The Italian Job is a classic film as British gangsters embark on a heist in Turin. However, a different kind of ‘Italian job’ was taking place in the Champions League that same year as the Italians descended on Manchester.
Many consider the 1990s to be Italian football’s golden era. Some of the sport’s greatest names were plying their trade on the peninsula during that decade.
Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo, Marco van Basten, George Weah along with Italians Roberto Baggio, Christian Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero, Paolo Maldini, Franco Baresi are among the first to come to mind.
The fact that an Italian team participated in eight of the 10 Champions League finals between 1989-90 and 1998-1999 just added to Serie A’s reputation as being the best league at the time.
In that period, Milan reached the final four times: 1990, 1993, 1994 and 1995. From those four final runs, they emerged triumphant twice. First in 1990 against Benfica and four years later, against Barcelona.
Juventus reached the final in three consecutive seasons: 1996, 1997 and 1998, but were only able to win once against Ajax in 1996.
Sampdoria were the new face as they made the final once in 1992 before losing to Barcelona in extra-time as the Catalans took the prize for the first time.
Though nobody in their right mind would doubt the success achieved by Italian teams during that decade, it seems that one season has unfairly been ignored by those discussing Italian football’s greatness in the past.
That season is 2002-03.
Four Italian teams started in the group stages. There was Juventus led by Marcello Lippi. Roma led by Fabio Capello. Inter led by Hector Cuper, and Milan led by Carlo Ancelotti.
Even though they had finished the previous season fourth, Milan were considered by many to have the best chance out of all Italian teams to win the Champions League. That was not surprising considering their activity on the transfer market in the summer of 2002, which saw them sign Rivaldo, Clarence Seedorf, Alessandro Nesta, Jon Dahl Tomasson and others while Dida returned in net.
Despite boasting great managers and players such as Alessandro Del Piero, Gigi Buffon, Pavel Nedved, Francesco Totti, Vincenzo Montella, Emerson, Christian Vieri, Hernan Crespo and Javier Zanetti, the other three teams were not considered to be strong favourites.
In the first group stage, Milan, Inter and Juventus advanced without problems with all of the teams finishing top of their respective groups.
Roma, on the other hand, was disastrous, to say the least, registering just five points and finishing last.
The second group stage was once again smooth sailing for Milan, which finished first, ahead of Real Madrid.
Inter, too, had no problem advancing to the quarter-finals, finishing second, behind Barcelona.
However, Juventus were very lucky to enter the final eight, having to rely on a stoppage-time Igor Tudor goal to defeat Deportivo La Coruña and finish second behind Manchester United.
The quarter-finals saw a lot of drama as Juventus edged out Barcelona, defeating the Catalans on their home soil 1-2 after extra time, despite being a man down. The earlier match in Turin had ended 1-1 so that was enough.
Inter managed to advance past Valencia on away goals – Cuper’s side won 1-0 in Italy and lost 2-1 in Spain.
However, the most dramatic match was the one between Milan and Ajax. After a goalless draw in the Netherlands, the scoreline in Italy read 2-2 in the 90th minute, which meant Ajax were going to progress.
However, Ancelotti’s side had different ideas. In stoppage time, Filippo Inzaghi burst clear to reach a flick-on and lifted the ball over Bogdan Lobont, and Tomasson, introduced as a late substitute, touched the ball over the line.
Those results paved the way for three Italian teams in the semi-finals, one of which had to face Real Madrid, who had eliminated Manchester United.
Juventus would be drawn with that task, while the Milanese neighbours would face each other in the other semi-final.
While many expected the Old Lady to use a defensive-minded approach to deal with Ronaldo, Zidane, Figo and Madrid’s attacking prowess, Lippi’s side managed to score four times in the two legs and advance 4-3 on aggregate, which ensured there would be an all-Italian final in Manchester.
Sadly for Juventus, Pavel Nedved was going to miss the final because of a one-match suspension resulting in part from a booking in the match against Madrid in Turin.
The first leg between Inter and Milan, in which the former was registered as the home side, was a dull goalless affair, but the second match was nothing short of amazing.
Andriy Shevchenko scored for Milan at the end of the first half. Since they were the away team, Inter needed two goals to advance.
While Cuper’s side managed to score in the 84th minute, through Obafemi Martins, there were no more goals, which put Milan on the plane to England.
From an aesthetic standpoint, the final didn’t produce much. The only pieces of excitement in the course of the 90 minutes, which ended, as many had expected, 0-0, and during extra time, were a somewhat controversially disallowed goal scored by Shevchenko, one of Buffon’s greatest saves ever and Antonio Conte hitting the crossbar.
The penalty shootout saw Dida become a hero in the eyes of Milan supporters, who witnessed their team once again lift the most coveted club trophy in Europe.
As Italians would say, “Quelli erano giorni.” Those were indeed the days.