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May 24, 2005

Many happy returns

Rumours, raucous singing and red everywhere - the Liverpool roadshow is in Istanbul. Many are ticketless; few believe that there can be anything other than victory in store for Rafael Benitez's men.

Their first European Cup final since the carnage of Heysel is being cherished. And rightly so. Their run to the final has been a dream in total contrast to the hard reality of their Premiership campaign. Fifth place is no place for a team of their history. But that position - unforgivably behind their rivals from across Stanley Park - will be forgotten should Steven Gerrard lift the cup in the Attaturk Stadium.

And for the moment, Gerrard's future is not an issue. The joy at being back where the fans feel their club belongs has put that to the back of scouse minds. So too comments from Milan Baros that his future may lie elsewhere - Benitez's old club Valencia being the most quoted destination. For now, the fans, travelling not just from Liverpool but from Cornwall, Berkshire, Wales, London, South Africa and Australia, are just riding the buzz of being in a European capital city with a glittering prize just 90 minutes away.

So too is there an opportunity to enjoy an unfamiliar culture. Kebabs are popular on Grafton Street but they rarely taste as good as from the innumerable cafes and restaurants that fill the Istanbul streets. Liverpool is famous for its harbour but the splendour of the Liver buildings cannot match the vista of the Bosphorus that greets those who wander down to the Blue Mosque.

And those who have taken a trip away from the wife can soothe 'the missus' with a rug or carpet bought from one of the many enterprising merchants inviting fans into their family shop. The air of violence predicted by the doomsayers seems unlikely to descend - it is to be hoped that the air of conviviality continues.

As for the Italians....where are the Italians? Istanbul airport's passport control had separate booths for each team. Liverpool's fans were queued around the block on Monday while the officers tending to fans of the rossoneri were left to admire their fingernails. The Italians have been to major finals many times in the recent past and perhaps don't have the wide-eyed pleasure that the younger Liverpool fans have, or indeed the dewy-eyed reminiscence of those old stagers who were there in Rome in 1977, Wembley the year after, Paris in 1981 and Rome again in 1984.

The Italian way is seemingly to arrive on the day of the game, lift the trophy and get out again. Or at least, that's the plan. The tailored suits of Paolo Maldini et al that came through the airport were in marked contrast to the shellsuit jacket that Rafael Benitez modelled later on Monday - maybe a reflection of the different attitudes to the match; Milan are smart, expectant and cultured; Liverpool meanwhile, despite their heavy foreign influence, are typically English in spirit and approach - an attitude best reflected by twin scousers Gerrard and Jamie Carragher.

Red night district: Liverpool fans sample some of Istanbul's warm 'local' hospitality.
Red night district: Liverpool fans sample some of Istanbul's warm 'local' hospitality.

But that's to forget the skill of Xabi Alonso and the finishing of Djibril Cisse - for whom a winning goal would signal one of the fables of the modern game considering the agony he suffered when breaking his leg at Ewood Park in October - that may yet prove decisive against a Milan side starting to look their age.

While Milan have looked tired with the Scudetto slipping away with barely a whimper, in many ways the fact that the race for 4th place in the Premiership was conceded early has been to Benitez's benefit. He has been able to rest players, build up the fitness of the long-term injured like the aforementioned pair and focus on Istanbul.

The Spaniard's expertise on the European stage cannot be questioned. And his tactical nous has already done for a Juventus team who snatched Serie A from Milan and this season's champions of England, Chelsea.

These are happy and optimistic times for Liverpool. And for their supporting visitors to the friendly city of Istanbul. History may await but Tuesday and all of Wednesday until that 9.45 local time will be spent basking in being back in the big time.


  • Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email John Brewin