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In praise of Hernán Crespo’s goal for Milan v Liverpool in the 2005 final | Champions League

When sport was cancelled during those uncertain days of the first Covid lockdown last year, newspapers and sports websites scrambled for content. There was no present to write about, so the only option was to look to the past: memories, games and goals were relived, re-evaluated and given more precedence than in normal times.

To that end, France Football produced a list of the 50 best Champions League goals. The usual mix of classics – Zinedine Zidane v Bayer Leverkusen, Mauro Bressan v Barcelona, George Weah v Bayern Munich – sat alongside some niche entries. Charles-Édouard Coridon v Porto and Lee Sharpe v Barcelona, anyone?

A mystifying absentee from the list was Hernán Crespo’s sublime, ice-cold masterpiece against Liverpool in Istanbul, one of the greatest goals scored in a Champions League final, and certainly the best by a player on the losing side. Due to the ludicrous events later that night, history has unfairly reduced Crespo’s goal to footnote status and the sleek brilliance involved has not been properly appreciated. It’s time to change that.

Crespo nearly missed out on his leading role in Istanbul. Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti – who fought with the club’s sporting director Adriano Galliani to sign him from Chelsea on loan the previous summer – told Crespo a fortnight before the game that he would be starting, but the striker limped out of training a few days ahead of the match.

Thankfully, Crespo was fit enough to take his place in one of the most star-studded Milan teams of all time. Has there been a more mismatched final in the Champions League era? The Milan team contained 11 superstars, including the reigning Ballon d’Or holder. Even goalkeeper Dida was considered world class at the time. Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Jaap Stam and Paolo Maldini were in defence, with Rino Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf and Kaká in midfield, behind Crespo and the world’s greatest striker, Andriy Shevchenko, in attack.

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There were no weak links, no chinks in the armour. It was Championship Manager come to life – on steroids. “You look back at that team, and you think ‘how the fucking hell did we win that?’ but we did,” said Jamie Carragher with a laugh in 2015.

For all their talent, Milan had crept into the final, seeing off PSV Eindhoven on away goals after being overrun in the away leg in the Netherlands, Massimo Ambrosini’s vital, stoppage-time header securing passage to their second final in three seasons. A long season of battling Juventus for the Scudetto had left them a little leggy.

There’s no need to retell the story of the final but, as expected, Milan had dominated proceedings and were 2-0 up by the time Pirlo intercepted Steven Gerrard’s attempted pass to Milan Baros in the 44th minute. Pirlo exchanged passes with Cafu before sliding the ball to Kaká. The Brazilian, who had caused untold damage already in the final, let the ball run underneath him. Gerrard, aiming to rectify his misplaced pass, sprinted towards Kaká, who stood still and clipped Pirlo’s pass off the inside of his right heel, spinning away from Gerrard with the balletic grace that defined him at his peak.

With panic now firmly entrenched in the minds of the Liverpool backline, a massive gap opened up for Kaká. He sent the most delightful of through balls, which dissected the beleaguered Carragher and Sami Hyypia in two, arcing with pace into Crespo’s path.

Hernán Crespo dinks the ball over Jerzy Dudek.
Hernán Crespo dinks the ball over Jerzy Dudek. Photograph: Francois Marit/AFP/Getty Images

When asked about the assist years later by FourFourTwo, Kaká said: “It’s definitely one of my best – not just because of its beauty, but because it was in a Champions League final. It’s a sweet feeling to do that in such an important match. But the assist can only exist if your forward puts the ball in the back of the net, no? Hernán Crespo did that part brilliantly, which was so crucial to the beauty of that moment. I definitely keep that pass in a special place of my memories.”

Carragher lunged desperately to block Kaká’s through ball, but you simply cannot defend against a pass that good, with so much pace and precision. Faced with the onrushing Jerzy Dudek on the periphery of the box, Crespo executed a prod-like, Panenka-style chip over the hapless goalkeeper, putting backspin on the ball that would impress even Ronnie O’Sullivan. The trajectory of the ball changed upon hitting the ground as it slowly bounced into the net. “It’s maybe one of my greatest goals,” said Crespo.

From back to front in six touches, three of them exquisite. This was football streamlined; uncluttered; pure. Other famous Champions League final goals have been speculative (looking at you, Zidane and Gareth Bale), but the entire sequence of Crespo’s goal felt controlled, calculated, with no element of luck involved. “Milan are playing football out of this world,” cried Clive Tyldesley on ITV commentary. “Sheer footballing brutality,” reflected Carragher, who admits he appreciates the beauty of the goal now more than he did at the time.

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Crespo celebrates after putting Milan
Crespo celebrates after putting Milan. Photograph: Mustafa Ozer/AFP/Getty Images

The finish epitomised Crespo as a striker. Although often typecast as a poacher in the mould of Pippo Inzaghi, he was more diverse a finisher and he is overlooked because his peak coincided with the final years of Gabriel Batistuta and the emergence of Shevchenko. Crespo scored 17 goals for Milan that season, including home and away against Manchester United in the round-of-16. Ancelotti’s faith in bringing him back to Italy was justified.

“It’s difficult to explain what happened in the second half,” said Crespo in 2018. “It wasn’t all of the second half. We are talking about six minutes, but this is why football is beautiful.” Crespo was taken off for Jon-Dahl Tomasson in the 85th minute, when the game was tied at 3-3. His hope evaporated in extra-time. “When Shevchenko missed his chance I thought: ‘It’s not for us.’ If that ball fell to Gattuso’s foot, you think: ‘OK, it’s not his job’. But it was Shevchenko. Dudek’s save really was a miracle.”

Crespo’s goal in the final was his last for Milan. Like Pirlo and Gattuso, he contemplated retiring from the game after Istanbul. “I played one of the best games in my life but it was not enough,” said Crespo. “It was a real hit to my ego. In that moment I said I want to stop and didn’t want to play any more.”

He did not have the chance to heal that wound. When Milan had their revenge against Liverpool in the final two years later in Athens, Crespo was playing for city rivals Inter. For a player so associated with Serie A, it’s surprising to think that his first league title in Europe came in England, where he played a big part in José Mourinho’s second title with Chelsea in 2005-06.

Yet he yearned for life in Italy and joined Inter that summer. Even though he was on the books at Inter when Milan won the Champions League in 2007, his contribution in Istanbul had not been forgotten by fans: “Ten minutes after the final, when Milan got their revenge, I received a lot of calls from the guys, saying ‘you deserved that’ and ‘this was for you’, and I was playing for Inter at that moment – it’s crazy. That showed the strong connection with the club and the people, that they remembered me.”

Crespo never won the Champions League but his second goal in the 2005 final belongs among the greatest.

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