AC Milan faces Liverpool again

Two years after bitter losing a 3-0 lead and the biggest prize in European club soccer, AC Milan gets a second chance.

The 2005 Champions League final loss in a penalty shootout to Liverpool still haunts the Rossoneri, and now they face the Reds again for the trophy.

"It is a difficult memory to erase," says midfielder Gennaro Gattuso, whose confrontation with Liverpool's Steven Gerrard will be one of the highlights of Wednesday's final at Athens' Olympic Stadium.

"I hope it gives us the strength and energy to give us that little bit extra to beat them."

Milan led 3-0 at halftime in the 2005 final in Istanbul, Turkey, but then conceded three goals in six minutes and lost 3-2 on penalties.

"There have been lots of jokes at our expense and lies, like that we had the champagne out at halftime," Gattuso said. "They hurt me and anger me because too much has been said about it."

Of the lineups in the Istanbul final, up to 14 players could face each other again in Athens.

While the 2005 final began with the rare sight of a first-minute goal by Milan's veteran defender Paolo Maldini, this game is likely to start much more slowly, with neither side wanting to make the first mistake.

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez expects Milan to be more cagy this time.

"They have more balance," he said. "They have good, experienced defenders. They are really strong in midfield and they play with one striker and one player (Kaka) just in between the lines."

Maldini, who turns 39 next month, hopes to recover from a knee injury to play in his eighth final, tying the competition record of Real Madrid winger Francisco Gento in the 1950s and 60s. If Milan wins, Maldini would collect his fifth European Cup title, one fewer than Gento, dating back to 1989.

Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti was also on that 1989 lineup that beat Steaua Bucharest 4-0 for the first of his back-to-back European Cups as a player.

Milan, which is playing in its 11th final in Europe's most prestigious competition, is chasing its seventh triumph. Liverpool is looking for its sixth title in seven finals.

Benitez masterminded the Reds' comeback in Istanbul in his first season at Anfield after leading Valencia to unexpected Spanish League and UEFA Cup victories the year before.

Benitez is used to appearing in finals and winning titles _ this is the fourth season in a row he has taken a team to a final. He also led Liverpool to the FA Cup title last year.

Kaka has 10 Champions League goals this season and was the star of Milan's semifinal elimination of Manchester United.

"But it is dangerous just to talk about Kaka," Benitez said. "The rest of the team is really good too. But you also need to talk about their weaknesses as well as their strengths."

Although 41-year-old defender Alessandro Costacurta is on the brink of retirement and won't feature in the game, Milan could field two more veterans in its back line - Maldini and 36-year-old rightback Cafu. If that's the case, Benitez could send out two fast forwards in Craig Bellamy and Dirk Kuyt and Jermaine Pennant attacking from the right wing.

His other tactic could be to field the lanky, 2.00 meter (6-foot-7) Peter Crouch as the target man for high balls into the box.

Unable to field Ronaldo, who is ineligible under UEFA rules because he already played for Real Madrid in the competition before his midseason move, Ancelotti has to decide whether to start Filippo Inzaghi or Alberto Gilardino in attack in front of Kaka.

Liverpool's new American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr., are due to attend the game.

German referee Herbert Fandel will take charge of the final, which could be played in wet and stormy conditions. The forecast calls for heavy showers and thunder.

A combined 35,000 fans of the two teams have tickets for the game, although there are fears that many more may show up hoping to buy black market tickets. Police plan to keep rival fans well apart by diverting them to different parts of the city on their arrival.

About 15,000 police will be on duty. Riot police were already on the streets of downtown Athens as early as Monday as the first fans arrived.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova