The first half of Liverpool’s first European Cup final in 20 years had them teetering on the brink of humiliation.
As the half-time whistle sounded in the Ataturk Stadium in Istanbul, on May 25, 2005, Rafa Benitez’s players trudged off the pitch 3-0 down to AC Milan.
They were dead and buried with seemingly little hope of a rescue act against arguably the continent’s finest team.
The ball had been in play for just a few seconds when Paolo Maldini had given the overwhelming favourites the lead in Turkey.
The official time was clocked at 50 seconds, but more than half of that was Milan lining up their free-kick after Djimi Traore had brought down the marauding Kaka on the left-hand side.
Andriy Shevchenko curled home a second only to see the offside flag raised as Milan ran rings around Benitez’s dazed side in the opening period.
Hernan Crespo added a brace to proceedings as a shell-shocked Reds tried and failed to catch their breath in the late Turkish evening.
At the mid-way point, Liverpool walked off beaten. Some fans had already walked out and there was no way back.
Or so it seemed.
What followed was the most iconic fight-back in the competition’s history as Liverpool turned the game around to level the scores in the second period. They then went on to win the trophy on penalties.
Fifteen years to the day, the ECHO chats to those who were inside the dressing room of the most famous half-time team talks ever. ..
Rafa Benitez: I was preparing what I was going to say at half time with the team 2-0 down. And my English was not the best. It still isn’t now, so imagine 15 years ago! We then conceded the third goal. The message to the players had to be the same, I needed to give them confidence, to make them believe.
Luis Garcia: It all looks a bit blurry now. I remember myself getting in and seeing all the players sitting trying to cool down, there were faces of frustration all around. We didn’t play that bad, they were just too good.
Jerzy Dudek: We knew we didn’t have all day and it took us something like two or three minutes to get from the pitch to the dressing room, it was very far away. Then you have to get back on time as UEFA made sure everything was on the minute. We knew we had to be ready. We had maybe eight or nine minutes to correct things.
Djimi Traore: I was supposed to be [substituted] out, that story is true. Rafa wanted to make the changes to the team. I can say my priority as a full-back was not someone who attacked, it was to defend. But at 3-0 down, we needed to be more offensive so he tried to make a tactical decision to play Riise as a wing-back and play three at the back. I think it was the right move to do but unfortunately for Steve Finnan, he was a bit injured.
Didi Hamann: I felt empty and I have probably never felt that way before. I walked in at half time and we worked so hard to get there, beating good teams and to throw it away in the first half, as I felt we had, I was just empty. I didn’t really think about what the manager could or should do, I was just empty walking in at half time.
Benitez had hoped to bring Hamann on for Traore but was told by physio Dave Galley that Finnan might not last the rest of the game as he was carrying an injury. With one substitute already used after Harry Kewell’s injury, Benitez switched it up, moving to three at the back.
Jamie Carragher: I’m not sure it was a talk. I’m not sure Rafa’s English was good enough for a 15-minute talk at that time. It’s a special date it always will be forever because it was a special game. It wasnt just a European Cup win it was the way we won it really.
Hamann: I went out started warming up and I was surprised to see Djimi [back out] but after I left, Rafa had made the decision to get Djimi out the shower. I thought that played a big part in the game. Also, I have to say, the mindset and strength of Djimi – because he got a lot of stick over the years – to be told at 3-0 down your night is over and to come off, being in the shower and someone comes in and tells him to carry on just shows what a tough guy he was, mentally.
Benitez: As every Liverpool fan will know, I replaced Djimi to play with three at the back and Didi in the middle, but at the end of the team talk, Dave Galley, our Head of Physios, told me that Steve Finnan would not be able to cope with the 45 minutes of the second half.
Dudek: When Rafa told Djimi he was off, he went to the showers. Next to me was Steve Finnan and he had some problems with his left leg and when Rafa started to talk he always asked us how we felt. Then the physio came to Rafa and told him Finnan wouldn’t last another 20 minutes. So he changed his mind as he knew he couldn’t take that risk later in the game.
Garcia: Rafa got us together to set a new tactic with Stevie Gerrard at the front with Xabi and Didi in the middle. ‘Try to control the midfield, and we are going to have chances,’ he said. What he wanted from us was what we had been doing the whole season, to wait for our opportunities to arrive.
