Thursday, March 29, 2012 ESPNsoccernet: March 28, 1:11 PM UK
Milan down the Dream Team
In 1994, Fabio Capello's AC Milan underdogs took on the favourites, Johan Cruyff's Barcelona, in the final of the Champions League. Although many expected the defensive-minded Italians to be overrun by their attacking Spanish counterparts, the under-strength Rossoneri put in one of the finest performances in the competition - led by Dejan Savicevic - to win 4-0 and seal their fifth European trophy in some style.
The early 1990s in Italian football belonged to AC Milan. With Fabio Capello in charge, the club went on the longest unbeaten run in Serie A history (58 games) and picked up three Scudetti in a row between 1992 and 1994.
However, by the time they arrived in Athens for the final of the 1993-94 Champions League, they were underdogs against the Johan Cruyff led 'Dream Team' of Barcelona that had picked up the trophy two years previous and dominated the Spanish game while also playing some of the most attractive football ever seen on the continent. Even in light of Milan's back-to-back European Cups in 1989 and 1990, it was billed as ''the most electrifying attack versus the most defensively sound.''
In a year that saw the competition's initial format change to pit teams against each other in two semi-finals, both Milan and Barcelona had waltzed through. Cruyff's side topped Group A ahead of AS Monaco, Spartak Moscow and Galatasaray, going on to dispatch FC Porto in the last-four; Capello had it a little tougher alongside FC Porto, Werder Bremen and Anderlecht, but secured a 0-0 draw in Portugal in the final match to top the group, before comfortably seeing off Monaco 3-0 at San Siro.
Still, the recent form book dictated that Milan would be slaughtered. They had won the Serie A title, but managed it without winning any of their last six matches in the lead-up to the final and key defenders Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta would be missing through suspension. Capello famously challenged his players to "show our claws," but later revealed: "We were missing two pillars of the defence, Costacurta and Baresi, so I had to invent a new defence for the match and make a few important tactical changes."
In attack, the situation was no better: Milan legend Marco van Basten and the world's most expensive player at the time, £13 million Gianluigi Lentini, were out through injury and UEFA regulations, as they were, insisted that only three non-national players could be in the 16-man squad. The influential Florin Raducioiu, Jean-Pierre Papin and Brian Laudrup dropped out so that Marcel Desailly, Zvonimir Boban and Dejan Savicevic could play. Indeed, up against two of the greatest strikers in history, Hristo Stoichkov and Romario, many expected Milan - and especially a young Paolo Maldini in central defence - to crumble.
La Gazzetta dello Sport's Alessandra Bocci revealed: "Johan Cruyff, in a rather un-elegant way, was photographed holding the Champions League trophy before the match. So this showed the difference in attitude between a Barcelona team that was flying high with confidence, and a Milan side that was essentially in pieces."
However, once the whistle was blown the claws came out and there was little to suggest that they would ever fall apart as journalist Filippo Galli recounted: "This Milan side came onto the pitch with plenty of character and determination, and with a chip on their shoulder to take down a team that many people had already dubbed as the clear favourite to win."
Capello's decision to opt for Savicevic and Boban was a masterstroke and the Balkans pair controlled the game early on. Indeed, it was Savicevic who played a part in the opener as he broke away on the right before trying to chip goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta; his attempt skewed wide, but into the path of Daniele Massaro who volleyed into an open goal.
Massaro had been guilty of missing early chances in the final a year earlier as Milan fell 1-0 to Desailly's Marseille; however, the striker did not make the same mistake again and capitalised on a surging solo run from Roberto Donadoni down the left wing to score from the pull-back on the stroke of half-time.
The Catalans were shocked: 2-0 down with 45 minutes left and the run of play had been largely controlled by the unfancied Italians. But any hopes that Cruyff had of a comeback were quickly extinguished by the excellent Savicevic. Before the game, he had revealed to the press: "The President at Milanello [Silvio Berlusconi] told me, 'Dejan, you're the genius of our team. Don't betray us tonight.'" And so it transpired.
Two minutes after re-emerging from the dressing room, Savicevic robbed centre-back Miguel Angel Nadal [the uncle of tennis player Rafael] wide on the right, before planting an astonishing left-footed lob over Zubizarreta from the edge of the Barca penalty area. The goalkeeper, out of sheer embarrassment and frustration, picked the ball out of the net and smashed it skywards in anger, remonstrating with his stricken defender; at 3-0 there was no way back.
With still more than an hour to go, Massaro hit a post and almost became the first player to score a hat-trick in a Europe's showpiece final since 1969 [Milan's Pierino Prati], but it was soon 4-0. Barca's defence opened as Desailly - only purchased from Marseille a year previous based on his performance against his new side in the 1993 final - cut out a pass, took the return ball and curled it coolly into the net as Zubizarreta came out to meet him.
"I will take three things back home with me," Massaro said after the game. "The two goals and Hristo Stoichkov's jersey; he's an idol for me." But, despite his two goals, the praise was mostly reserved for Savicevic.
Capello beamed: "From Savicevic you came to expect these unthinkable plays of brilliance, because from the position he was in most players would have just taken the ball in stride and gone a little further with it, instead he went for this spectacular attempt which has gone down in history and is shown over and over again. It was simply.... Una cosa da Savicevic [an Italian cliché meaning essentially: the way of Savicevic]."
Barca were well beaten. "After all the talk of facelifts, here was a team to raise the spirits," reads the review of the game on UEFA.com and The Guardian's Russell Thomas wrote: "Milan, calmly, sometimes thrillingly and eventually contemptuously, reasserted themselves as Europe's prime footballing power last night with a performance of such conviction as to ridicule predictions that Fabio Capello's weakened team would fall to a Barcelona side deemed the irresistible attacking force."
The landscape of Milan, and Italy, was changing and according to historian David Goldblatt: "On the same evening a crucial vote in parliament would allow a Berlusconi-led government to be formed. As Corriere della Sera put it the next day, '4-0 and 159-153, both Cruyff's Barcelona and [Achille] Occhetto's centre-left were wiped out.'"
While it was a great night for President Berlusconi, Milan's manager found time to take in the enormity of what his side had achieved. "This," announced Capello, "is perfection." Later he would add: "We played a perfect match, where we never let Barcelona get into their rhythm, but more than anything we played with great intensity, pressing, and a propensity to be dangerous anytime we held possession. I would have to give a ten rating to all eleven players for Milan, and give the man of the match award to Savicevic."
Savicevic himself simply joked: "I don't think I betrayed the President during this final. This victory and this goal are for the president."
What happened next? Milan continued their domination of the European game by featuring in their third final in as many seasons the following year, but lost 1-0 to Louis van Gaal's youthful Ajax Amsterdam team in Vienna. Another Scudetto arrived in 1996 before Capello left for Real Madrid and by 1998 the three scorers from Athens (along with many of their team-mates) had left San Siro. Cruyff's 'Dream Team' also broke up before the turn of the Millennium, but Barcelona rebuilt and climbed back to the top of Europe by winning the Champions League in 2006, 2009 and 2011; although Milan's triumphs in 2003 and 2007 are a reminder that the Rossoneri can never be written off in the continent's top club competition.
• Many thanks to Matteo Bonetti for translation used in this article - you can read his AC Milan blog on ESPNsoccernet and follow him on Twitter here.