Despite winning 12 European Cups between them, Liverpool and AC Milan have only ever met twice in competitive matches. It is fair to say both, though, were fairly memorable, coming in Champions League finals just two years apart.
The first, in 2005, is one that Liverpool will never forget and that Milan will never be allowed to. Just the mention of “Istanbul” is sufficiently evocative for those from the red half of Merseyside, given the Turkish city was the scene for one of the most miraculous comebacks ever witnessed on a football pitch. Liverpool, down and out at 3-0 behind at halftime, fought back heroically before triumphing in a penalty shootout.
The rematch in Athens two years later was not nearly so dramatic, but allowed Milan to get a measure of revenge, even if the scars of Istanbul will never truly heal.
The two European powerhouses will meet again in far less pressurized circumstances in Santa Clara, California, on Saturday, hoping to take the smallest first steps toward trying to get back to those heady days of 2005 and 2007.
Champions of Europe not so long ago, neither Liverpool nor Milan will be in any European competition this season. For Liverpool, at least, there is cause for hope. Already it appears to have a crucial piece of the puzzle for success in place, in the form of manager Jurgen Klopp. And in his first few months in charge last season, there were signs of the magic of Istanbul returning, particularly en route to the Europa League final, which included a stirring comeback against Klopp’s former club, Borussia Dortmund, with whom he reached the Champions League final just three years ago.
But reality struck in the Europa League final. Sevilla swept Liverpool aside in the second half to leave Liverpool with nothing to show from a season of transition in which it finished a lowly eighth in the Premier League.
The reality of the club’s current standing has arguably been evident, too, in Liverpool’s transfer business this summer. There has been significant turnover, with likely more to come, but established stars have proven unattainable, notably Mario Gotze, who chose a return to his former club Dortmund rather than to his former boss at Anfield.
Still, Klopp has repeatedly insisted that he is not interested in simply signing big names, but rather getting players who fit his philosophy both in terms of their physical characteristics and their personality. One of those is Loris Karius, but the German goalkeeper broke his hand in a 1-0 defeat against Chelsea at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl on Wednesday and will now miss two months. Yet Klopp is now confident he has a squad molded to his liking.
“This is my squad now,” he said after arriving in Santa Clara. After all the transfers, this time it is my team. There are probably no players here anymore I don't want. There are no signings I didn't want, we have not sold anyone I didn't want to.
“I am happy with my team now, and all I can say is we will be a challenger, we will fight for everything, for every cup and what'll happen in the end we will see.
Milan, too, has a new coach who it hopes can start bringing back the glory days after some lean years. For the seven-time European Cup winners, though, it has become an all-too familiar story. Indeed, this is the third straight season Milan will begin with a new coach.
Vincenzo Montella is the man upon who the responsibility now lies. But it is arguably an impossible job for any coach right now, with the problems instead running far deeper. A massive drop in the investment in the team from owner Silvio Berlusconi and a haphazard transfer strategy means the Italian giant is set to embark on a third straight season without European competition for the first time since the former Italy prime minister took control of the club 30 years ago. Any hope of the club returning to the pinnacle in Europe could rest upon Berlusconi selling his stake in the club, although negotiations to do so continue to drag on.
Amid reports that conflict between Berlusconi and prospective new owner Sonny Wu has hampered transfer activity this summer, Milan has only signed one player for a fee thus far, striker Gianluca Lapadula from then Serie B club Pescara. Meanwhile, there has been plenty of speculation that Milan’s current biggest star, Carlos Bacca, could be on his way out. Neither Bacca or Lapadula are in the U.S. for Milan’s three-match tour of the United States as part of the International Champions Cup, which began with a penalty shootout win over Bayern Munich on Wednesday after a 3-3 draw.
Liverpool Squad vs. AC Milan
Goalkeepers: Simon Mignolet, Loris Karius, Alex Manninger
Defenders: Nathaniel Cyne, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, Ragnar Klavan, Alberto Moreno, Andre Wisdom
Midfield: Jordan Henderson, Emre Can, Marko Grujic, Georginio Wijnaldum, Philippe Coutinho, Adam Lallana, James Milner, Lazar Markovic, Kevin Stewart, Sheyi Ono, Cameron Brannagan
Forwards: Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino, Divock Origi, Sadio Mane, Danny Ings, Christian Benteke
AC Milan Squad
Goalkeepers: Gianluigi Donnarumma, Diego Lopez, Gabriel, Alessandro Livieri
Defenders: Ignazio Abate, Luca Antonelli, Davide Calabria, Ivan de Santis, Rodrigo Ely, Gabriel Paletta, Alessio Romagnoli, Jherson Vergara
Midfielders: Andrea Bertolacci, Giacomo Bonaventura, Keisuke Honda, Juraj Kucka, Riccardo Montolivo, Andrea Poli, Mattia El Hilali, Niccolo Zanellato
Forwards: Luiz Adriano, Alessandro Matri, Jeremy Menez, Mbaye Niang, Suso, Luca Vido
Venue: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara
Kickoff Time: 10.05 p.m. EDT