Hamann: I was coming on and Rafa went through the second half team with three at back, Xabi Alonso and myself in the middle and Stevie was given the freedom to go forward. We had to get him involved more offensively so that was the reason behind it.
Carragher: We made changes at half-time, there was a bit of a commotion as to who was going off and who was coming on. Rafa changed the system that was his input into it, and then you need that little bit of luck and then it all goes into folklore and myth doesn’t it?
Traore: I was out and then Rafa found out Steve couldn’t keep going. Because he had already used a sub with Harry Kewell, he couldn’t use them all. After that Finnan couldn’t last too long so he made the decision quickly. He said: ‘Djimi you stay in, Finnan is out’ and Hamann came on to make sure we are well balanced in the middle. He was asked to take care of Kaka who had hurt us so much because he had so much freedom.
Benitez: With the substitution of Vladimir Smicer for Harry Kewell already done, we couldn’t afford to play all the second half without the possibility of changing something if it was needed. At that moment, a change was needed! So, quickly I changed him for Traore, with the same system, but different players to have another possible substitution and it worked out well in the end.
Benitez switched to three centre-backs with Traore now alongside Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia. Hamann slotted alongside Xabi Alonso in midfield and captain Steven Gerrard was moved forward to support lone striker Milan Baros
Traore: Everything went so fast. You need to think tactically about what you need to do and Rafa’s English was not the best because it was his first year. He needed to make some changes but the most important thing in the locker room was he was the only one who could believe we could come back.
Hamann: We had already made a change so the thinking was if maybe Finnan has to come off and if we were to get to extra time, we have to play 60 minutes without a sub and I think that was a master-stroke by Rafa.
Garcia: The first half, we had played with our heart and had anxiety after conceding in the first minute. We did not play with our heads and we paid for it. I never thought about when it will be the comeback, I had so many things in my head.
Dudek: Rafa is always calm, that was his big strength. Even when we were losing, he always gave us advice without any panic or shouting. Some coaches were mad during half time, on fire, shouting and pointing. He was always calm. He said ‘OK, no more discussions, this is what we do’.
Traore: So all our heads were down but one thing I remember is we said we need to go out and win the second half for us, for the fans, our family and everyone who believed in us. So if we won the second half then OK, that is the way it is. And the last words, we said if we scored inside 15 minutes then maybe we could come back. But no-one believed that, really.
Benitez: Normally, I tried not to lose my focus. In this case, I couldn’t waste a second. The game was so exciting and it was difficult to manage against such a great team that I didn’t realise how quickly the time was running out. I just wanted to help the players with my advice. Always I like to talk with my staff to get some ideas from them, Pako Ayestaran and Alex Miller were both important, to be sure I was making the right decisions.
Dudek: The referee had been knocking on our door for maybe two minutes and Alex Miller said: ‘Come on guys. you need to forget the first half. You need to score the first goal, they will panic and when you score the second, they will panic because you are Liverpool and then you have to press them. You can do this, come on boys!’
Hamann: You go in at half time and you think you’re beat and if the manager takes you off you probably go ‘thank f*** for that!’ because we were beat and it would be a normal way of thinking. And then to be told five minutes later you’re carrying on, I always stress, Djimi on the night, people talk about Stevie or me coming on, Djimi on that night epitomised what a team we were.
Garcia: The crowd was the secret weapon, what an amazing performance of belief. They never give up, never let us walk alone through the storm that was that AC Milan side.
Traore: Three-nil down to the best team in the world! They were so experienced as a team for AC Milan. They had all played on the big stage, so it was tough for us. But as always, we had our leader, our best player, Steven Gerrard – he showed us what to do.
Hamann : The longer I was warming up, the more I thought: ‘well they scored three in the first half, why can’t we?’ and the finals we had won, when the games got close and it was a dogfight, we always came out on top.
Dudek: We were out on the pitch and another magic moment starts because we were losing 3-0 and the Liverpool supporters started singing You’ll Never Walk Alone. It was something amazing. Stevie got everyone to the centre circle and he said: ‘Are you hearing this? You remember this! We have to give them something back. They came so many miles to this place, come on.’
Liverpool would score three goals in six second-half minutes to level the final against all the odds before winning their fifth European Cup on penalties.
To this day, it remains the most dramatic comeback in European Cup final of all time.