Juventus Can Call On Spirited 2002-03 UCL Run

Juventus have to be at their clinical best to stop Barcelona.

Juventus have to be at their clinical best to stop Barcelona.

“The joy that we’re experiencing tonight is great. Everybody knows how much we cared about getting this feeling back. It’s been awhile since we felt it. The entire Italian game has been looking to get the satisfaction that we haven’t had in this competition for some time.”

You could be forgiven for thinking that words like these came out of the mouth of Juventus manager, Massimiliano Allegri, this season. It might surprise you then to learn that they instead were uttered 12 years ago in the press room at the Camp Nou by none other than Marcello Lippi. It just goes to show what a high standard he held Serie A to at the time.

The league had been represented in eight of the 10 Champions League finals through the 1990s; he had been to three of them. However, ever since the silver-haired, cigar-puffing Tuscan ended his first spell in Turin at the end of the decade, things deteriorated.

In three seasons, Lazio were the only team to reach the knock-out stages and they had fallen at the first hurdle to Valencia. The pendulum was swinging. Zinedine Zidane had left Juventus for Real Madrid in 2001. Ronaldo followed a year later, packing up his things at Inter, and the balance of power appeared to move from Italy to Spain with them. A redressing of it only began upon Lippi’s return in Bianconero. In 2003, he would put La Liga back in its place.

Victory at the Camp Nou clinched Juventus a place in the 2002-03 semifinals, where Inter would play Milan, while Lippi eliminated the heavily favoured Real as was the case this year. As wins go, the quarterfinal in Barcelona was famous and against big odds. The Old Lady hadn’t won on Spanish soil in 33 years and though they flew to Catalunya level on aggregate, a 1-1 draw at the Stadio Delle Alpi a fortnight earlier meant Barcelona had the edge on away goals.

Criticism of their performance had been excessive in the Iberian press. Even the Madrid paper, Marca, accused Lippi of “insulting the game.” “Is there anything worse than watching Juventus?” they asked. “Playing with only one striker in the worst Italian style.” To them, it was classic “catenaccio.”

After going in front through Paolo Montero, Marca believed Juventus had got what they deserved in conceding a Javier Saviola equaliser. “When an Italian team finds itself 1-0 up, they’re like pigs in s—t. There’s no greater pleasure for them.”

How elegantly put. And yet, it wasn’t a faithful telling of the whole story, for Lippi had little or no option but to be a touch cautious. Marcelo Salas was recovering from knee surgery. David Trezeguet had yet to recover from injury and wouldn’t be back in time for the second leg. Marco Di Vaio had been out for five weeks with an ankle knock and Marcelo Zalayeta found himself at the bottom of the pecking order for a reason yet he would soon emerge as an unlikely hero.

Like Allegri in Monaco this season, Lippi did the best with what he had available to him. Besides Barcelona had hardly played well themselves. They had been “hyper defensive” and only got into the game in the final quarter of an hour. Had Alessandro Del Piero squared a pass to Zalayeta instead of taking on a shot moments before Saviola scored, they might have been out of sight. Di Vaio should also have done better and restored their lead when put through on goal.

Of course, Johan Cruyff wasn’t about to let that get in the way of a good argument. You know the sort. Recall his quip: “Italians can’t beat us, but we can certainly lose against them.” He once again played the role of the purist who was morally outraged by Italian football and its perceived negativity and cynicism.

“Do you watch games before opening your mouth?” asked one Italian paper. Goalkeeper Gigi Buffon wondered out loud if the reception Juventus were receiving from the Spanish was actually worse than that Italy were granted upon their return from the 1966 World Cup after losing to North Korea.

“I’ll only say to Cruyff that we’ve taken our game all over the world these past eight years,” Lippi replied, “and in many of the places we visited our performances were applauded. If, for once, it’s not to somebody’s palate, that’s not our problem… It’s not necessary in football to be spectacular… We’re tremendously effective.”

 Messi’s form today can determine the outcome of the game.

Messi’s form today can determine the outcome of the game.

Allegri has had to put up with similar questions of style at times this season. In October, he clashed with Arrigo Sacchi live on TV after Juventus lost 1-0 away to Atletico. In April, he told journalists that “if you want to be entertained, go to the circus” following Juventus’ 1-0 win against Monaco. It called to mind one of the comments he made while at Milan:
“You can’t always dine out on lobster and caviar. Every now and again you have to be satisfied with a ham sandwich.”

