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By Adam Szreter in Istanbul
The 50th final of the European Champion Clubs' Cup could barely have chosen a bigger stage than the vast metropolis of Istanbul and the imposing new arena that is the Atatürk Olympic Stadium. Add to this two teams who between them have won more of these titles than any previous two finalists and you have some ingredients to savour.
The favourites are AC Milan, six times winners and a team full of household names with big-match experience the envy of any coach in Europe. All four of their back line - Paolo Maldini, Cafu, Alessandro Nesta and Jaap Stam - would walk into a Who's Who of the past decade of European football, with the 36-year-old Maldini alone accounting for four winner's medals.
Experience in midfield comes in the form of Clarence Seedorf, three times a winner with three different clubs and like Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo a survivor of Milan's last UEFA Champions League triumph two years ago. While Pirlo and Gattuso will try to shore things up in front of the defence, Seedorf will look to join the exciting young Brazilian Kaká in adding to the side's attacking options.
If it is not Kaká's night, as has been the case more often this season than last, no one would bet against Andriy Shevchenko, who hit the decisive penalty in the shoot-out with Juventus in 2003. Liverpool, however, know they cannot afford to dwell too much on the Ukrainian striker. "If you see only Shevchenko it would be a big mistake as they have a lot of good players," said the Liverpool coach Rafael Benítez.
Competition for places
The only slight area of doubt surrounding Carlo Ancelotti's lineup is who will partner Shevchenko. Filippo Inzaghi and Jon Dahl Tomasson both have good claims but Hernán Crespo, whose goals put paid to Manchester United FC earlier in the competition, is a strong favourite to start, despite his coach keeping his options open. "I will not say if he will play from the start, but he will definitely play," said Ancelotti.
While Milan will be looking to make up for the embarrassment of near-defeat at the hands of PSV Eindhoven in the semi-finals, and the anguish of missing out on the Scudetto, Liverpool FC and their redoubtable followers are just happy to be in their first final for 20 years and content to play the role of underdogs. Nevertheless, on recent form their chances of a fifth title cannot be discounted. "Maybe Milan are favourites," said Benítez, "but we have confidence, and we can win."
Much will depend on whether their inspirational captain Steven Gerrard can shake off Gattuso and Pirlo to provide the necessary thrust from midfield; and on whether the accuracy of Xabi Alonso's passing is affected by nerves. Luis García is a wild card on the right, John Arne Riise a powerful presence on the left, while Dietmar Hamann will probably get the nod ahead of Igor Biscan for the fifth midfield spot.
Who will spearhead the attack is open to question: the youthful Milan Baroš, whose potential remains frustratingly unfulfilled at club level; or Djibril Cissé, who broke his leg so badly in the autumn that a place in this season's Champions League final was not even a distant dream. "Both are good enough," said Benítez, taking a leaf out of Ancelotti's book. "Maybe both can play, why not?"
Defence has been Liverpool's strong suit in seeing off the likes of Juventus FC and Chelsea FC on the road to Istanbul. The Finn Sami Hyypiä has rediscovered his most commanding form at the heart of it all, while alongside him Jamie Carragher has been a revelation. Whether it is enough to deal with the Milan powerhouse remains to be seen, but far stranger things have happened in football.
AC Milan: Dida; Cafu, Stam, Nesta, Maldini; Gattuso, Pirlo, Seedorf; Kaká; Shevchenko, Crespo.
Liverpool FC: Dudek; Finnan, Carragher, Hyypiä, Traoré; Hamann, Alonso; García, Gerrard, Riise; Baroš.
Referee: M González (Spain).
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