There are two obvious remarkable facts when AC Milan and Liverpool square off in the Champions League final on Wednesday: 1) It's a rematch of the 2005 final, perhaps the greatest ever played; 2) it's quite possibly the most unlikely matchup in the tournament. Neither club came anywhere near winning their domestic leagues. But both teams -- Milan electrified by Kaká (left), Liverpool steadied by Steven Gerrard -- earned the right to play for the European Cup in Athens. Here's how they got there.
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The Miracle in Istanbul
To truly understand the significance of this matchup, rewind to the 2005 final in Istanbul, Turkey. A masterful first half by Milan carried the Rossoneri into the dressing room with a 3-0 halftime lead, their seventh European Cup a foregone conclusion. Incredibly, Liverpool rallied to tie the game with three goals in a six-minute span in the second half. The game went to penalty kicks and the Reds won out, thanks to three heroic stops by Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek (in black).
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After qualifying for the '07 Champions League by bouncing Israeli power Maccabi Haifa, Liverpool made quick work of its opponents in the group stage: Galatasaray, PSV Eindhoven and Bordeaux. Peter Crouch got his European campaign off to a flying start -- he netted four of his club-record-tying seven goals in a single European Cup campaign in these six matches, including this memorable scissor-kick strike against Turkish side Galatasaray -- to propel the Reds to the top of Group C with 13 points.
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AC Milan was the only powerhouse in the weakest group in the Champions League. That allowed the Rossoneri to beat up on the likes of AEK Athens, Anderlecht and Lille. It also allowed Kaká to find the explosive form that has made him the top scorer of the tournament. The Brazilian bagged a hat trick in a 4-1 demolition of Anderlecht. "He's exceptional -- he can do absolutely anything," said Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti. "For me, he's the best player in the world at the moment."
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Round of 16
Fore-shadowing? In a showdown of the past two European champions, Craig Bellamy and Liverpool were just about perfect against Barcelona in the round of 16. Things looked bleak for the Reds -- they fell behind on an early Deco strike -- until Bellamy, embroiled in yet another off-the-pitch controversy (this time reportedly involving a golf club and full-contact karaoke), delivered the first of Liverpool's two critical away goals at the Nou Camp and celebrated with a mocking golf drive. Following a nervous second leg a fortnight later at Anfield, this 2-1 victory in Spain proved to be just enough to put Liverpool through to the quarters.
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Round of 16
Milan nearly became a footnote to history in the round of 16, as surprising Celtic looked as if it would be the first Scottish club ever to reach the quarterfinals. But once again, it was Kaká to the rescue, breaking the deadlock in the 93rd minute of the second leg to put Milan through 1-0 on aggregate.
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A kind draw in the quarterfinals matched Liverpool up against group-stage counterparts PSV Eindhoven for the second time. The Dutch side was again no match for the Reds, who cruised to a 3-0 rout in Eindhoven, with goals by Steven Gerrard, John Arne Riise and Crouch, and won 4-0 on aggregate to qualify for the semifinals and earn a showdown with heated rival Chelsea in the semifinals.
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Milan again put itself at a big disadvantage in the quarterfinals, giving up two away goals to Bayern Munich in a 2-2 first-leg draw at Milan's San Siro. Heading back to Allianz Arena, Bayern merely needed a draw in front of its raucous crowd to advance. But the Rossoneri pulled off a masterpiece, silencing the Bavarian crowd with an air-tight defense and superb goalkeeping by Dida (far left) to win 2-0.
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Liverpool manager Rafa Benítez's European hex over Chelsea counterpoart José Mourinho continued, once again in thrilling fashion. Despite losing the semifinals' opening leg 1-0 at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool rallied on yet another memorable European night at Anfield. A goal from center back Daniel Agger sent the series to penalties, where goalkeeper Jose Reina was the hero -- stopping Geremi (at left) and Arjen Robben to send the Reds to Athens.
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Milan saved its most masterful performance for when it needed it most: the second leg of the semifinals against might Manchester United. Any hopes of an all-English final were immediately silenced as Kaká, Clarence Seedorf and Alberto Gilardino all scored in a soggy 3-0 whitewash of Wayne Rooney (left) and favored United. The victory put Milan into its 10th Champions League final and set up the rematch with Liverpool.
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