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By ESPN Staff

Istanbul still casting shadow over Athens

Few of Athens' residents will welcome the comparison, but this is a Champions League host city that is currently being compared to Istanbul at almost every turn.

The uproarious scenes that took place in Taksim Square among Liverpool fans the night before that fabled night by the Bosphurus, were not matched by those lustily singing in the various picturesque squares and taverna surrounding the Acropolis on Tuesday.

There are mitigating circumstances for this. Like two years ago, the Milan fans are hardly anywhere to be seen. The Italian way is to fly in on the day of the game and then return almost straight after, leaving little chance for interaction, friendly or otherwise, between the two sets of fans.

The Italian contingent are hardly helped either by an air traffic control strike back home. And maybe the odd Liverpool fan has been derailed by the strike too; the Alitalia queue at Heathrow Airport featured some faces whose redness matched the colour of their shirts.

And for many Liverpool fans, a lack of accomodation in Athens itself has led many to take up cheap deals in the various islands surrounding the Greek capital. A short ferry over, a day's drinking in the city centre, then a trip north-west to the Olympic Stadium is the order of the day for many.

That is, of course, if tickets are forthcoming. Liverpool's pathetic allocation of 17,000 tickets was further reduced by the 5-6,000 that have been granted to former players, officials, and even former shareholders bought out by the recent Gillett and Hicks takeover. An own-goal by the new regime if ever there was one.

The American duo, who have reflected on their luck of being in charge of the Champions League Finallists after barely four months in charge, as comparable to taking over an MLB team a week before the World Series, have been their usual PR savvy selves about this ticketing crisis, though Tom Hicks' clumsy comparison of the Liverpool brand to that of Weetabix hasn't helped either.

No amount of PR can hide the fact that there will be many thousands of ticketless Liverpool fans, and the rumour that Milan have sent back tickets has added to the sense of injustice. Though the talk of 2,000 being returned was dismissed by a Milan press officer as actually being around 50, this story reflects the fact that no other country's fans travel in the numbers that British ones do.

Like Manchester United in 1999, Celtic in 2003 and Liverpool themselves two years ago, there seems little doubt that this cradle of the civilised ancient world will have its metro system, its bars and its taxi drivers all fully employed by those of a red scouse persuasion. And come the morning of the match, many were queued up at the stadium in the hope of grabbing hold of one of those perhaps non-existent spare tickets.

Those Liverpool fans out drinking on Tuesday night were only too happy to remind any Chelsea or Manchester United fans of their presence in yet another final. Although many in sobriety would admit that 'five times' becoming 'six times' looks as tall an order as four becoming five did pre-match in Turkey. Though perhaps not as difficult as it did at half-time in Istanbul's own 'Olympic' Stadium.

Another man who may be looking back on two years ago is one who limped out early in that match. Harry Kewell may yet have a role to play as his stop-start career lands him, in two years, the chance to play in 2005's final, last year's World Cup and then this year's showpiece with little football in between.

A sizeable Australian contingent of Reds fans made sure that his rarely-heard anthem, to the tune of Boney M's 'Daddy Cool', was heard as last night drew to a close.

Those feeling the Ides of Istanbul most strongly will be the Milan team, staying out by the coast, who have looked, to those staying at their hotel, relaxed and confident ahead of their revenge mission of all missions.

While this is an ageing team, this being over-40 and probable sub Alessandro Costacurta's last involvement with the Rossoneri and perhaps Paolo Maldini's last chance to add to the four winners' medals he took in 1989, 1990, 1994 and 2003. Athens holds better memories for Silvio Berlusconi's side, for it was here they destroyed Barcelona's 'Dream Team' 4-0 in 1994.

Of course, only Maldini remains from that night, as Costacurta missed that final through suspension, as he did the World Cup Final of that year, but the club and its fans will be trying to summon the spirit of that night. And not of 25th May 2005.

They know, in Kaka, they have the continent's pre-eminent player, and in Gattuso and Pirlo two World Cup winners who can negate Alonso and Gerrard and a defence experienced enough to deal with a hardly prolific attack.

Yet there will be doubt and bad memories in the back of their minds. And Liverpool, with those fans who make it to the stadium, their canny Spanish manager and a mode of play that makes them exceedingly difficult to play against will be trying to plant the seeds of doubt that flowered in Istanbul.

Perhaps only after the cup has been lifted after a classic encounter will Athens 2007 throw off the shackles of its rival city from across the Aegean Sea.

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