Last surge of glory

Milan's hero, Filippo Inzaghi with the trophy-AP

No one would claim that this was one of the great European Cup finals. But for Paolo Maldini and Filippo Inzaghi, and for what they have given to the game, even the harshest judge would have to make an exception, writes Richard Williams.

In a moment of realism and generosity, the ranks of Liverpool applauded Paolo Maldini as he lifted the European Cup for the fifth time, at the end of his eighth final and at the age of 38. This was a marvellous consecration for one of history's great footballers, and it was wonderful to witness his opponents' supporters rise above their disappointment.

So there was to be no repeat, in any respect, of that tumultuous night in Istanbul. Liverpool's goal on the night of May 23 was too little and too late. While denying Milan the chance to play the relaxed, expansive football with which they cruised to the final, Rafael Benitez's players failed to make the most of their earlier opportunities and paid the price.

It was a night full of honest, dogged effort, settled by two goals from a supreme poacher for whom, at the age of 33, this must also have represented a last surge of glory. Pippo Inzaghi does not care how the goals go in, as long as they do. His first strike was fashioned by a deflection from Andrea Pirlo's free-kick, while his second, from Kaka's pass, reminded us of Sir Alex Ferguson's rueful observation that Inzaghi was "born offside".

His cunningly timed run left Liverpool's defence stranded, and the way he turned to screw his shot past Jose Reina had the beauty of a carefully maintained machine, one with a low centre of gravity and a perfect aim.

Paolo Maldini of AC Milan clears the ball from Liverpool's Dirk Kuyt in the Champions League final at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.-AP

Before the match Silvio Berlusconi, Milan's owner, had implored Carlo Ancelotti, his head coach, to start the match with the 24-year-old Alberto Gilardino as the lone spearhead. There are probably few employees who dare to defy Berlusconi, but Ancelotti appears one of them, and his decision to go with Inzaghi's experience and cunning was amply justified.

Until he moved on to Clarence Seedorf's back-heel to score Milan's second goal against Bayern Munich in the second leg of their quarterfinal, Inzaghi had done little to justify his existence this season at a club denuded of first-rank strikers. He has scored only twice in the league, against Lazio in September and against Parma in January, but in the Champions League final, his 57th and 58th goals brought the club a seventh success in the tournament that means most to them.

Two years ago Milan spent 45 minutes giving Liverpool a football lesson before being forced to bow in humiliation to the power of a superior will. Although it was always too simplistic to expect a repeat of the story of Beauty and the Beast, the match came with a subtext concerning Liverpool's ability to contradict Jorge Valdano's recent condemnation of their semifinal against Chelsea, and what it represented for the future of football.

Valdano saw in that match a dreadful vision of football's future in which pragmatism would replace artistry and in which the sort of fantasy represented by generations of the competition's heroes, from Di Stefano and Rivera to Cruyff and Gullit, would become utterly extinct. So Europe waited to see if Liverpool could not only uphold the honour of the Premiership but prove that their victory in Istanbul had not been the result of some sort of sublime fluke.

They began as if they wanted to ram Valdano's words down his throat. In the first minute John Arne Riise squeezed an intelligent pass up the left-hand touchline to Boudewijn Zenden, whose quick ball to Dirk Kuyt was knocked back to Steven Gerrard. Arriving on the edge of the penalty area, Gerrard hit a diagonal ball to the far post, where Jermaine Pennant was just too late to make contact.

The DNA of the old Liverpool, of the teams of Shankly and Paisley, was in that move: hard running and quick passing, shrinking the pitch through speed of movement and clarity of thought. And if that was not beautiful football, you might conclude, then what is?

Within five minutes, however, the more functional side of Benitez's team was on view when they defended a corner from the right and Gerrard, inside his own area, was forced to hoof his clearance upfield, despite knowing that every one of his team-mates was massed in defence. So early in the match, it seemed to indicate a caution that some, including Valdano, would say has no place on such an occasion.

The struggle between Milan's suave fluency and Liverpool's more rough-hewn approach seemed to be symbolised in the contest between Kaka, the new golden boy of the Italian club, and Javier Mascherano, the midfield gate-keeper who arrived at Anfield in January after an unhappy spell at Upton Park.

Several times in the first half the Argentinian surprised his Brazilian opponent with clean dispossessions which were thrown into even higher relief when Xabi Alonso committed a disastrous foul on Kaka in the last minute of the first half, presenting Pirlo with the chance to take the free-kick from which Inzaghi opened the scoring.

If Valdano was watching, he will no doubt have regretted the almost total absence of decorative football from both sides. Never able to exert the kind of control with which they had flattered to deceive in Istanbul, Milan were certainly not going to be lulled into a false sense of security on this occasion. While accepting the restrictions on their own endeavours, they took care to ensure that Liverpool were never able to make real capital from Benitez's decision to play with two specialist wingers.

So no one would claim that this was one of the great European Cup finals. The side that finished third in the Premiership last season was beaten by the side that finished third in Serie A, and quite often it showed. But for Maldini and Inzaghi, and for what they have given to the game, even the harshest judge would have to make an exception.

� Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007