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Pressure on UEFA as Reds celebrate

Skipper Steven Gerrard, left. and manager Rafa Benitez arrive home

• Berlusconi stands by Milan coach
• Final evokes memories of early days
Was Liverpool's victory over AC Milan the greatest comeback in football history?

LONDON, England -- Pressure is growing on UEFA to allow Liverpool to defend their Champions League title next season after Europe's governing body refused to do an about-turn on Thursday.

Premiership Liverpool staged a dramatic comeback victory in Istanbul against AC Milan after being 3-0 down at halftime to win 3-2 on penalties.

But as things stand Liverpool fail to qualify for the 2005/6 Champions League after finishing fifth in the English League.

Tens of thousands of fans welcomed the team back from Turkey Thursday.

Later a crowd estimated to be around 300,000-strong lined the 16-kilometer route towards the Anfield stadium as the victorious side travelled through in a red, open-top bus emblazoned with the words: "Liverpool FC, Champions of Europe 2005".

But amid the joy, there was growing anger against the decision by UEFA to stick by rules which bar Liverpool from defending the trophy which the club won for the fifth time.

Britain's government got involved in the row, with Sports Minister Richard Caborn contacting European football's governing body to argue it would be "a travesty" if Liverpool were excluded.

Captain Steven Gerrard, wearing his winner's medal around his neck, and manager Rafa Benitez had carried the huge silver cup together as they got off the plane at John Lennon Airport.

Both were adamant that Liverpool should be allowed to defend the trophy.

Benitez said: "I am hoping that they (UEFA) will use their common sense. It would be unbelievable if you are in the World Club Championship and the European Super Cup and not in the Champions League.

"If you win the Champions League it is because you are the best. We must be allowed to defend our trophy."

Liverpool captain Steve Gerrard added: "I hope the people above let us defend it. It's called the Champions League and the champions should be in it."

However, UEFA 's Director of Communications, William Gaillard said the European body had responded to a pre-final request from the English FA seeking permission for Liverpool to defend the title should they triumph.

"We wrote back to them and informed them of the rules, which state that only four clubs from England are permitted to enter the Champions League. They told us that the fourth team to qualify from England was Everton."

The official said that a precedent had been set in 2000, when Real Madrid won the Champions League, but finished fifth in the La Liga.

The Spanish FA then replaced the fourth-placed team, Real Zaragoza by Real Madrid and instead entered Zaragoza for the UEFA Cup.

"This option was left open to the English Football Association," he stressed.

Sorry for Liverpool

"We are sorry for Liverpool, but it is not in our hands. The English FA informed us of the clubs that qualified for the Champions League from England."

Article 1.03 of the regulations of the UEFA Champions League states that: "At the request of the national association concerned, the UEFA Champions League title-holders may be entered for this competition, as an additional representative of that association, if they have not qualified for the UEFA Champions League via the top domestic league championship.

"If, in such a case, the title-holders come from an association entitled to enter four teams for the UEFA Champions League, the fourth-placed club in the top domestic league championship has to be entered for the UEFA Cup."

Gaillard also ruled out a wildcard entry for the champions. "In the UEFA Cup, we have teams that enter via Fair-Play, but in England Tottenham are ahead in the Fair-Play ranking."

Earlier the president of the world's governing body, FIFA, Sepp Blatter, had said that he believed Liverpool should be allowed to defend the trophy if they beat AC Milan.

Jubilant scenes were sparked in Istanbul and Liverpool by Wednesday night's win on penalties in the nail-biting final.

Fans partied into the night in both cities, and Liverpool police's operational commander said he had never "witnessed so many revelers in the city center."

Trailing 3-0 at half-time to AC Milan, the Merseyside team looked dead and buried -- but got straight back into the game in the second period with a goal from their captain.

Further goals from Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso in Istanbul's Ataturk Olympic Stadium took the game to extra time, in which no more goals were scored. So the game went to penalties.

Often-derided goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek emerged as a hero, saving two spot kicks after baffling the Milan team with a goal-line dance inspired by former Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar's performance in Rome 21 years ago.

UK Prime Minister Blair was telephoned by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to pass on his congratulations.

Blair sent a message to Rafael Benitez, the Liverpool manager, and the team, said a Downing Street spokeswoman. In the message, Blair said: "Unbelievable. Incredible. Brilliant. The whole country is very proud of you."

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