“I saw their lineup in the locker room, and I was like, ‘s---.’”
Ahead of the 2005 UEFA Champions League Final in Istanbul, Turkey, Liverpool defender Djimi Traore got his first taste of just how good AC Milan was. The Italian giants boasted one of the best teams of the 2000s. It featured the likes of Kaká, Andrea Pirlo, Andriy Shevchenko, Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf, Hernán Crespo, Gennaro Gattuso, Alessandro Nesta…the list goes on. They were also led by legendary manager and former Italian international Carlo Ancelotti.
Traore, then 25, was relatively new to First Team action, but was tasked with shutting down the world’s best.
“All their players were international players who had been playing at a high level, had gone to World Cups,” said Traore. “Most of them were the captains of their national teams. On the field in that final I [felt like] a rookie. Most of them had already played in a Champions League Final or on a big stage. It was very impressive, and they were so calm. That was a big difference between top players and young players like me.”
Traore began his senior career with Laval, a second division team in his native France. He had been a key contributor to the France U-17 national team and was fielding offers from all over Europe, but he was hesitant to leave home. He was still young and didn’t speak anything but French. Liverpool’s manager in 1999, though, was Frenchman Gérard Houllier, and he ultimately convinced Traore to join the Reds.
Playing in the English Premier League prepared Traore for the challenges and high competition level of the Champions League, but it still didn’t make the prospect of guarding Kaká any easier. Traore said the former Brazilian superstar was the best player he ever played against.
Liverpool celebrates its 2005 UCL Final win against AC Milan in Istanbul
“I played against a lot of fast players, like [Thierry] Henry, and they’re fast off the ball,” said Traore. “But [Kaká], when he drives the ball on his feet, you think you can catch him, but he’s a very smart guy and he’ll slow down and let you think you can catch him, and when he puts in that second gear, it’s ridiculous.”
Kaká helped spearhead a lethal Milan attack that went up 1-0 on Liverpool in just 50 seconds in the 2005 UCL Final before taking what seemed to be an insurmountable 3-0 lead into halftime. Manager Rafa Benítez didn’t say much during the break. He reminded his players of the quality they had and to believe they could get back into the match.
The plan all along had been to substitute Traore out of the match at halftime, but right back Steve Finnan got hurt and couldn’t continue. Traore was on his way to the showers when an assistant coach sprinted toward him and told him he was staying in the game. Benítez brought on midfielder Dietmar Hamann for Finnan and changed the tactics, and it made a world of difference in the second half.
Liverpool scored three goals in seven minutes from the 54th to the 60th minute to miraculously tie the match before winning the title on penalty kicks.
“I remember a lot of things going through my head,” Traore said. “You have the pressure before the game, then after one minute we concede a goal. We were disappointed and then at halftime we were 3-0 down. Your head is down and you think the game is over, but then suddenly you start the second half and you score three goals, you’re back.”
On Saturday in Kiev, Ukraine, Traore’s former club will have a chance to earn its first Champions League trophy since that fateful night in Istanbul. Liverpool will face off against juggernaut Real Madrid, the winner of the two previous UCL titles. Despite Madrid boasting Cristiano Ronaldo, Toni Kroos and Gareth Bale among other world-class players, Traore is confident Liverpool can get the job done.
“The advantage that Liverpool has and the reason I feel confident is the front three, in modern football, they’re fast,” Traore said. “Today it’s more or less a transition game now. Yes, you defend, but when you win the ball, if you can go fast forward, that’s what Liverpool is.
Traore and Liverpool celebrate on their championship parade
“You can use that strength when we have [Mohamed] Salah on the top of his form. You have [Sadio] Mané and [Roberto] Firmino, who’s a very clever guy. That front three can hurt you, and that’s the main danger for Real Madrid.”
Even though Liverpool’s front line of Salah, Firmino and Sane was the most productive attacking threesome in European football this past season, Traore is still wary of the experience that Madrid brings to the table, especially with the likes of seasoned veterans Ronaldo, Marcelo and captain Sergio Ramos. But this edition of Liverpool can heed a little advice from someone who has been there before.
“In that [2005 final], I faced all the emotions from negative to the best moment in my life,” said Traore. “That’s what I keep in my mind: Never give up.”