(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)
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(This article originally appeared in the Sunday Independent on 5 June 2016)
This originally appeared on ESPN FC on 15 February 2012
For all Arsene Wenger’s reputation as a continental football master, one of the anomalies of his career is that he’s never quite mastered continental football.
In fact, he’s never won any of its competitions but been bridesmaid in all of them.
In 1992, his Monaco team lost the Cup Winners Cup final to Werder Bremen. In 2000, his Arsenal lost the Uefa Cup final to Galatasaray and, most recently in 2006, he saw the Champions League slip away against Barcelona.
The strong likelihood this season, of course, is that the wait will go on. Possibly indefinitely.
Indeed, such has been the scale of Arsenal’s issues in this campaign that it almost seems preposterous to be talking about them as potential champions of Europe any time soon; particularly in the current context of the competition.
After a period in the mid-2000s when a series of teams who finished third, fourth and fifth in their domestic leagues illustrated how open and random cup football can be by lifting Europe’s most prestigious trophy, the Champions League appears to have reclaimed its status as the continent’s ultimate barometer of brilliance. In the last four years, all of its winners – Manchester United, Barcelona and Inter – have also claimed their domestic title in the same season. And, even more impressively, all of those victories were part of extended rallies of trophies.
That hardly gives hope to a team who haven’t lifted any silverware in seven years and are desperately fighting to even qualify for the Champions League.
Worse, Arsenal’s last two appearances illustrated just how far away they are from the competition’s elite end as they were eliminated twice by Barcelona in relatively emphatic fashion.
As such, you would imagine Wenger has a little bit too much on his mind to be looking so far ahead. However, that would also involve discounting just how much the Champions League dominates his thinking.
Over the last two decades, much has been made of Alex Ferguson’s “obsession” with the competition. But Wenger’s is arguably equal to it and has never received anywhere near the same attention or examination.
Sources close to him testify that he sees it as a “gaping hole in his CV” and an objective more pressing than reclaiming the league title. He publicly hinted this himself a few years ago.
“I want to win the Champions League but it’s step by step. And to win not once but two or three times, to go into the history of European football.”
Step by step is one thing though. One of the many idiosyncratic problems with Wenger’s Arsenal is that they’ve never walked any kind of steady line in Europe. They’ve never shown the progression or learning curve that, say, Ferguson’s Manchester United sides did between 1996-1999 or 2006-2008.
Indeed, perfectly illustrating Wenger’s peculiar relationship with the competition, Arsenal have got to the final one season only to exit at the last 16 the next; or dismantled a European giant in one round before being eliminated by a smaller fish in the following.
His very first campaign arguably set the tone: in 1988-89, Monaco absolutely annihilated a very competent Club Brugge only to immediately fall to a mediocre Galatasaray.
And, if you do go back that far, his entire record is revealing. In a total of 15 completed seasons in the European Cup/Champions League, Wenger has reached the final once, the semi-finals twice, the quarter-finals and last 16 five times each and gone out at the first hurdle twice.
With Arsenal, his average round of elimination has been the last 16: exactly where he finds himself now.
Hardly encouraging or edifying. And, for a style that seems so suited to European football, also hard to explain.
But then perhaps his Champions League record also reflects exactly why Wenger’s career trophy cabinet isn’t as glittering as it perhaps should be. Because, as his title-winning sides of 1998, 2002 and 2004 perfectly illustrated, Wenger’s style of management and football both work best when his teams are at full confidence; when the new-age football comes off so naturally that they don’t even have to think about it.
When that confidence is broken, however, it seems to take Wenger a long time to rebuild. And, not only might that explain why he’s never retained a league title but also the oscillating European seasons. In short, his teams seem to find it difficult to overcome a poor domestic run to deliver continental results. The eliminations to Bayern Munich in 2005 and PSV Eindhoven in 2007 would appear perfect cases in point.
What’s more, Wenger has never quite proven himself as tactically pragmatic in Europe as Ferguson or Rafa Benitez – England’s last two champions. Both, for example, evolved and adapted. Wenger hasn’t other than the run to the final in 2006; a run that was also built on Martin Keown’s defensive work.
As such, a lot will depend on his side’s confidence. But that’s also what now makes this tie with Milan so interesting.
Had Arsenal not won at Sunderland on Saturday then you could have been genuinely worried for them. Instead, they claimed the sort of late, electrifying victory against awkward opposition that can change mentalities and seasons. It may well prove their most significant result of the campaign.
But just as significant might be the exact make-up of this Champions League. In contrast to previous years, two of the best sides in Europe – Manchester City and Manchester United – are already out. Meanwhile, the continent’s very best – Barcelona – seem to be struggling with complacency and conditioning. Should they meet Real Madrid early on, too, a path could well be cleared.
All of a sudden, we may end up with one of the most open Champions League seasons since 2007.
It was around that period, of course, that Arsenal enjoyed their best ever performance in the competition.
And it seems it’s going to take something similar if Wenger is ever to master that obsession.
A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner
Real Madrid 4-1 Atletico Madrid
Miguel Delaney, Estadio Da Luz
Having finally put Real Madrid’s name back on the European Cup, a serene Carlo Ancelotti put it into the club’s true terms.
“On my first day, when I went to the Santiago Bernabeu trophy room, I said to the president [Florentino Perez] that there was one trophy missing.”
Ancelotti has completed that job, delivered La Decima, and it’s difficult to think of a more complete victory in terms of the dimensions of their 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid.
This, in so many ways, was the perfect 10th. The wait made it all the more wonderful for Real, the circumstances all the more special.
For a start, right at the death, there was the relief and release of Sergio Ramos’s stoppage-time equaliser. It gave Real new life, and killed all of Atletico’s momentum. From there, there was only one winner, but also one player who needed to score that key goal most.
