What Happened At Half-Time In Istanbul

In the second extract from his book 'Champions League Dreams', Rafa Benitez explains what happened at half-time in the 2005 Champions League final...

Last Updated: 20/09/12 at 09:47 Post Comment

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At half-time in Istanbul, Liverpool are 3-0 down to a rampant AC Milan side. Benitez has to make changes, but he encountered yet more problems as they reached the dressing room...

All around me, heads were bowed. Players stared at the floor of the sweltering dressing room, deep in the bowels of the Ataturk Stadium. The noise, the crackle of 50,000 Liverpool fans, was dulled.

The squad sat, dejected, despairing. They did not understand what had just happened, or how it had come to this. Three goals down in the biggest game of their lives, unable to comprehend where and why it had all gone wrong.

This is where the journey we had started back in July, at the very start of pre-season training, the very first day that I met my new players in my position as Liverpool manager, drew to a close.

There are two sides to management. One is the coaching of players as footballers, improving their fitness and their technique, teaching them to adapt to your tactics. The other is to convince them that, no matter what happens, no matter how dire the situation, you have an answer. It is making them believe that you have a plan.

Every training session you take, every game you play, you must reinforce that message. This is why I had encouraged them not simply to follow my instructions, but to question them, so that I might explain my thinking. You are training their bodies, yes. You are also coaching their minds.

These are the times that measure you as a manager, when the world is falling apart, when all that you have worked for over the course of a long, gruelling season seems lost. These are the moments when you need your players to have faith in you. This is when you stand or fall.

I did not have a long speech prepared for the players. My notes from the game show there was one message, one word, above all others, that I wanted to drill into them. It is written in Spanish.

Lucharlo.

Fight for it.

We would have just a few minutes to prepare the players for the system we intended to play in the second half, with three defenders, two wing-backs, two midfielders - Xabi Alonso and Dietmar Hamann - sitting, protecting us from the runs of Kaka, which had caused us so many problems in the first half, and Steven Gerrard playing just behind Milan Baros.

Hamann would replace Djimi Traore, meaning Jamie Carragher would play on the left of our back three, Sami Hyypia in the middle and Steve Finnan on the right.

'We'll go in, I'll go through the tactics and then you take Hamann out to warm up,' I told my assistant, Pako Ayesterán, as we rushed down the tunnel at the interval.

I was already planning what I was going to say to the players, working out how to express my message in English, to make sure it was as clear and as positive as it needed to be.

'Djimi, have a shower, get changed,' I told him as we reached the stark, white dressing room. I took a moment to gather my thoughts, before turning to the rest of the team.

'Listen,' I said. What little noise there had been among the players quietened. As a manager, you can tell when your players are looking to you for hope, for inspiration. It was important that I kept calm, presented a confident front. I could not let them think it was over.

The words came easily now, even in a second language.

'We have nothing to lose,' I said. 'If we can relax, we can get a goal. And if we get the first goal, we can come back into the game. We have to fight. We owe something to the supporters. Don't let your heads drop. We are Liverpool. You are playing for Liverpool. Don't forget that. You have to hold your heads high for the supporters. You cannot call yourselves Liverpool players with your heads down. We have worked so hard to be here, beaten so many good teams. Fight for forty-five minutes. If we score, we are in it. If you believe we can do it, we can do it.

'Give yourselves the chance to be heroes.'

I explained the changes we would make tactically. Carra on the left, Hyypia in the middle, Finnan on the right. Hamann and Xabi Alonso would sit in front of them. We would have to be narrow, compact, and try to push the line higher. That would allow Milan to play longer passes, so I warned the defenders to watch for balls over the top.

As I finished speaking, Dave Galley, the physio, pulled me aside. He had been working on Steve Finnan on one of the massage tables while I had been talking.

'He won't last forty-five minutes,' he said.

We had already made one substitution, Vladimir Smicer replacing the injured Harry Kewell midway through the first half, and we could not risk playing for the rest of the game, in that heat, with just one change to make.

We only had two minutes left before the players would have to go back out, but without Finnan, we had a problem on the righthand side. Even now, though, I knew I could not afford to be nervous. You cannot focus when you are nervous. You cannot keep a clear head.

I had just a second to pause for thought, to change our plans. I called Djimi back. He had his boots off, on his way to the shower. Now he would go out for the second half. Finnan would have to come off. You could see in his eyes that he wanted to kill Dave. Carra would have to switch to the right, with Traore on the left.

Smicer, not a natural winger, would have to play wide on the right in the second half, though eventually Steven Gerrard would replace him there.

'The fans are with us,' I said, as the players started to move towards the door. I do not know if they could hear them singing, 50,000 people bellowing out Liverpool's anthem, 'You'll Never Walk Alone', despite the pain of that first half.

During a game, I am so intensely focused that I cannot even pick out my own family in the crowd. You block everything out. You see only the players, the match. But we all knew how many supporters had made the journey. We had all seen the swathes of Liverpool red in the stands. We knew how long the trip had been, and we knew that we had to fight for them. 'They are behind us.'

The players had endured probably the worst forty-five minutes of their careers. From the first kick, everything had gone wrong. They had one chance to put it right. This was a situation none of us would have dared to imagine. It was not supposed to be like this. All of our hopes rested on the players believing that we had a plan, trusting us to turn things around.

They stood up and started to filter towards the door, towards the tunnel, towards the pitch. Towards history.

Champions League Dreams by Rafa Benitez is out now in hardback and ebook, priced £20, available here.

You can win a copy of the book by entering our competition here.

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