By Ken Pendleton - USSoccerPlayers (March 9, 2006) — Critics are fond of waxing poetic about Real Madrid’s 1960 European Cup final triumph over Eintracht Frankfurt. The seven combined goals they scored and the telepathic understanding between Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas were so awe-inspiring that the Eintracht players formed two parallel receiving lines to honor them after the match.
In 1994, Barcelona’s players did little more than exchange shirts and try to fade into the background, but there could be little doubt that they were also in awe of the comprehensive nature of AC Milan’s 4-0 demolition. In the words of Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta, “Milan played to 100 percent of their potential — perfect.”
Milan’s performance may well have been superior to Madrid’s.
First of all, with all due respect to Eintracht, Barcelona was a vastly superior club. The German club was never again a significant factor domestically, let alone on the European stage. Barcelona, by contrast, had just wrapped up its fourth consecutive Spanish championship and had won the European Cup two years earlier. Even the most critical Catalonians would concede that manager Johan Cruyff had assembled the greatest side in the club’s history, known affectionately as the Dream Team.
Furthermore, whereas Madrid allowed three goals, the last being of the farcical variety, Milan did not allow any. This was especially remarkable considering the quality of Barcelona’s attack. Romario would go on to be the star of USA ’94 and Hristo Stoitchkov would lead Bulgaria to the semifinals, but on this occasion they were completely subdued.
Stoitchkov, playing on the right, was marked out of the match by Christian Panucci. Even though Panucci, normally a right fullback, was playing out of position, he dealt with Stoitchkov with such consummate ease that he found time to overlap to great effect. Romario didn’t fare any better. In the 10th minute, he flubbed a really good chance created in a sweeping move orchestrated by Josep Gardiola and Stoitchkov. After that, he was closed out by the combined efforts of Paulo Maldini (already 25 years of age) and Filippo Galli.
The extent to which they stifled what was then regarded as the best attacking side in Europe was also remarkable because Milan was playing without its two starting centerbacks. In the semifinal against Monaco, Franco Baresi picked up his third yellow card and Billy Costacurta was sent off. Perhaps not coincidentally, Costacurta would also miss the World Cup final after picking up his second yellow card in the semifinal against Bulgaria.
Costacurta and Baresi were renowned for their subtle ability to employ the offsides trap, but understandably Maldini and Galli did not share a similar faith in their understanding. Thus, they opted to play very deep, which should have benefited Barcelona’s passing game, but the timeliness of their challenges was impeccable. They also received a great deal of help from Marcel Desailly and Demetrio Albertini. Desailly covered an astonishing amount of ground, constantly disrupting Barca’s rhythm, and Albertini neutralized Gardiola, one of the two players most responsible for organizing Barcelona’s passing moves.
The other responsible player was sweeper Ronald Koeman, a wonderful distributor from deep positions, but he was too preoccupied with his defensive chores to set Barcelona’s attack in motion. Normally, he was able to compensate for his lack of mobility by reading the game superbly, but Milan’s attackers turned his weakness into a fatal flaw. Dejan Savicevic and Daniele Massaro ran at and tormented him to such an extent that Cruyff shifted right back Albert Ferrer to the center of the defense at the half.
The move didn’t help much, but, more to the point, the damage had already been done. In the 22nd minute, Savicevic picked up the ball on the right and easily rounded Barcelona’s other centerback, Nadal, drew the rest of the Barca defense towards him as he headed diagonally towards goal, and slipped the ball to Massaro, who could hardly have helped but score.
The defining moment, however, came during injury time of the first half. Milan strung together umpteen passes and gradually pulled Barca’s defense completely apart. First they went deep down the left side, played the ball all the way back to their own third, and then probed down the right. Eventually, Zvonomir Boban and Savicevic pulled the defense towards them before playing the ball back to the left to Roberto Donadoni. He quickly rounded the only marker near him, raced to the byline and crossed the ball to the top of the area, where Massaro struck it first time, giving Barca keeper Zubzarreta no chance.
Simply put, it was one of the greatest goals ever scored in a European Cup final.
Milan scored twice more after the interval. The first came via an audacious lob by Savicevic from the right wing, and the second after Desailly collected a Savicevic shot that had caromed off the woodwork. Savicevic, who had a hand in all four goals, was clearly Man of the Match, but singling him out would not do justice to what a complete team effort this was. Only Milan goalie Sebastiono Rossi did not do his share, but that was only because the 10 players in front of him had made his presence largely superfluous.
Finally, as Massaro makes clear, a great deal of the credit must go to manager Fabio Capello: “The Mister (a word Italians use to refer to their manager) prepared us perfectly for this match. Everything had worked out the way he had told us. “
The Mister concurred: “We knew Barcelona’s strengths and went out to play to their weaknesses. Our tactics and approach were decided to some extent by the players we had available but I could not have asked more in the circumstances.”
Indeed, Milan played to a 100 percent of their potential — perfect.