Gareth Bale went some way to justifying his world-record transfer fee, and overcoming so many earlier misses, by heading in the decisive effort that finally put Real ahead. Marcelo made it 3-1 before the man that Bale succeeded as the world’s most expensive player, Cristiano Ronaldo, got his big goal in his home country.
Then, there was the significance of all that. The competition’s most successful ever club brought the trophy back to what they consider its rightful home, and against the side closest to home.
Perez looked on proudly. The Real Madrid president could finally say all that outlay was worth it, given how so many of his expensive stars had struck. It was testament to Ancelotti’s ability to handle top players. It also meant the Italian had his hands on a landmark third European Cup as a manager, finally becoming the figure to match Bob Paisley’s record.
On the pitch and off it, the emotions were clear. Iker Casillas said it was better than winning the World Cup. On 90 minutes, the goalkeeper had energetically grabbed Ramos and kissed him, fully aware of the importance and immortality of that equaliser. The two Real stalwarts were the last to leave the stadium mixed zone, but not until after Casillas had held up two hands to signify those 10 European Cups.
In the end, for all the emotion, it’s difficult not to distil it down to the numbers like that: a 12-year wait since Real’s ninth Champions League, over €1bn spent, three world transfer records… and one minute from the most painful failure.
That shows how close Atletico came, but also how far away Diego Simeone’s side really were.
The story of their season has been how they so admirably defied football’s economic realities. In winning the Spanish title, they spent so much energy, rather than money. It couldn’t continue indefinitely, despite Diego Godin’s opening goal. Real had that bit more.
In extreme circumstances like that, it’s difficult to put such a result down to any single factors. Had a bounce gone a different direction, or a ball gone another way, Atletico would be celebrating.
Instead, the only issue that Simeone was lamenting was the gamble on Diego Costa, who went off injured after nine minutes. The true consequence of that was that Atletico could really have done with that extra substitute as the extremities of the game sapped their energy.
“It was my responsibility to have [Diego Costa] play and obviously I made a mistake because I had to switch him as early as I did.”
Simeone, however, acknowledged that Real deserved it late on, but it takes nothing from Atletico’s campaign.
“You have to look at it overall – Madrid were better in the second half, they kept us in our half and we couldn’t get out. Football is wonderful because of that.
“The supporters should be proud of an excellent season, they shouldn’t waste a single second being sad.”
Bale, by contrast, had wasted many a chance.
“A few thoughts crept into my mind,” he admitted afterwards. “It happens and sometimes you don’t get the rub of the green but you have to keep persisting, keep going and you may get that chance that will may get that chance that will make the difference. Thankfully, I was able to get that chance and I was able to take it.”
Ancelotti, meanwhile, insisted it was down to much more than the “rub of the green”.
“You can say I’m a lucky man in the end, or you can say that we tried to do everything until the last second of the game.”
Real certainly did try to do everything, but not just on this night in Lisbon. It means, for now at least, they have achieved everything that has consumed the club for the past decade: la Decima.
A version of this originally appeared on The Score
Right at the death, this Real Madrid team ensured immortality. La Decima was delivered in Lisbon, Atletico Madrid suffered devastation.
And, having set it up, Sergio Ramos summed it up.
“It was incredible,” the centre-half said of his injury-time equaliser in Real’s 4-1 win. “That goal isn’t mine, it’s everybody’s.”
It also meant everything.
For all that Gareth Bale ultimately proved his worth with the second goal, and Cristiano Ronaldo crowned his night with the fourth, it was Ramos who provided La Decima’s decisive and defining moment.
His plundering header brought so much to a head.
This had so much wrapped up in it, even by the standards of late goals in this famous fixture, from Teddy Sheringham in 1999 to Arjen Robben in 2013.
Most immediately, it transformed a 1-0 defeat into a 4-1 procession. Real were suddenly soaring after such a struggle.
Yet, whatever about exaggerating their victory, the unexpected extent of the winning margin only emphasised and reflected the importance of that moment – and not just on the night.
Most obviously, of course, it changed the dynamic. Ramos’s goal ensured all of Atletico’s energy was finally eroded, while Real played with a new momentum. That meant, rather than talking about a modern football miracle, we were merely celebrating the club that were already the most successful in the competition’s history. Instead of Atletico continuing to defy the sport’s economic realities, Real confirmed the value of spending a billion. One side won their long-expected 10th trophy, another were denied what would have been a novel first.
The goal may have changed this match, but it also ensured the game in general remains the same.
None of this is to deny the fundamentally sporting qualities of the Real players’ victory. Carlo Ancelotti’s team displayed supreme character to keep going, and then accelerate.
Yet, when it comes to such proper knife-edge moments like Ramos’s equaliser, it can genuinely be difficult and even foolhardy to place too much importance in any individual reasons for success or failure.
Had one kick been slightly under-hit, or one pass further been over-played, it could have been completely different. Atletico would be celebrating.
At the same time, it’s impossible not to look at the multiple strands that ensured that single moment was so decisive.
Here, some blame must go to the otherwise brilliant Diego Simeone. For a start, quite literally, there was the gamble on Diego Costa’s fitness. While the decision to play the injured striker from the beginning was someway understandable, his bizarrely early withdrawal ensured Atletico were denied a substitute in those energy-sapping closing stages. Imagine, by contrast, the effect of bringing Costa on at that point?
Secondly, there was the way in which Simeone’s cynicism eventually proved a negative for his own team. All that defending, and all that systemic fouling, only increased the pressure. Atletico’s time-wasting, meanwhile, gave Ramos an even greater window to equalise.
Yet, from a wider perspective, it would be hugely unfair to overly fault Simeone and his side for any of that that. They themselves are not exactly playing in the fairest context.
