More than a Champions League final, this was Star Wars. The good, humble rebels against the dark, suffocating Empire. If you believed certain quarters of the Spanish press, that is. Only the second Champions League final, the 1994 edition thrust very different schools of football into combat. But far from Return of the Jedi, a more suitable title would have been The Fantastic Four.
Fabio Capello’s Milan were preparing for their second consecutive final. Twelve months previously a tired, ageing Rossoneri lost 1-0 to Marseille in Munich. It was a jaded Frank Rijkaard’s farewell match, but the powerful midfielder didn’t have the legs to keep up with his zippy French counter-parts. The Olympiastadion defeat was also one of Paolo Maldini’s worst games in red and black. Marseille magician Abedi Pele tortured Milan’s princely left-back throughout. A year, on Capello’s men faced Barcelona’s Dream Team in Athens.
Barca coach Johan Cruyff wasn’t a man lacking self-confidence and laughed off Milan’s chances through his friends in the Spanish press. He pilloried Capello, claiming the Italian made a duff signing in defensive midfielder Marcel Desailly from Marseille in the summer of 1993. Outlining the differences between the clubs’ philosophies, Cruyff bought explosive but lazy centre-forward Romario, top scorer with PSV in the 1992/93 Champions League. The theme of Barcelona, exciting, guardians of beautiful football against dogged old purveyors of catenaccio Milan was easy enough for the world press to amplify. The suspension of the celebrated Rossoneri central defensive duo Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta nudged the Italians even further into underdog territory. For once, this role suited them.
Barcelona started brightly, passing the ball casually. Milan sized their opponents up quickly. The Catalans were vulnerable centrally. On paper they played a 4-3-3, but with full-backs Sergi and Albert Ferrer pushed up ridiculously high, centre-backs Ronald Koeman and Miguel Angel Nadal were the only defenders. The fact this pair was as mobile as monster trucks with punctures (Big-boned blond bombshell Koeman was a slow 31) gave Milan an early scent of the potential to run riot. Centre-forward Daniele Massaro and second forward/free spirit Dejan Savicevic’s eyes widened at the fun to be had.
On the left wing Roberto Donadoni doubled up with young full-back Christian Panucci (replacing Maldini who moved across the centre-back due to the banned Baresi). Panucci, 21, had less experience than Maldini but more attacking drive. He and Donadoni made Barcelona right-back Ferrer’s life a nightmare. The reluctance of Hristo Stoichkov, ahead of Ferrer, to track back increased the burden. On the other flank Zvonimir Boban, a monument to self-sacrifice and tactical maturity, tucked in to pressure Nadal and Koeman.
Capello had a special plan for Pep Guardiola, Barca’s willowy deep playmaker. In central midfield, Desailly and Demetrio Albetini pressed in unison. At the same time, whoever was nearest the ball, Boban, Savicevic, Donadoni or Massaro joined them, imprisoning Guardiola in a triangular trap, limiting his options and efficacy. With little supply, stubby striker Romario was a spectator and easily guarded by veteran centre-back Filippo Galli, deputising for Costacurta.
When Milan took the lead after twenty two minutes through Daniele Massaro, it inevitably came from incisive flank play. Savicevic, thriving in his free role, skipped past the lumbering Nadal down the right and held off Guardiola to loop an inviting pass across goal for a comically unmarked Massaro to slide in.
On the one occasion creative midfielder Amor combined well with Romario, the Brazilian’s shot flew wide. Milan’s central defence and midfield held an immediate inquest to make sure it didn’t happen again.
Cruyff switched the speedy, combative Stoichkov to the left wing to try and shake the Bulgarian into life and torment booked Milan captain Mauro Tassotti, but the game was over on the stroke of half-time. Donadoni showed trickery, pace and poise on Barca’s right to lose the hapless Ferrer and race into the area. From the byline he cut back to Massaro, again unmarked (despite the Catalans having seven defenders in the box). The burly Italy international slammed into the far corner for 2-0 to the ‘cautious’ Milanesi.
Whatever the beleaguered Cruyff said to his stunned players at half-time was soon rendered useless by a flash of Savicevic’s genius. On 47 minutes Albertini lofted to the right-flank where Nadal made a hash of controlling the ball. Savicevic nipped in to dispossess the Barca number 5 and then, outside the penalty area, sent an outrageous curling instep shot over Andoni Zubizarreta into the net. Italian TV commentator Bruno Pizzul called it an “amazing, exceptional feat.”
Impotent in attack and torn to shreds at the back, Barcelona had no answer to Milan and fell apart. With just under an hour gone, the omnipresent, impeccable Desailly threw off his defensive shackles and stormed into the area to bend the ball deliciously round the advancing Zubizarreta. Milan, against the Dream Team, European champions of 1992, had taken 60 minutes to win their fifth European Cup and erase the loss of 1993.
Europe’s number one
“We never felt handicapped by the absentees (Baresi and Costacurta). We knew Barcelona had weak points and aimed to take advantage of them, continually denying them space and pressing at high-tempo, never giving them a break,” said two-goal hero Massaro. There were stories of tears in the Barcelona dressing room. “Their attack was very fast and they took their chances. We lost all the individual battles, that was the key,” said Zubizarreta. “I have got no excuses. We were beaten by Europe’s number one team,” added skipper Jose-Maria Bakero.
“Milan, this is how football is played in Paradise,” bellowed the Corriere della Sera. In Spain Mundo Deportivo called the match an “Unmitigated thrashing,” and wondered if the Catalans had “paid for their pre-game arrogance.”
Capello kept typically quiet. But for his opposite number it was the beginning of the end. The Dream Team, in need of an overhaul, underperformed in the 1995 Champions League, going out in the quarter-finals. Within a year Cruyff had gone. The Rossoneri reached the 1995 Champions League final, their third in row. Ready to greet them was old boy Rijkaard, who guided a young Ajax to a shock 1-0 win in Vienna. Capello left Milan for Real Madrid in 1996.
The fairytale final of 1994 was the masterpiece of Fabio Capello’s Milan career. Hitherto he had lived in the shadow of Arrigo Sacchi and the 1989-1990 team. But in plotting one of the most one-sided European finals ever, the curly-haired tactician earned his place in Rossoneri folklore, and proved calcio sides can turn on the style when they want to.