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May 13, 2009

Five great UEFA Cup finals

When Werder Bremen or Shakhtar Donetsk lift the vase-like trophy in Istanbul on Wednesday, they will become the last winners of the UEFA Cup. The trophy's history has been convoluted since it replaced the old Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, itself a curio that once saw teams selected from cities, giving rise to a London XI team competing in the final of the first version, which lasted three years.

Next season brings the prospect of the Europa League, a name bearing such portents of fudging that even UEFA president Michel Platini has admitted he doesn't like its new moniker. Granting TV-rights exclusivity per country and composing an anthem give it the look of a budget-store Champions League, the golden goose that first killed off the Cup Winners' Cup and then made the once-proud UEFA Cup into a footballing backwater that required such a ham-fisted rebranding.

This was once a tournament that possessed the most depth of all the continental competitions, as the European Cup was made up exclusively of champions. Lest we forget, let us remember five of its greatest finals.

1973: Liverpool 3-2 Borussia Monchengladbach on aggregate

The first UEFA Cup final had been an all-English affair, and Spurs beat Wolves 3-2 on aggregate. The next year, Liverpool lifted their first European silverware. Gladbach, like four years hence in the European Cup final, were crack German opponents. Yet this was the game that saw Kevin Keegan announcing himself on the continental stage. Two first-half goals, including a brave diving header, put Liverpool in the driver's seat. Keegan blew the chance of a hat trick by missing a penalty. Jupp Heynckes repeated KK's trick as Ray Clemence saved his spot kick and later admitted he had seen the striker take one in the semi-final. Barrel-chested defender Larry Lloyd grabbed the third, and all seemed set fair for Bill Shankly's men.

Over in Germany, the Reds were exposed to a test of character, as Gunter Netzer pulled the strings of a Gladbach onslaught. Heynckes made up for his miss with a brace that had his team back in the tie. Liverpool faced 50 minutes of examination and survived - just. Shankly and Liverpool had finally arrived on the European scene.

1981: Ipswich Town 5-4 AZ Alkmaar on aggregate

Bobby Robson's team were a triumph of team-building and great scouting. Bucolic surroundings and boozy owners in the Cobbold family presided over a team that punched above its weight. They had run Aston Villa very close in the domestic title race, blowing what looked like a winning position. The UEFA Cup offered solace that came at a price of high tension.

The home leg at Portman Road saw Town storm into a 3-0 lead, with goals from John Wark, Dutch prompter Frans Thijssen and Paul Mariner. That handsome lead was compounded in the second leg, when Thijssen scored after just four minutes. From there, AZ mounted a comeback, with goals from Kurt Welzl and John Metgod. Wark, with his 14th strike of that season's competition, still a record, put the trophy's destiny beyond doubt before Alkmaar staged an admirable last stand with two late goals. Ipswich's 64-game season had finally been rewarded. Robson became England manager the next year.

1989: Napoli 5-4 VfB Stuttgart on aggregate Diego Maradona always will be a favorite Neapolitan son. Having taken a southern "ne'er do well" of a team to its first Scudetto in 1987, Diego the deity powered the club to their first European final via defeats of Juventus and Bayern Munich. Yet this was no one-man team. Brazilians Careca and Alemao played alongside Italian internationals Andrea Carnevale and Fernando De Napoli.

The first leg in Italy saw a goal by Stuttgart's German of Italian descent Maurizio Gaudino scoring an away goal from a free kick. Maradona converted what looked like a fortunate penalty award after the Argentine had smashed the ball in the direction of Günther Schäfer's hand. Careca scored a poacher's goal to take a lead over to Germany. In Stuttgart, Alemao beat the offside trap to score before Jurgen Klinsmann, who had missed the first leg, nodded in. Tough-as-teak defender Ciro Ferrara made the best of a goalmouth scramble before Maradona looked to have put the tie beyond doubt by supplying a slide-rule pass for Careca to score what proved to be the decider. Yet an own goal by De Napoli and a late strike from Olaf Schmäler made it a rousing climax.

1992: Ajax 2-2 Torino. Ajax win on away goals

The late '80s saw the tournament dominated by teams from Italy, with the previous two seasons' finals being contested by clubs from Serie A. Ajax had seen off Genoa to reach the final while Torino, featuring Belgian star Enzo Scifo, bullying Brazilian forward Walter Casagrande and willowy winger Gianluigi Lentini, soon to become a world-record £13m buy for AC Milan.

Ajax broke the Italian stranglehold by virtue of coming away from Turin with two away goals. Although Dennis Bergkamp began to look like the true successor to Marco van Basten, it was defensive midfielder Wim Jonk who made the headlines with a tremendous strike from almost 40 yards out, thus earning himself a move to Inter alongside Bergkamp. Two strikes were celebrated in inimitable maniacal style by Casagrande either side of a Stefan Pettersson goal. The spot kick was awarded for a foul on a surging Bergkamp by Silvano Benedetti and gave the Dutch side a vital lead to take back to Amsterdam.

There, redoubtable defence, marshaled by Danny Blind, made sure Italian stranglehold on the trophy was broken.

2001: Liverpool 5-4 Alaves

UEFA's tinkering had by now amalgamated the Cup Winners' Cup to further bloat a competition that had been swelled by the breakup of the Soviet bloc and the partition of the various Yugoslav states. The last two-leg final had been played in 1997, meaning the final was now staged in a neutral venue.

Dortmund's superb Westfalenstadion was the scene for Liverpool's return to the European finals for the first time since the horror of Heysel. As a second part of a treble of knock-out trophies, Gerard Houllier's team had to overcome the hurdle of Deportivo Alaves, an obscure Spanish team from the Basque country. This looked like an easy assignment and even allowed for Alaves to knock out Inter Milan and destroy Kaiserslautern in the semi-final.

So it looked as though Markus Babbel and Steven Gerrard had Liverpool cruising with two early goals. Yet Jose Manuel Esnal continued his golden touch by sending on striker Ivan Alonso for leaden defender Dan Eggen after just 23 minutes. Alonso scored just four minutes later, and although a Gary McAllister penalty settled nerves, Liverpool knew their task was not done. Within six minutes after the break, Javi Moreno scored twice, first from a free kick, then from his head. Sub Robbie Fowler rolled back the years with a well-taken and calm finish, and Liverpool dared to dream again. Yet they were denied again when Jordi Cruyff appeared in enigmatic style to head in an equalizer.

Extra time was marred by red cards issued to Magno Mocelin and Antonio Karmona, meaning Alaves would have to hold on for penalties. With 117 minutes gone, the pressure finally gave way when Delfí Geli misjudged a clearing header to score an own goal, the golden goal, to remind of that unlamented experiment. Liverpool had won, yet credit was equally due to Alaves. This was one of European football's greatest finals.

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