The Argentine cannot spend multi-millions on transfers, or call on a series of the world’s most expensive players.
Simeone has to cut his cloth to measure, and that won’t always be pretty, especially after the exertions of the domestic league victory.
In that regard, there was a certain inevitability about Real’s recovery, even if it didn’t feel like it in the anxious moments leading up to it.
Ancelotti’s side won by sheer force of numbers. That’s in an almost literal sense, at least in terms of transfer fees
They were able to rely on record signings, who simply hadn’t expended the same energy in recent weeks. So much effort had been spent on Atletico’s title win. So much money had been spent in Real’s last decade.
It said much that the world’s most expensive player scored Real’s second goal and the next most expensive scored the fourth.
Of course, you can’t put any value on the kind of emotions authentically experienced by all at the club on finally ending that wait, but that in itself raises another issue.
This is now the third season in a row in which one of the super-wealthy modern super-clubs have ended a long Champions League drought. Chelsea at last won their first in 2012; Bayern Munich won a first in 12 years in 2013; Real did the same tonight.
The novelty value of ending these waits starts to wear off, even if that is obviously not the case for those at the clubs.
The feeling grows that the old elusiveness of the European Cup is now gone for such clubs. A cabal of them will just ending up passing the trophy around, even more so than the last decade. If you have the money, you’ll eventually get your turn.
That the last three finals all came down to the last minute actually emphasises the point. It doesn’t show how agonisingly close Borussia Dortmund and Atletico came, but prove how far away they are.
As the margins lessened, the true gaps were revealed.
That is why that Ramos minute was so momentous, and not just for La Decima.
A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC
Carlo Ancelotti was never going to pass up the opportunity. With the Puerto del Sol waiting for the victorious Real Madrid squad in the centre of the Spanish capital, the Italian coach took the microphone, and began to serenade the crowd. Elsewhere Dani Carvajal showed off a beard he had died blonde, while Iker Casillas’s young son cutely bit into his father’s newly-minted Champions League winner’s medal. There were smiles and laughter everywhere.
The exhausted relief of Saturday’s 4-1 win over Atletico Madrid had given way to jubilant release. For all the traditional elitism of a club like Real, these were endearingly base human reactions. The squad were simply revelling in the reflection of that 10th European Cup.
A 12-year wait, and one big weight, had lifted.
It was impossible to begrudge the players or coaching staff.
It was also impossible not to think we’d seen similar scenes rather recently.
Of course we had: in the last two seasons.
The emotions on view around Madrid were similar to those in the Allianz Arena last season and London’s Kings Road the year before.
In 2012, Chelsea beat Bayern Munich to joyously win the first Champions League in their history. The following campaign, the German side immediately bounced back to end their own 12-year wait.
The speed with which Bayern did that is pointed.
It’s difficult to imagine Atletico Madrid returning to such a position so quickly, just as 2013 finalists Borussia Dortmund could only reach the quarter-finals this season. It’s also difficult to think many of the super clubs will ever go on such lengthy droughts again.
This is the wider point to those Champions League wins of the last few years, and the manner in which those three elite clubs claimed victory. While the emotions of people directly involved are obviously so deeply felt, the frequency of these ‘once-a-generation’ celebrations gradually renders them less wondrous for many others. We’ve seen the story before.
If a big club is ending a wait every other season, it only increases the sense they’re all just eventually going to get their turn. That’s possibly because that’s precisely what’s happening. It is the increasing trend in the Champions League, more so than ever before.
A cabal of about seven to 10 super-clubs now have so much power and so close to each other in terms of baseline level that, if they keep generally competitive to a competent level, the odds are the roulette wheel will eventually land in their favour; that the great trophy will come to them.
To illustrate the case, consider the situation in the late 90s, just before the Champions League fully and finally expanded to its current size.
Real Madrid had gone 32 years without winning the trophy before 1998, Manchester United 31 before 1999. Bayern ended up going 25 years prior to 2001. Barcelona, meanwhile, were the great underachievers in the competition’s history. The Catalans only won it once in the first 40 years of the event.
Compare all that to now, and the length of time it is since this list of clubs last won the trophy:
Real Madrid – 0 years
Bayern Munich – 1 year
Chelsea – 2 years
Barcelona – 3 years
Manchester United – 6 years
The point becomes clear. Previously, there was a genuine elusiveness to the trophy, no matter who you were. Now, that true depth of elusiveness only exists for those outside the cabal. Once the big clubs properly adjusted to the extra demands of newly expanded Champions League from around 2007, and built squads of sufficient size, they set a certain bar. Beyond, the sense grows the trophy will merely pass around between them.
This is of course not to play down the achievement of any individual team, since they still have to do all their jobs right and show requisite character to actually go and win it in a given season. But, on a macro level, it is a reality that a core of clubs are no so broadly close to each other that they will just crash against each other to the point the path clears for one.
This is the problem when the economics of European football allow a small group to pull so far clear of the rest. And, if it is immensely difficult to catch up with these sides, it is easy to see who and what they are. It is nothing to do with history or structure, or old money against new money. It is simply those with enough power and potential to employ the world’s top band of players and coaches.
They are, primarily: Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City. Five of them have won it in the last seven years, and City’s time is surely coming.
A secondary growing group, meanwhile, are Paris Saint-German, Arsenal and Juventus. They could eventually be joined by the likes of Monaco. Everyone else has to work so much harder to just keep, and thereby properly compete for the top trophies.
Many may point to the fact Dortmund and Atletico got to the final in consecutive years, but both sides virtually prove the argument.
They are not super-clubs, so needed rare super-coaches to come anywhere near victory. It was still not enough in the Champions League, and the elite are already chasing Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone. The fact both of their finals also went to the wire further emphasises the point.
