Think of the greatest goals ever scored in a Champions League final and the usual collection spring to mind; the Zinedine Zidane volley against Leverkusen; the Dejan Savicevic lob against Barcelona; the David Villa curler at Wembley that gave Edwin Van der Sar about as much chance as Man Utd had that day against Pep’s peak Barca side. Those goals roll off the tongue without hesitation, like saying the alphabet.
If probed a little further, you could come up with Lars Ricken’s chip against Juventus, Mario Mandzukic’s overhead kick against Real Madrid in last year’s showpiece, or you might plump for Steve McMananman’s volley in the 2000 final.
What fails to get mentioned, or rather only does so after giving the brain a serious rattle, is Hernan Crespo’s exquisite effort against Liverpool in that final. We all know the goal, not the tap in from 5 yards, but the wonderfully crafted sequel. A strike that showcased how truly brilliant, and varied, a finisher the Argentine was.
History has reduced Crespo’s goal to a mere footnote in the overall narrative of Istanbul. And, criminally it must be said, not enough has been written about the beauty of what is, as former Sky Sports commentator Andy Gray noted on air, “football of the highest order”.
Crespo had spent the 2004-05 season on loan at Milan from Chelsea. His initial run at Stamford Bridge wasn’t quite the success many envisioned, nor was it the busted flush many remember; 10 league goals in only 19 starts hardly screams failure.
The signing of Crespo was a request from Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti, who was a personal favourite of Ancelotti’s from their time together at Parma. He initially struggled, and had to wait until late November to register a goal.
By the turn of the year he had found his groove, and scored home and away against Manchester United in the Champions League. Crespo carried the attacking burden through the late winter and early spring, with Andriy Shevchenko out after sustaining a fractured cheekbone.
Come the final in Istanbul, Milan had narrowly lost out on the Serie A title to Fabio Capello’s dour-but-functional Juventus side several weeks earlier, and so the Champions League represented a last opportunity for arguably the greatest iteration of Ancelotti’s Milan sides to win silverware.
Has there been a bigger mismatch in a Champions League final than in 2005? There wasn’t a single weak link in the Milan starting XI, every player had a legitimate claim to be considered world class in their position. Even the now much-maligned Dida was in the midst of his 2-year purple patch as a dependable goalkeeper. Liverpool, by contrast, where the opposite. The disparity in quality between the two teams was ludicrous.
The first half played out exactly as it should have; Milan had simply too much class, too many players of the highest caliber, to give Liverpool even the slightest glimmer of a chance. Paolo Maldini scored inside a minute; Crespo scored his first from a Shevchenko assist after a lightning counter attack. Five minutes later, the third arrived.
Andrea Pirlo intercepted Steven Gerrard’s wayward pass, Pirlo then played a one-two with Cafu before glancing up and hitting the ball towards Kaka. The Brazilian let the ball run underneath him, with Gerrard aiming to make ground, before clipping the ball off the inside of his heel and spinning away from him with the balletic grace that defined his style of play during those Milan years.
With panic now imbedded into the Liverpool defenders that Milan could score at any given moment, a massive gap opens up for Kaka. He sends the most delightful of through balls, that not only dissects the beleaguered Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia in two, but arcs with pace, with direction, into the path of Crespo.
Carragher – who Crespo would later say was aghast at the damage he was doing to their defence with his off the ball movement – lunges desperately to block Kaka’s pass, but you can’t defend against a pass that good, a pass that precise.
Faced with the onrushing Jerzey Dudek on the periphery of the box, Crespo delicately chips – almost in a prod-like fashion – the ball over the hapless Dudek, and like all good snooker players, he remarkably does it with backspin. The ball changes direction upon hitting the ground as it bounces into the net.
An argument can be made that it’s the greatest goal scored in a final. Whilst Zidane’s volley and Savicevic’s lob are rightly lauded, they’re to all intents and purposes speculative, with only a certain degree of measurable control. Every facet of Crespo’s was calculated, controlled, from Kaka’s pass to Crespo’s movement to the finish. The technique, flawless.
“Milan are playing football out of this world,” cried Clive Tyldesley. He wasn’t wrong. It had ben the most authoritative display from any side in a final since Milan walloped Johan Cryuff’s Barcelona side in Athens 11 years earlier.
The goal in a way encapsulates Crespo’s career. A career that despite being ultra-successful was often overshadowed, and never seeming to get the acclaim his predatory instincts warranted.
He was the world’s most expensive player for less than two weeks before Luis Figo signed up for years of Barcelona fans throwing objects at him in July 2000; his peak was sandwiched between the final net-busting years of Gabriel Batistuta and the emergence of Shevchenko as the game’s premier striker. Often, and unfairly, typecast as a striker in the mould of Pippo Inzaghi, David Trezeguet and Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Crespo had more in his repertoire than his supposed contemporaries, and was by far the more diverse, and classier, finisher.
Instead of resorting to the comfort of the dressing room in the aftermath of Liverpool’s win, Crespo had to stand pitch side and watch Gerrard lift the trophy to believe the impossible had happened, that Milan really did implode and lost, that his goals in the end stood for nothing. Yet thirteen years on, the end result shouldn’t detract from the unblemished beauty of his second.