Lazio v Mallorca, 19th May 1999, Villa Park
This was originally published in Calcio Italia magazine. It is a bit long and sprawling for the internet, but hopefully still enjoyable
“Inter deserved to win, though not 3-0,” said a dignified but downbeat Sven-Goran Eriksson in Paris. The Swede’s emerging Lazio had just lost the 1998 UEFA Cup final to Inter. Ronaldo, in superhuman mode, humiliated pristine boy-king Alessandro Nesta. To cap a rancid evening Matias Almeyda was sent off for one too many nasty fouls. The Biancocelesti’s attempts to conquer Europe were on hold as a summer of not-so-subtle adjustments approached.
Lazio owner Sergio Cragnotti was determined the Eagles would fly to new European heights. After their Parisian punishment he sanctioned big money signings to ensure his team would make an impact in 1999 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup, the last edition of the tournament before Europe’s governing body dissolved it.
Money was no object. Eriksson bolstered the defence with the skilful, crafty Sinisa Mihajlovic and the pumped-up, powerful hair bear Fernando Couto. Christian Vieri and Marcelo Salas arrived at the Stadio Olimpico for handsome fees, promising a glut of goals. Tricky winger Sergio Conceicao joined from Porto and versatile, volatile Red Star Midfielder Dejan Stankovic was recruited to provide ammunition for the new super strikers.
After the record-breaking transfer flurry, Cragnotti might have felt short-changed as his team had to rely on away goals to squeeze past Lausanne in the first round and Lokomotiv Moscow in the semi-final. But they reached the final in Birmingham. On the rocky road to the Villa Park showpiece Stankovic scored four goals and bouncing Czech Pavel Nedved contributed three.
Their opponents in England’s second city were Hector Cuper’s Mallorca, who eliminated holders Chelsea in their semi-final. The Spanish were a team in every sense. With no stars or egos, they followed the sage, tactical advice of Cuper. Their most recognisable player was goalkeeper Carlos Roa, Argentina number one at the World Cup in 1998.
In the battle dubbed ‘spending power v team spirit’, the Islanders lined up in a 4-1-3-2. Argentinian trequartista Ariel Ibigaza was the dangerman, feeding former Real Madrid striker Dani and his partner Leonardo Biagini. To keep commentators on their toes, Mallorca’s left winger was Jovan Stankovic, no relation to his Laziale namesake.
Lazio, in their alarming yellow and black striped Euro jersey, were 4-4-2. Their Stankovic, in rare period of bad form, was on the right wing. Nedved, energy of a puppy in spring and killer instinct of a KGB assassin, played on the left. Almeyda manned the centre and wily, self-assured veteran Roberto Mancini was given licence to float around behind Vieri and Salas.
Fans didn’t wait long for action. After seven minutes right-back Giuseppe Pancaro lofted in a long cross-field ball and Vieri, always a threat in the air, outmuscled Mallorca right-back Javier Olaizola to head over Roa into the net. It was Bobo’s first European goal for Lazio. Not a goal of intricate build-up. But Eriksson and cohorts weren’t bothered.
The Biancocelesti bliss was punctured four minutes later when Pancaro lost Jovan Stankovic on the flank, allowing the Serbian to cross. In the penalty area Dani slipped expertly between Mihajlovic and Giuseppe Favalli to sidefoot cleverly into the net from close range.
Buoyed by their quick equaliser Mallorca continued to press in the first half and Eriksson needed to reshuffle. He sent the same side out after the break, but when the struggling Dejan Stankovic took a kick in the face from Siviero, the Swede adjusted Lazio’s right.
On 56 minutes Sergio Conceicao replaced the spent Stankovic to occupy Mallorca’s raiding left-back Soler. The Biancocelesti asserted themselves better as the second half wore on. Vieri tested Roa with a swerving blunderbuss shot from well-outside the area and Mihajlovic zipped a trademark free-kick just wide.