So near, yet still so far.
Atletico were on the brink of something truly radical, to go with their sensational Spanish title win. Instead, continental football reverted to a default state. Real Madrid were talking about returning to their “rightful place”. That very description sums up the issue.
There are a core of clubs that feel the same way and, by law of averages, will soon get similar opportunities.
On this occasion, Ancelotti took his opportunity, and not just on the Puerto del Sol stage. Next season, we’ll likely hear the same old song.
Moments after Frank Lampard finally lifted the prize that Roman Abramovich has obsessed about above all others, the Chelseaowner strode away from the Allianz Arena podium like a man on another mission.
He hurried past the assembled media, refusing to even admit he was happy. He refused, in fact, to say a thing.
Finally, by the time he got to the Chelsea dressing-room – and by the time the jubilant players made their way back – he spoke.
What Abramovich said, however, was seemingly only for those who heard it. John Terry wouldn’t reveal. Frank Lampard wouldn’t reveal. And, from his boss’s words to whether he will even have a job next week, Roberto Di Matteo was giving nothing away.
But that was only in keeping with the 2012 Champions League final as a whole and his team’s run towards it.
Of course, the minimalist, defensive style of Chelsea’s victory was not exactly in the manner that Abramovich imagined when he fist decided to buy the club after being dazzled by a Real Madrid master-class at Old Trafford.
In many ways, however, this was a more appropriate win.
First, it was fired – and secured – by the player who arguably defines the Abramovich era more than any other. Unlike both Lampard and Terry, Didier Drogba was bought for huge money, was one of the first to come and – for the moment – is one of the last of those initial signings to remain. The striker refused to be drawn on whether his emphatic winning penalty was his last kick for the club but did, apparently, make an emotional speech in the dressing-room.
That it came to that kick was also because of the kind of drama and occasional chaos that has typified Chelsea’s history in this competition and created such an obsession. All of the club’s keynote moments – from missed penalties to dubious penalties to devastating last-minute equalisers – were repeated on Saturday in reverse. Ultimately, Drogba got to take the kick he never could in Moscow.
Finally, the entire victory was built on the element that has been almost as important to Chelsea’s last decade of success as Abramovich’s wealth: the durable defensive base that Jose Mourinho put in place.
Immediately after the final, there were already questions about the exact ‘morality’ of Chelsea’s win and whether the success of such a defensive system from such an elite club was good for the game.
“I think the supporters are happy,” Di Matteo argued. “You have to try and get the best out of what you have and that’s what we did.”
To a certain extent, he’s right. It may not have been the purest way to win. But, given the circumstances and given the time available, it was the only way Di Matteo was going to win the Champions League [open itals] this [close] season. After the chaos and aging team he inherited from Andre Villas-Boas, Di Matteo had little choice but to revert to the framework the side’s core knew best.
This was something Lampard also touched on as he defended the team’s approach,
“We weren’t playing good football three months ago. We weren’t at a good level. And, to become organised, Robbie’s got to take a lot of credit… he’s built confidence and spirit in the group.”
Lampard also praised the manager’s general demeanour in a statement in which the slightest criticism of Terry’s behaviour could be construed.
“There’s a humility about him, the way he even picked up the cup. He’s been really, really impressive to me.”
Such a description, of course, is difficult to apply to the game itself. It certainly wasn’t a vintage final. Indeed, in terms of general play if not drama, it went exactly as expected: Bayern’s proactive control against Chelsea’s attempts to contain and counter. Given that, many will point to the pity that the team that actually tried to win the game didn’t do so.
But, in truth, Bayern Munich wouldn’t have been vintage champions themselves.
For one, there was their attitude. All through the build-up and many stages of the game itself, there seemed an unsavoury assumption the home team would win. That culminated in the Basler 1999-style moment when Thomas Muller was brought off for Daniel Van Buyten to receive the acclaim of scoring the expected winning goal.
When things went against Bayern, however, their attitude was the exact opposite and just as extreme. As soon as Mario Gomez failed to score the first of many chances, there was an angst creeping into their play. By the time Muller volleyed wide shortly before half-time, their body language betrayed genuine anxiety. They were snatching at chances and trying to force things. The pressure had got to them. And it contributed to a situation where they only scored once from a massive 35 efforts on goal.
By contrast, Chelsea only won one corner. They scored from it.
That illustrated a wasteful front and a soft centre in a hugely inconsistent and incomplete Bayern.
It shouldn’t be forgotten either that, for long stretches, these teams looked exactly what they are: effective also-rans in their domestic league. Chelsea’s otherwise impressive defence still allowed too many chances; Bayern missed them. As a result, the sixth-placed English side are somewhere around Liverpool 2005 in the competition’s pantheon; nowhere near the level of the last few years.
That, however, is knock-out football. Its nuances create such situations; not to mention one where a club from a country famous for scoring penalties let a player from a country infamous for missing them hit the key kick.
Many Chelsea players cited Arjen Robben’s miss as the point they truly believed.
Ultimately, too, they found the formula to properly build on that belief.
It may not have been pure. It certainly does not mean they are the best on the continent. But, in the end, Di Matteo’s minimalism reaped maximum reward. Abramovich, meanwhile, enjoyed the ultimate return on his investment.
THE OBSESSION IS finally obliterated.
It may not have been done so in style. It may not have been a vintage final. Chelsea may not be vintage champions.
But they are, ultimately, champions.
The percentage-play tactics received the ultimate pay-off. Indeed, given the nature of Chelsea’s approach, it is arguably – for once – apt that the 2012 final boiled down to the simple logistics of a penalty shoot-out.
Indeed, the identity of the heroes was also entirely appropriate.
