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May 24, 2005

The word on the streets

'I want Milan to score lots of goals'. Has Rafa Benitez lost his mind? Sadly for AC Milan, no. He is swiftly corrected by Liverpool's press officer and rights his mistake with the word 'Baros'.

For the Spaniard, this is his moment of destiny and he knows it. He speaks of having won the UEFA Cup with Valencia as a distant second to tonight's game at Istanbul's Olympic Stadium. Already a figure of worship for the Kop faithful - he spent much of yesterday afternoon being hugged by the interlopers who made their way past security into the Liverpool team's Crowne Plaza headquarters - his name can join those of Shankly, Paisley, Fagan and Dalglish in the pantheon.

Of that, Benitez is only too aware. And after speaking of what an honour it was to have the chance to grace his adopted city with a fifth European Cup, he continued his love-in with the fans by labelling them the 'best in England, probably the world'. And the feeling's mutual as 'La Bamba', with altered lyrics to fit the manager's name, drowns out the Muslim call to prayer behind the Blue Mosque.

Relics of the past litter Istanbul and that's not just the architecture dating back to Byzantium, Emperor Constantine and the Ottoman Empire. Alan 'Barney Rubble' Kennedy, the goalscorer in 1981's Paris victory over Real Madrid and the slotter of the winning penalty in Rome in 1984, has advice for the fans - if they're going to drink lots of beer, make sure they eat as well.

Wise words from the man who is more recognisable to a younger generation of Liverpudlians as a local radio host. Judging by the scenes on Tuesday night in Taksim Square, few have followed his advice - at least when it comes to supping multiple bottles of Efes. Though the kebab house owners won't be going short of lira either. Johnny Cash's 'Ring of Fire' is the theme tune though no-one can adequately explain why its opening salvo is being boorishly belted out through the streets.

The Turkish residents, used to football mania, with four major teams based in the city, don't know what to make of it. The bars at Taksim spill out on to the street with cavorting scousers and the odd brave rossoneri follower drinking heavily. On the other side of the street, Turks stand open-mouthed. Not threatening in any way but just amused and beguiled at the state of their guests for the week.

Fenerbahce won the title on Sunday evening and the club's flag is being proudly waved wherever possible while Galatasaray and Besiktas are keeping a low profile. But still the Fener exuberance seems muted in comparison to the guttural accents and rude lyrics filling the bars and cafes.

Liverpool fans take to the local brew like past masters.
Liverpool fans take to the local brew like past masters.

Between the teams, trying to maintain quiet professionalism and calm amidst the mania, the message for their opponents is one of respect. Clarence Seedorf, whose fluent English has been a boon to the Anglos, has paid tribute to the job that Benitez has done in less than a year. Meanwhile, Sami Hyypia has lauded Andriy Shevchenko while also stating that he does not fear the Ukrainian goal machine.

From the Milan camp, there is a sense of old stagers doing it one last time. Paolo Maldini is playing in his seventh final, surely an unbeatable achievement in a competition that no-one has successfully defended since Milan won in 1990. But there are doubts about the Milanese godhead. Can he and defensive partners Cafu, Costacurta and Stam hold off the youthful thrusts of Garcia, Cisse, Baros and Gerrard? Alessandro Nesta, at 29, and with a decade of being at the very top of Serie A and European football, is the young gun.

Seedorf has commented that age doesn't matter. The Italian press does not seem to agree after Milan's stumble before the finishing line in this season's Serie A. So Milan, possibly the most decorated team in Europe, littered with World Cup and European club competition winners, have something to prove.

The comparative moods are justification versus celebration. Milan showing they can do it one more time, Liverpool making the fantasy of their trip to Istanbul a memory they will never forget.


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