that delightful Turkish night two years, it had all begun rather promisingly for Liverpool.

Although they were starved of possession for long spells, Benitez's men largely kept Milan at arm's length.

Javier Mascherano, who won Olympic gold with Argentina on this ground in 2004, was a key factor in the Merseysiders successful smothering operation.

Twice Liverpool's holding midfielder was left for dead by an initial moment of brilliance from Kaka. On both occasions, rather than dive in, Mascherano stayed on his feet, recovered his position and took the ball back.

As Benitez predicted, Milan got their full-backs forward at regular intervals.
However, not only did Marek Jankulovski and Massimo Oddo continually pick out Pepe Reina with their crosses, their enthusiasm to push down the flanks provided Liverpool's wide men with the space to attack.

Jermaine Pennant in particular rose to the challenge.
The speedy former Arsenal man was by far the Reds most effective performer and visibly rose in confidence after having one early shot parried away by Dida.

Pennant gave the Rossoneri defence a torrid time, providing the cross which Gerrard, asked to provide the main attacking support to lone striker Dirk Kuyt, volleyed over.
Gerrard was his usual energetic self but, without direct involvement in the midfield skirmishes, struggled to exert the kind of influence he would have wished.

Instead, Pennant continued to torment Jankulovski, indirectly creating the opportunity Xabi Alonso fizzed wide just before the half hour, then cutting inside to set up John Arne Riise, who drilled over.

The winger linked with Gerrard to set up Kuyt, only for Alessandro Nesta to block.
At that point, with the snarling Gennaro Gattuso booked for one borderline tackle too many on Alonso, Liverpool were by far the more likely scorers.

Unfortunately, just as in Istanbul, a rude shock was awaiting Benitez right on half-time as Inzaghi's desire to hunt a rebound saw him deflect Pirlo's free-kick past Reina.
Ripping intended interval team talks up against Milan is nothing new for Benitez and in the knowledge Liverpool's position was nowhere near as acute as the one he faced before, he opted not to change things until close to the hour mark.

By that stage two years ago, Benitez's side had thrillingly drawn level. This time, not only were they still behind, Milan were starting to get on top.

The arrival of Harry Kewell at least gave the Italians something else to think about, although the momentum was with them and had Pirlo curled home a 20-yard free-kick instead of dipping it over the bar, Liverpool would surely have been doomed.

Pirlo's near-miss ignited Gerrard's fire and Liverpool's talisman should have levelled when he sped onto Kuyt's pass, then flashed past Nesta, only for Dida to save a precise shot aimed at the far post.

It was the Reds clearest opportunity before Inzaghi raced onto Kaka's inspired through ball, rounded Reina and tapped home Milan's second.

A few Italian hearts must have stopped when Kuyt nodded home from close range but instead of the beginning of a comeback, it proved merely to mark the beginning of the end.

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