Petr Cech has recovered form magnificently over the past few months, and arguably returned to his world-class best. Although neither of Ivica Olic’s or Bastien Schweinsteiger’s penalties were particularly well-struck, they were decently placed and the Czech had to stretch to keep them out.
In front of him, Ashley Cole has been exceptional in Roberto Di Matteo’s reversion to a team more solidly based on Jose Mourinho’s defensive foundation. His battle with Arjen Robben was epic and it was a pity that the rest of the clashes on the pitch didn’t live up to its levels.
One man did though. He arguably surpassed them: Didier Drogba. The man whose energy up front actually makes Di Matteo’s tactics workable ultimately won this game in multiple ways: first with the force that Chelsea had been missing to bring what seemed an unlikely equaliser. Secondly, by facing down Manuel Neuer – and the Bayern stand – to thump home the winning penalty.
For Chelsea, the player that has almost defined the Roman Abramovich era more than any other (unlike both John Terry and Frank Lampard, he was bought in expensively) struck its most decisive kick. For Bayern, it ended an exuberant – and, in truth, expected – party.
All around this final, there was a huge sense of anticipation that Bayern would have a relatively easy ascension.
It didn’t translate to the players though. Although, as also expected, they largely controlled the game with their possession, their failure to quickly make it count gave rise to anxiety strikingly quickly. When Thomas Muller volled wide from an inviting position shortly before half-time, the body language said a lot.
Of course, once Muller finally scored, shortly before full-time, the body language then said even more.
Finally, the Bayern players allowed themselves to believe. They were to regret it.
With Muller taken off for a defender in Daniel Van Buyten, the shape and emphasis changed. Chelsea at last showed a bit of ambition and Drogba made it count.
From there, it was a completely different tie.
Suddenly, it was open. Suddenly, there were no guarantees… until Drogba foolishly fouled for the penalty.
Then, a team from a country famous for scoring penalties allowed a player from a country infamous for missing them to hit one. He did so poorly.
After that, it seemed the two teams were only playing the game out until the situation would be replicated.
It was. But, crucially, for more Bayern players than Chelsea ones.
Di Matteo’s minimalism had prevailed by the narrowest of margins: a tie-breaker.
Of course, Chelsea’s approach may not have been pure. But, to a degree, it was the only way they were ever going to win this trophy this season.
Plunged into a desperate situation, Di Matteo had to revert to what his players knew best: that defensive base, even if he did show some admirable alterations up front.
That may not be to people’s liking. But that’s what cup football is.
Chelsea may not be the best team in Europe. But thanks to the manager’s pragmatism, Abramovich’s riches and the players’ durability and attitude, they are its champions for the very first time.
Miguel Delaney, Wembley Stadium
A wait has ended, a weight is lifted and Bayern Munich thereby rise well above the rest of Europe.
Of that, there can be no argument. If the Champions League knock-out format only occasionally rewards the most rightful winner by accident rather than design, Bayern brutally eliminated any element of chance at Wembley. By the end of this groundshaking showdown with Borussia Dortmund, their utter dominance reflected their undisputed status as the continent’s best team. The 2-1 final score confirmed it.
Jupp Heynckes has now won two Champions League trophies as a manager, while Bayern have lifted five as a club.
The key question now is whether this is the first of many for this squad.
Because, as much as this victory proved the culmination of one period, it may prove the start of something else.
That is the potential effect of a cathartic moment like this. The relief was evident. The release, for everyone else, may be ominous.
Make no mistake. Had Bayern managed to lose this match, and to such a close rival, it could have created an even more neurotic complex about this competition for the club.
Consider the amount of anxieties and and troubling experiences that led up to Arjen Robben’s eventual winner.
At that exact point in the previous year’s final, Didier Drogba had scored the goal that sent Bayern’s match into a tailspin. That strike had been preceded by a series of misses which had been repeated in this game, not least from Robben himself.
As Neven Subotic desperately cleared Thomas Muller’s 71st-minute shot off the line just as the Dutch forward was ready to point, there seemed to be an element of destiny about it all; that Bayern would again be bound to punishing failure.
Instead, Robben made his own destiny by discarding so many difficult moments and memories and even having the poise to second-guess Roman Weidenfeller.
It illustrated remarkable mental fortitude, particularly after Ilkay Gundogan’s penalty had almost immediately cancelled out Mario Mandzukic’s scrambled opener.
“We didn’t resign ourselves to our fate,” Heynckes said afterwards. “We upped the ante and tried even harder. You’ve seen the result.”
We’ve also seen the numbers. The chastening experiences of previous campaigns were offset by the champion-making excess of this one. Bayern have broken virtually every record going in the Bundesliga to arrive at this point. In that, it marks a true completion. They were hardened by the harsh lessons of 2010 and 2012 but also lifted by the luscious excellence of 2012-13.
“I think in the whole history of the Bundesliga there has been no team that has played at such consistency, such a high level, 25 points clearing and winning the championship, breaking almost all the records in the Bundesliga. Today, we saw that my team was determined to win that match.”
That was the other impressive aspect. Bayern did not just overcome the endings of their last two Champions League finals, but also the beginning of this one. For the first half hour, it seemed like an excellently intense Dortmund were going to blow them away. Instead, Heynckes’s side held their nerve and gradually took hold of the game.
“To begin with, we didn’t quite find out feet and I have to pay a compliment to Dortmund,” Heynckes said. “They pressed forward, we didn’t find our rhythm and it was a difficult match for us but, before the breakthrough with Robben, we had two opportunities and after the break we took command of the game. I think it’s because of the second half we really deserved to win.”
It also defined the differences between the two sides. As Bayern increasingly came together, Dortmund started to come apart. The gaps in their make-up grew even larger, allowing the likes of Robben more and more space.
That also reflects the chasm that has developed between the two squads as a whole this season, and that is no accident. It has come about for two reasons.
