Liverpool vs Milan: African contingent rekindle old Champions League rivalry

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Istanbul 2005 will forever be remembered as one of the finest Champions League finals in the annals of the European Cup.

The dramatic events of favourites AC Milan losing a 3-0 half-time advantage inside six rip-roaring second-half minutes still beggars belief to date. Liverpool’s dramatic, unforeseen comeback 16 years ago will probably never be matched, neither will a collapse analogous to Milan’s.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side did avenge that eventual shootout loss two years later, defeating the Merseyside outfit 2-1 in Athens, a victory Kaka and Gennaro Gattuso lauded following the harrowing defeat the Italian giants had suffered in 2005.

It was the Rossoneri’s seventh European Cup and their third final in the 2000s from which they’d claimed a couple of titles in 2003 and 2007. Little did they know that Athens success was to precede a cataclysmic decline on the continent.

Milan haven’t competed in the Champions League final since, a 14-year wait that couldn’t have been imagined at the time. Further demonstrating the Italian’s continental regression was their seven-year absence from the hallowed competition, until a second-place finish last season confirmed the giants’ return.

Xabi Alonso Liverpool AC Milan Champions League

For a club that prides itself on its European success, this non-involvement must have rankled.

The Milan giants have won the European Cup seven times (including three Champions League titles), a haul higher than their biggest domestic rivals Inter Milan (three) and Juventus (two) combined.

A near decade long absence was a long time and Europe's elite competition missed the Rossoneri. Indeed, the Champions League feels whole again with Stefano Pioli’s team in it.

The returning greats are without the talismanic Zlatan Ibrahimovic for Wednesday’s clash with Jurgen Klopp’s side, but they can still lean on Olivier Giroud’s experience, Franck Kessie and Ismael Bennacer’s midfield expertise, Theo Hernandez’s thrust from full-back and the burgeoning relationship of Fikayo Tomori and Simon Kjaer at centre-back.

Even though Bennacer has had to make do with cameo appearances so far this season, his partnership with Kessie was one of the encouraging facets of Pioli’s army in 2020 until an injury slowed the Algerian’s progress in the second half of last season.

Ciro Immobile Franck Kessie Milan Lazio Serie A

The Ivory Coast star, however, has become one of the leaders of this Milan side and is expected to play from the off at Anfield, possibly in tandem with Sandro Tonali who’s had a solid start to year two in Lombardy.

Having netted a staggering 13 times and assisted four times, the West African was the club’s joint goal contributor in 20/21 with 17, along with Zlatan. His two strikes from the spot in that hugely important final day win at Atalanta sealed this CL return.

Without a doubt, it’ll be fascinating to watch ‘The President’ compete with Europe’s elite after steadily progressing since his days in Bergamo to then become of Serie A’s finest midfielders and arguably the best in the competition last term.

Hosting the Rossoneri are Klopp’s Mentality Monsters, whose continental pedigree is equally undeniable. The Reds’ six European Cups is bettered by only Milan’s seven and Real Madrid’s 13 but double the haul of England’s next best competitors Manchester United, who have won it three times.

Jurgen Klopp Liverpool 2021-22

Incredibly, that 2007 final in Athens was Liverpool’s last for 11 years until Klopp’s rebuild on Merseyside yielded that 2018 final against Real. They were beaten by Los Blancos but recovered and returned a year later to reign supreme in 2019.

This Reds iteration is led by the inspiring Mohamed Salah, fresh from becoming the Premier League’s latest centurion after netting his 100th league goal in Sunday’s 3-0 success over Leeds United.

Following the Egyptian closely is Sadio Mane on 97 goals who, barring utterly unfortunate events, will become the 30th player to score 100 times in the top flight. The pair are expected to supplant Didier Drogba this season, finally outdoing the Chelsea icon’s long-standing 104 strikes, the highest by an African player in England’s top division.

At the heart of Liverpool’s defence is Joel Matip, whose partnership with Virgil van Dijk has produced three clean sheets from four PL matches. The pair are yet to concede from open play either — Kai Havertz’s headed effort was from a Reece James corner — and it’ll be rather foolhardy on Klopp’s part to disrupt their balance in central defence for the visit of Milan.

Mohamed Salah Sadio Mane Liverpool Chelsea Premier League 2021-22 GFX

It remains to be seen if Naby Keita features, even though Harvey Elliott’s unfortunate injury at Leeds means the Guinea midfielder could be in contention to start on Wednesday.

There’s been an excessive focus on Group A — comprising Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig and Club Brugge — but Group B offers the most intrigue, owing to the presence of Atletico Madrid and Porto together with Liverpool and Milan.

Continental pedigree aside, Pioli’s team are third favourites to advance from the group. Having said that, the Italians will hope for a continuation of Atletico’s indifferent performances and results in the Champions League which saw them win only two games last term.

Diego Simeone’s team picked up nine points to advance from a group containing Bayern Munich, RB Salzburg and Lokomotiv Moscow — a tally worse than all but one second-placed side in the group stage — and their meek exit to eventual winners Chelsea was indicative of the La Liga outfit's drop off on the continent.

Perhaps, the seven-time winners will have a chance to make it out of the group on their return to the competition after all.

Wednesday evening certainly doesn’t feel as weighty as the Istanbul encounter between these clubs, neither is it half as significant as Athens two years later when the Italian giants got their revenge.

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Yet, there’s a level of anticipation seeing Milan return to this competition.

The fact that their first match comes against Liverpool makes it feel very much ideal. It will be the sides' third CL meeting, but neither will want to lose in what could be a nail-biting group.

Salah, Mane, Matip and possibly Keita in one corner. Kessie and Bennacer in the other. Events in front of a packed, raucous Anfield will be all shades of fun.