The euphoria of lifting the European Cup 15 years ago today is a feeling Rafael Benitez will never forget.
May 25, 2005 is a date that will forever have its place in Liverpool FC folklore thanks to events at Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium.
You already know the story, of course.
At half-time of the Champions League final, Benitez’s Reds were 3-0 down to a masterful AC Milan side.
But three goals in six second-half minutes saw them somehow draw level, before they went on to claim the club’s fifth European Cup by holding their nerve in a penalty shootout.
To mark the anniversary of that dramatic, unforgettable evening, Benitez sat down with UEFA to share his memories of it.
Read on for the legendary former Liverpool boss’ reflections 15 years on…
On his pre-match thoughts and how the game unfolded...
It always happened to me and I hope it keeps happening; and that is when you reach the finals, you have to be convinced. Because there was a lot of work, the technical body works very hard to help me prepare for the matches. There were key games like Juventus, in which [Xabi] Alonso comes back after months from an ankle injury. It was the first time we played a 5-3-1-1 to control [Zlatan] Ibrahimovic, [Alessandro] Del Piero, [Pavel] Nedved. That was a very important game because they had a great team. Then, obviously, against Chelsea… those games were decisive to reach the final with confidence.
We weren’t favourites because their players were top level, but we got there with a lot of confidence and we were convinced. Despite the fact that things weren’t perfect from the beginning because we made a mistake which led to a foul, and they were up 3-0, I tried to transmit confidence during the interval.
I tried to keep the competitive spirit in the team and I thought that with any luck we could end up being the better team. We improved when we switched to three at the back, which gave us more control in midfield. And then when it went to penalties, that was a result of luck and hard work because of the five penalty takers Milan had, we knew about four of them very well and where they usually shot.
We’d been compiling information and statistics on them for some time. So, that once again came down to our methodic nature which had been developed from long ago, as we were talking about before. That was the result of that work. That software we used to have, which every TV [station] has these days, which we used to study the penalty takers, helped us in that final. So, the confidence we had at the beginning, plus all the work we put in, allowed us to win a final which I think will go down as the most exciting final in Champions League history.
On whether it was a risk to switch Steven Gerrard to right-back to combat the threat of Milan substitute Serginho, who came on late in the second half of normal time...
No, you have to know your players, he was the one with more energy. There was a player who’d been injured for some time and wasn’t up to competitive match speed yet because he hadn’t been playing and there was another player who could actually do that job and contribute in attack and that was Steven Gerrard.
They are tactical changes which were effective in the end. I always say that [Carlo] Ancelotti was right because Serginho was a good substitute to bring on, he widened their attack. We reacted correctly by putting Steven out there because he could stop him and also attack.
But I was very confident there, in our work, and in Jerzy Dudek and then in [Jose Manuel] Ochotorena who was the goalkeepers’ coach, because we had already picked out the penalty takers. Anything could have happened but I was very confident because of all the work that had been done behind the scenes, which not many people know about.
On whether the trophy was heavy…
You don’t even notice. When you win it, you don’t even notice. Even if it was a hundred kilos, you’d pick it up anyway. That’s the easy part. Once you reached that euphoria… that satisfaction and happiness, you enjoy the moment and see everything around you, all the red with so many people with so much passion. After so many years, that’s something wonderful that stays in your memory forever.