One, it must be admitted, is Bayern’s immense workrate.
They did not just display drive but also application.
“From the outset of the season, we have been changing things, improving things, adapting things. We have a team spirit and ability to work together which I have never experienced in a championship.
“We’ve worked tremendously hard for it, especially in the training sessions, but also on psychology, on communication.”
There was also, however, the platform and power they enjoyed. Heynckes himself referenced the two key signings that effectively completed the team as a unit.
“[Javi] Martinez and Dante, players that have been bullseye successes.”
And, as respectful as the entire post-match atmosphere had been between both teams and the two managers, Heynckes couldn’t resist one big punch.
“We know [Mario] Goetze will be joining us and I don’t think [Robert] Lewandowski will be hanging about too much either.”
This, perhaps, is the real significance of this final. Had Dortmund won, it would have proven such a blow to Bayern that a true rivalry might have been fostered. Instead, they have only consolidated their singular dominance.
They don’t just have the resources; they don’t just have all the most important signings; they don’t just now have one of the best managers in Pep Guardiola.
They also have the belief and cathartic conquest that completes all of that.
Even Goetze will add another dimension to that attack.
It is frightening and may well see the Champions League retained for the first time since 1990. Now Bayern have finally banished their recent history, the rest of Europe suddenly has a lot of catching up to do – even Barcelona, who they so humbled en route to this final.
As a consequence, Robben’s goal represented the perfect ascension: an emotional last-minute winner to complete a commanding season that actually lifts the club above the Catalans in terms of European Cups won.
“I think of course FC Bayern next year will have to prove that can continue to do these things,” Heynckes said. “But I think it possible that a new era in Europe might have begin under the aegis of FC Bayern.”
It certainly felt like it on the night. Bayern themselves, meanwhile, finally felt like European champions.
The perfect season, the most perfect of endings.
Bayern Munich did not just confirm their undeniable status as Europe’s best team and bring an incredible campaign to crescendo. They also washed away away all the woe of the last few years. The relief and release were palpable.
Most notably, Arjen Robben overcome so much personal anguish. At almost the same point in the game that Didier Drogba scored last year to send the Munich final into such a tailspin and make the Dutch forward’s penalty miss so decisive, Robbencoolly slotted the winner. More impressively, it came after this final seemed to be following a similar course. You could have forgiven the number-11 for frantically fluffing that late chance given how poor his previous three one-on-ones his previous. Instead, he illustrated composure, character and outright craft to delicately put the ball the other side of the excellent Roman Weidenfeller.
It was cruel on the goalkeeper given how superbly he had performed throughout, barely slipping once. That in itself illustrated just how complete Bayern’s domination was by that point.
For Dortmund, this was no longer a fairytale. It was a grim test of endurance as their goal was increasingly pounded. Ultimately, it reflected the clear chasm that has grown between the sides.
As utterly exceptional as Dortmund can be when they are at their best, any drop-off will reveal the amount of gaps in that make-up. Too many times here, Robben was left in so much space in their half. In that sense, it perhaps made the winner as inevitable as it was innovative.
For that, though, Dortmund can perhaps also look to the opening half hour. While that saw so many of their finest attributes, it also created a franticness that ensured they overplayed too many attacks. It also left them without reward, as Bayern gradually rose to the challenge.
By the end of the half, Bayern were clearly in the ascendancy. They had survived the onslaught and were now surging forward. It perhaps illustrated that there is more to their game, more elements to their side. On the hour, Robben finally illustrated another element to his game as he squared for Mario Mandzukic instead of shooting. The Croatian gladly headed in the opener.
In fact, it was telling that Dortmund’s equaliser had to come from a reckless Dante challenge rather than a true moment of attacking quality. All their energy had seemed expended in the opening half. The irrepressible Ilkay Gundogan still had enough to slot home.
In truth, Dante should have been off the field by then for a second booking, while Franck Ribery also escaped appropriate punishment for an elbow. On Dortmund’s side, though, Lewandowski illustrated similar petulance on a disappointing night for him.
As Bayern struggled to finish, it seemed they needed a forward of the Pole’s calibre.
Instead, Robben showed the quality that has previously been missing on his biggest games.
Now, he’s provided one of the biggest goals in Bayern’;s history. They’ve won it five times. Jupp Heynckes has won it twice.
The question, for the squad as a whole, is whether this will be the first of many.
A version of this originally appeared on ESPN FC in May 2013
On the eve of the Champions League final, as Bayern Munich were getting accustomed to Wembley Stadium in their last training session, manager Jupp Heynckes decided to pull Arjen Robben to the side.
“Look Arjen,” the coach said. “You’re in really good form and tomorrow that is going to be one of the crucial factors.”
It’s the kind of exchange that is often instilled with greater importance only after the fact. Of course, Heynckes may have had a genuine feeling or tactical epiphany. On the other hand, it’s equally possible he was just trying to motivate one of his many players.
Then, there’s the reality that Robben reflects the history of this specific Bayern Munich team better than any other player; that, with sufficient ability and the right circumstances, your time will come sooner or later.
Up until that 88th-minute strike against Borussia Dortmund, after all, Robben had hit 24 shots in Champions League finals without reward. One of them was eventually going to count. Just as Bayern’s sheer resources were gradually going to condition conquest in this competition, Robben has too much quality to fail so completely.
Except, when you listen to his explanation of how the winning moment unfolded and what went through his mind, you realise how much those previous misses had honed the forward for a moment like this. This wasn’t fated, it was fashioned. Most impressively of all, it was clearly a goal borne of intellectual gymnastics rather than basic instinct. Robben reacted to Franck Ribery’s touch and had the presence of mind to register Roman Weidenfeller’s movement.
