Carra’s respect for Milan past and present

Liverpool's on-field voice Jamie Carragher has been putting
forward his views on the big match on Wednesday night. Liverpool will of course
be facing AC Milan in the Champions League final in Athens, getting there after
beating Chelsea in the semi-final. That result meant quite a lot to Carra's
neighbours on Merseyside: "As soon as the Chelsea game ended, the people on the
street were buzzing, especially with me being local. People you don't even know
were out in the street waving their fists and shouting. You just know it means
so much to people us getting there. The football club are a big part of people's
lives round here and they're not slow to show you."

Carragher told the Mail on Sunday that the match with Milan
is something special, not just because it's the European Cup final but because
of who it is against. Rafa Benítez used tapes of old Milan teams to demonstrate
good football to his players when he arrived at Anfield. Carra was already well
aware of some of the Milan greats, being the scholar of football that he is
himself, in particular the era of Franco Baresi and Marco van Basten: "The
manager still talks about that team now, they're probably the team he loves
most. He'd like to get us to play like them, which wouldn't be easy. You'd have
to get Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten's boots back on. We've watched videos
of them and they're as good a club side as I've seen. They had a bit of
everything. Normally, you get teams who are great at attacking and not so good
at the back or the other way round. But they had the lot going forward, plus
Baresi, Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Costacurta at the back to sort it out. If
you were picking a World XI of all time, you'd probably include Baresi and

The media have fun before big football games trying to get
sound-bites and quotes from players and coaches about their opponents. When it
was suggested to Carra that Milan were arrogant at half time two years ago
(well they were 3-0 up!) the Liverpool vice captain refuses to bite: "I don't
want to get involved in that because I've got too much respect for Milan. Maldini
shook my hand at the end of the game and in his position I know how bad you'd
feel. It was just something crazy that happens in football, six crazy minutes.
Great for us, a nightmare for them."

Carra was a hero that night, as all the team were, but he
really did give all he could; fighting through the agony of cramp to keep
Liverpool in the game. His memories are as strong as ever: "Probably the best
was Jerzy Dudek's save and running towards him and all that cramp suddenly
disappeared. The worst was probably when their third goal went in. I've seen a
picture from the centre circle of me and Stevie behind each other and you can
see in our faces there's nothing there, total dejection, just on half-time."

Different tales of what was said in the interval and how the
players dealt psychologically with being so far behind. The players felt they
had to do what pretty much all Reds fans were hoping for – to narrow the gap of
Milan's victory. A 3-2 defeat would hurt, but not as much as a 3-0 or worse
defeat. Damage limitation was called for: "People always ask what happened at
halftime and want to hear you say we were all like lunatics saying: ‘We're
going to win'," recalls Jamie. "But in any game, at whatever level, when you're
losing 3-0 what you fear is that it's going to be five or six by the end. The
fact we got to the Champions League Final was a great achievement and if we'd
lost we'd have been disappointed. But I was just thinking, ‘if we come off
losing five or six, that's embarrassing'. The fact we'd done so well would be
ruined by losing like that."

After a slow start to the second half the header from Steven
Gerrard brought the score back to 3-1 and gave the Reds some hope: "I've
watched the game lots of times and if you watch the start of the second half,
if anyone was going to score it was Milan," says Carra. "Jerzy had to make a
couple of good saves, but the first goal gave us a bit of hope, the second one
gave us belief and it went from there. It's probably now, two years later, that
you look back at the videos and realise what an achievement it was to win a
game that's probably as good a game of football as there's ever been."

Carra's done his own analysis of the opponents, comparing
them to last time: "They haven't changed too much, just a bit at the top
without Andriy Shevchenko and Hernan Crespo. But Filippo Inzaghi's got great
experience and they paid a lot of money for Alberto Gilardino. Kaka's position
is maybe slightly different, where he plays off one striker, but the back four
and the midfield we know quite well."

In fact Kaka is a player Carra singles out for special
praise, classing him as possibly the best player in the world: "Not just
because of this season. You remember his display in the first half in Istanbul.
Afterwards we all felt that, along with Ronaldinho, he was definitely the man,
and this season he's probably gone on to eclipse him."

Jamie takes on board everything his manager tells him and
certainly gives the impression that he's already learning the ropes to be a
future coach. He says: "The manager always says it's about balance – you don't
want to be too attacking and you don't want to be too defensive. And Milan have
probably got that perfect balance. Rafa is the type of manager who likes to be
very organised and that's probably the reason why we've done so well in Europe.
You've got to be good at the back to get to these finals and that's how it's

Carra thinks injuries to their opponents probably made Milan's
job a little easier in the semi-final second leg: "Manchester United have one
of the best defences in the Premiership. If you look at their statistics, I'm
not sure it's true that defending's their problem. You need of luck to win any
cup, especially at this level. The back four United had out against Milan –
that's the bit of luck you don't need. At this level the teams are so close
together, the smallest details make all the difference."

Liverpool fans, and of course the staff, players and owners,
want to see the Reds take that next step and become League champions once
again, adding to their record 18 titles. To do that Carra thinks there is a
need for some new faces to enhance what's already there: "Maybe we do need to
be more expansive at times in the Premiership, especially away from home where
we don't have a good record this season. The difference for us is that Europe's
a thinking game. If you look through our team, you don't see all powerful, pacy
players. What you see is a lot of clever players. We don't have a Didier Drogba
or a Michael Essien and you need that to win the Premiership. You need people
with that physical power."

Some criticism has come Liverpool's way recently for the way
both sides played in the semi-final. Carra agrees to an extent: "I watched our
Chelsea game again the other night. It wasn't a great game at all, was it? It
was poor, although it was great in terms of the intensity. But the main thing
is winning. I'm sure Arsene Wenger would swap places with Rafa Benitez right
now and Arsenal play the best football anyone's ever seen, don't they?'"

Carra was on the front page of the Sunday papers many years
ago for his antics at the club Christmas party, but he says that's something
from a different stage in his life: "As a lad, you go out and have a few
drinks, can't take your ale and get carried away. I'd like to think now I've
matured a little. Everyone goes through it and it's something you have to go
through in a certain way. It's not something I'm proud of but it'll make a good
autobiography, won't it?"

I don't think there's any doubt that Carra's intelligence
and experience will make for anything other than an excellent autobiography.