The winner arrived nine minutes from time. Vieri tried another thunderous shot which cannoned-off a defender. Alert Bobo was first to the rebound, nodding the ball into Nedved’s path. Just outside the area, the Czech Number 18 swivelled to lash a right-foot volley into the far corner before wheeling off to celebrate with that familiar bandy-legged gait. A fitting effort for what turned out to be the competition’s last goal.
Eriksson could now kill the game tactically. By the last few minutes he’d subbed tiring goal hero Nedved for hard-working Atillio Lombardo, and Mancini for the mountainous Couto. The Biancocelesti switched to a 5-3-2 with a rearguard of Pancaro, Nesta, Mihajlovic, Couto and Favalli holding the Spanish off. Almeyda continued his sterling work in front of the defence and Mallorca couldn’t find a way through. Lazio had won their first European trophy.
The men of the match had been Nesta, who appeased for an error in the build-up to Mallorca’s goal with an impeccable display of athleticism and anticipation, and Nedved, who decided the game with typically no-nonsense shot. Almeyda had been brilliant too, tackling with gusto but passing judicially.
Beautiful and complicated
“It was a great final, either side could have won the trophy,” said Eriksson. The Swede wasfull of respect for his rivals. “Mallorca are a very strong team and Soler and Stankovic created a lot of problems for us on their left. That’s why I took Dejan off and put Conceicao on.”
The silver-haired trainer was in no doubt over his star player: “Nedved was great, giving a complete performance and scoring the winner.” Captain Nesta couldn’t hide his joy: “It was beautiful. Finally this is a ‘new’ Lazio. It was a complicated match, they were very good on the counter.”
Vieri dedicated the win to the man who bankrolled the dream, saying “Cragnotti built this team. Compliments must go to him first, then us.” Cragnotti himself was thrilled: “Fantastic. The boys gave everything. This is the culmination of a long journey.”
The Spaniards were proud despite the loss. In an unusual move for a defeated finalist, Argentinian centre-back Siviero kept the matchball, insisting runners-up was still an historic achievement for a small side like Mallorca. “We played just as well as them,” claimed Cuper.
As if Biancocelesti fans weren’t already delirious, the club announced they’d reached an agreement to sign lean schemer Juan Sebastian Veron from Parma. The plan to rule Europe continued unabated. Later that summer Lazio won the UEFA Super Cup, beating Manchester United 1-0. The scudetto followed in 1999/2000. Many predicted Eriksson’s team would dominate for years.
It was a false dawn. The Eagles struggled in the 1999/2000 Champions League. Cuper gained a small measure of revenge when his Valencia side thrashed Lazio 5-3 on aggregate in the quarter-final. Eriksson left in January 2001 and a slew of stars followed. Within a year an embittered, exhausted Cragnotti, who had spent around £274m on the squad, also walked. Nedved grew his hair like Bucks Fizz.
The 1999 Cup Winners’ Cup remains the highpoint of Lazio’s achievements on foreign soil.
Sven Goran Eriksson
Smooth Swede with an eye for detail and commitment to attacking football, Svennis arrived at Lazio in 1997 after spells with Benfica, Sampdoria and Roma. Given a limitless chequebook by food magnate and club owner Sergio Cragnotti, Eriksson guided the Biancocelesti to the 2000 Scudetto before becoming England coach in 2001.
Star performers in the final
Not the starriest name in the Lazio constellation, Argentina central midfielder Almeyda was crucial. Tough, tactically proficient and a fine passer, the River Plate youth product joined the Eagles from Seville in 1997. Voted best player in Serie A 1998/99 by Italian magazine Guerin Sportivo.
Quite simply a calcio monster. Uncompromising, power-packed striker Vieri was every defender’s nightmare. After 24 goals in 24 league games with Atletico Madrid in 1997/98 and an impressive showing at the 1998 World Cup, Lazio brought the moody muscular hitman back to Italy. The cricket-loving centre-forward left the Olimpico for Inter for a record £32m in summer 1999.