“When I got the ball, I was free,” Robben said in his post-match press conference. “I anticipated Franck’s movement. The only thought was ‘I hope he lets the ball there’ because I saw the space. I took it well. My first choice was actually to go past him [Weidenfeller] on the left side but then he made a move and I could put it on the other side. He was on the wrong leg.”
Finally, Robben had provided the right finish in a big game and Bayern had at last won that fifth Champions League. Although the Dutch forward later struggled to put the emotion into actual words, his jubilant face and uncontrollable reaction revealed enough.
“For a footballer, this is the greatest you can achieve. When the whistle of a referee blows and you know that you’re winners of a Champions League, for a lot of us it was the thing we really needed that we lacked in our lives.”
That is certainly true of this Bayern squad, not least the likes of Bastien Schweinsteiger and Philipp Lahm. For Robben personally, though, it wasn’t just about this specific trophy. It clearly meant more to him than most.
It redefined his career.
That feeling grew with every missed chance. It became increasingly apparent that either Robben was going to have to finally score himself or some other Bayern player was going to have to spare him in order to prevent this match becoming another high-profile failure.
That 88th-minute strike, after all, wasn’t just preceded by the three opportunities he had squandered at Wembley on Saturday. There were also the penalty and chances missed against Chelsea in the 2012 final as well as the two crucial one-on-ones wasted against Spain in the 2010 World Cup final.
For all the important goals Robben had scored against Manchester United in the 2009-10 quarter-finals or Barcelona in this year’s last four, he hadn’t yet defined or decided a victorious campaign at the most exacting level. The Dutch forward himself admitted this was on his mind.
“After all the disappointment of last year I personally had, and let’s the say the World Cup – that’s three finals and you don’t want the stamp of loser. You don’t want that tag. At last we did it today and we can’t forget the other things.”
If it seems unfairly stark for an entire career to swing on an individual moment that is still susceptible to unpredictable bounces of the ball – regardless of the stakes – it is ultimately what remains in the memory. Robben has now provided one of the great clubs with a moment they will cherish forever.
The actual reality, beyond the reminiscences, is obviously more complex.
As illustrated by those games against United and Barcelona, as well as countless important domestic fixtures, Robben did produce in decisive games that had their own individual demands. The absence of that keynote performance, though, did reflect the general trajectory of the forward’s career.
He never really became the dominant world star his talent suggested when Alex Ferguson was so desperately pursuing him in the 2003-04 season. That was emphasised by the manner he was discarded by both Chelsea and Real Madrid, a player only intermittently hinted at brilliance rather than regularly provide it.
Now, with Ferguson there to present the man-of-the-match award that confirmed a crowning moment, Robben had proved himself a crucial player for the best side in Europe.
“I am particularly pleased for Arjen,” Heynckes said, “because we were all tragic figures, not just Arjen. Today he was so crucial. Today, for me, he played a very good game.”
No, Robben may not have ultimately made himself one of the greats. But he now has a great goal to cap an excellent career.
This piece initially appeared in the September 2013 issue of The Blizzard
After a few seconds of silence, the issue that has simmered for years is finally brought up. It’s the 24th anniversary of the 1963 European Cup final and, in order to commemorate the occasion, the Italian state broadcaster RAI have gathered Cesare Maldini, Mario Coluna and renowned journalist Gianni Mina into a studio to watch and discuss Milan’s 2-1 win over Benfica at Wembley. The panel have just seen the pivotal moment in the 59th minute, when Gino Pivatelli fouled Coluna to put him out of the game. The incident didn’t just reduce Benfica to 10 men in the absence of substitutions; it removed their most influential player. In a period of perceived attacking innocence, Coluna was the architect who gave the defending European champions clear direction and design. Now, the question is how much direction and design lay behind the foul.
So, Mina eventually broaches it.
“Awful challenge, eh? Lads, after 24 years, can we say whether that foul was ordered or not?”
Maldini, who was captaining Milan from centre-half that day, is insistent: “Absolutely not. Clearly it was a foul, but…”
An agitated Coluna cuts him off, pointing at the screen as a translator relays his words.
“Look how far away the ball is. Pivatelli got nowhere near it!”
“Coluna said it decided the game,” Mina interjects.
The game itself, meanwhile, did more than decide that season’s European Cup. It was one of those exceedingly rare individual fixtures that distinctly divided eras in the competition’s history; a meeting of two ultimately dominant teams at opposite points of their cycle.
Because of the improbability of so many elements aligning – right down to the luck of the draw – there have only really been three such clutch contests in 58 years of the competition.
In the 1972-73 quarter-final, a fully-formed Ajax brutally illustrated to Bayern Munich just who the continent’s best team were. Many of the German players cited that resounding 4-0 defeat as the most traumatic match of their careers, but also the final lesson that transformed them from domestic champions into European champions. After that elimination, Bayern immediately embarked on their own three-in-a-row. Four years before that, Milan had much the same effect on a more callow Ajax by beating them 4-1 in the 1969 showpiece.
In 1963, though, it was a nascent Milan that showed much greater savvy than reigning champions Benfica. That wasn’t the only aspect that so marked this match apart. It was also unique in the manner that one moment so distilled all of the defining traits of those eras either side, effectively bringing two decades down to a single kick.
In that, Pivatelli’s foul was as layered as it was lasting. Because, even if an injury was not intentional, it was the ultimate possible consequence of Milan’s distinctive approach.
Manager Nereo Rocco had specifically detailed Pivatelli – a notional wing-forward – to shackle the playmaker. Moreover, he had dropped the prolific Paolo Barison in order to do so. Never before at such a vaunted level had a team so conspicuously compromised their existing attacking approach. It perfectly illustrated Rocco’s new pragmatism.