Lippi admires this about Allegri. “I quite frequently see myself in him,” he told Tuttosport. “There are a few parallels. A certain realism. We were both players and then worked our way up through the ranks as coaches.”

Looking back, Barca weren’t as formidable a proposition in 2002-03 as they are now. They were in transition. Louis van Gaal had left in January. Radi Antic was keeping the seat warm for Frank Rijkaard. The team sat ninth in La Liga. But it was still a team that had reached two of the last three semi-finals, was in the midst of a 15-game unbeaten run in the Champions League (13 wins and two draws) and boasted a young Carles Puyol, Xavi and Thiago Motta, as well as the likes of Frank de Boer, Michael Reiziger, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert. Captaining the Blaugrana was current boss Luis Enrique. Juan Roman Riquelme and Gaizka Mendieta were on the bench.

They’re weren’t a pushover and Juventus were under no illusion of the task in front of them. They hadn’t returned from these parts with a win since 1970. To do so, they would have to dig deep, just as they will have to this night in Berlin, and deeper still. Strength of character, gutsiness, that knack of bending and not breaking in difficult moments, holding one’s nerve even if Mendieta got the better of Edgar Davids, who was sent off after 79 minutes, all ultimately (and quite improbably) prevailed over technique.

Asked by Tuttosport last week to vote on which Juventus player from the past they would most like to be able to field this weekend, current board member Pavel Nedved emphatically beat the likes of Del Piero, Zidane and Michel Platini. The Camp Nou was one of the places where he won the Ballon d’Or that year. Cutting inside from the right, Juventus’ “little Rambo” gave them the lead after rifling a shot beyond Roberto Bonano at the near post. They probably would have won the competition had he not been suspended for the final; however that’s a debate for another time.

Shortly afterwards Xavi equalised, punishing a poor headed clearance from Lilian Thuram. Few would have bet against Barça when the visitors were reduced to 10 men and the game went to extra-time. Buffon pulled off a save that was worth a goal after Xavi lifted a ball over the defence for Kluivert to scissor kick. Enrique also missed a sitter. One wonders if memories of it will come flooding back in the build-up this final.

What happened next was nothing short of remarkable.

La Repubblica’s Maurizio Crosetti takes up the story. “It’s the 115th minute. Birindelli crosses for Zalayeta with Juventus down to 10 and without [the substituted] Del Piero and panther Zalayeta scores at the Camp Nou. It’s not a joke,” he wrote. “… Destiny wanted one of the most limited Juventus players of all-time, that’s right Zalayeta, to keep them in the competition.”

One wonders who might be Juventus’ Zalayeta in Berlin today? The Gods have been smiling on them in Europe this season. Although a better side than Chelsea were in 2012, they’ll need the same luck to stay with them if they are to upset the odds.

“When you start with Neymar, Messi and Suarez up front, it’s like starting a game 2-0 up,” Nedved joked. “But careful now because everyone expects them to win and this will put incredible pressure on them. I believe we have a chance: it’s a one-off game in which the physical condition the teams are in will have a substantial bearing on the result.

“And after beating Real our self-esteem has grown. You see it clearly in the courage with which our players go out on the pitch and the determination they have to show they deserve to be in the final and perhaps do something more as well [like the treble]. No, we’re not going to Berlin to participate in the final,” he concluded.

“That’s not Juve.” It’s enough to recall the club’s motto – Winning isn’t important, it’s the only thing that counts – for an idea of what is.

Allegri believes this Barça team is unbeatable over two legs but over the course of 90 or 120 minutes, anything can happen. Today’s final has been compared with the epic Brazil-Italy game at the World Cup in 1982. Channeling the spirit of that afternoon at the Estadio Sarriá in Barcelona and that of another evening in the same city but over at the Camp Nou in 2003 might go some way to helping Juventus lift a third European Cup aloft to the Berlin sky, the same sky to which Buffon, Pirlo and Barzagli held the World Cup in 2006.

Lippi was there that night at the Olympiastadion as the triumphant coach of Italy and speaking to Gazzetta on Tuesday, he had one final piece of advice for Allegri and his Juventus players. They can do it, something tells him they can. “All you’ve got to do is believe,” he said.

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