After eight years of free-scoring European Cups in which creators like Coluna had so much space to innovate, a more calculating breed of team and coach were now seeking to shut them down. Innocent attacking had started to give way to a singeing cynicism. The Pivatelli foul did not just symbolise a new era; it set the template for it.
Wembley was witnessing the rise of Catenaccio. First, Rocco had to figure how to bring about the fall of Benfica.
As the 1963 European Cup final kicked off, it was difficult to see where or how a sea change to more constrained football was coming. Milan began in assertively direct fashion, immediately taking the game to Benfica. Within seconds, Jose Altafini had latched onto a loose ball and charged straight at goal. Within minutes, the refined Gianni Rivera had attempted a perceptive through ball that fell just short. The Italian fans in the Wembley crowd even booed when Benfica had no option but to pass the ball back to goalkeeper Costa Pereira. This was not Catenaccio as it came to be recognised.
For their part, the Milan squad themselves always bristled at their association with the philosophy. Cesare Maldini especially despised it, and frequently pointed to the team’s fine scoring record.
The statistics certainly make a statement. In winning Serie A in 1961-62, they hit 83 goals in 34 games, 22 more than the next most prolific attack. In reaching that 1963 European Cup final, then, they hit 31 in eight – the highest ratio in the competition’s history. Even if 14 of those goals were against Union Luxembourg in the preliminary round, eight went past Galatasaray in the quarter-finals and five past Bob Shankly’s Dundee in the semis.
The great misconception about Catenaccio, however, is that it was a fundamentally negative approach. It was not; it was an inherently pragmatic one. That was always Rocco’s great skill and, for all the players may have despised their association with the philosophy, there could be no denying their manager’s career was intertwined with it.
Rocco was the coach that made Catenaccio mainstream in Italian football, and he would now do the same on the continent. Adapting the system from Gipo Viani at Salernitana in the 1940s, he added a more clinical form of counter-attacking and then applied it to unprecedented effect at both Triestina and Padova. As those provincial sides powered up the table, famed football journalist Gianni Brera notoriously described Catenaccio as “the right of the weak”: finding some cleverer strategy to trump superior opposition.
This was the crux of that 1963 final.
For all the apparent bravery that Milan showed in the opening minutes, an anecdote from the build-up betrays their true mood.
“We were pulling into the Wembley car park when Rocco noticed the fear in our faces,” Maldini has said. So often severe and authoritarian with his players, the coach knew to this time use humour.
“He stood up and shouted: ‘Anyone who is scared shouldn’t bother getting off the bus.’ Then he sat down and pretended to be frightened. We all burst into laughter and the tension evaporated.”
That might have helped Milan as they built up to kick-off but Rocco knew it would not be enough over the course of the entire game. Ultimately, his squad were intimidated by Benfica because they were inferior.
The Portuguese side had proven their lasting their quality not only by lifting the European Cup in successive years, but by proactively going toe to toe with the competition’s benchmark sides. There was no luck of the draw. Benfica admirably went for the win. In the 1962 final, they beat Real Madrid 5-3. A year later, they defeated the only other side to eliminate Real in Europe, Barcelona.
Moreover, the team were at the forefront of football’s dominant attacking philosophy at that point. Previous manager Bela Guttmann had been at Sao Paolo in 1957, directly influencing the Brazilian side that would win the 1958 World Cup in such vibrant fashion. With Guttmann taking that approach on further at Benfica, it could even be argued that they represented the culmination of that era of attacking football in continental club football. The 1962 final against Real Madrid certainly represented it, finishing 5-3 and bringing together all that had been great about the first seven years of the competition: its two best teams and only champions; glorious attacking football and great players fully applying their talent.
Although Guttmann departed in controversial fashion immediately after that victory, to be replaced by Chilean Fernando Riera, Eusebio would later argue the team was so intensely integrated by that point that any manager was irrelevant.
Rocco would have to prove otherwise. Realising that it would only tempt defeat to take on Benfica on equal footing, the Milan coach tipped the balance. He invoked “the right of the weak”. Although Paolo Barison had scored six goals from the right flank en route to the final – with three of them genuinely important strikes – he was dropped for the more functional Pivatelli. The squad were surprised, primarily because the 30-year-old’s career as a forward had faded and he was now only intermittently used as a defensive option. Now, he would have the most important defensive job of all: to track back and stop Coluna at left-half.
The scale of the challenge was emphasised by how quickly the playmaker seized a hold of the game. Although Benfica were initially hemmed by Milan’s abrasive attitude, it was an 11th-minute drive and long shot from Coluna that characteristically brought them back into the match. For the first time, Milan were pinned back and suddenly forced to re-assess how open they’d been.
Within seven minutes, those pre-game fears had been borne out. Shortly after the effervescent Antonio Simoes had started to unravel the Milan defence with an intricate run, the rest of the Benfica attack prised them apart.
Collecting a loose ball in his own half, Coluna immediately flicked the ball forward to Jose Antonio Torres. The six-foot-three forward controlled the pass at mid-height before poking it on for Eusebio in one movement. From there, about 35 yards from goal, the forward displayed his devastating acceleration to tear away from two Milan defenders. Every stride only opened up more space, until Eusebio was left to angle the ball in off the inside off the post.
The entire move was the perfect combination of poise, power and precision, taking just nine seconds to go from Coluna’s right boot to the back of the net. And, for the next 10 minutes or so, Benfica were buoyant, bouncing the ball around the pitch with joyful ease. One swift interchange reflected the attacking integration that Guttmann had worked so hard to develop. Much like for the opening goal, Milan were struggling to keep up and in danger of being swept away.
It was around that point the game saw its first key change, but not from Rocco. Although the 3pm Wednesday kick-off time had brought the Wembley crowd down to just 45,700, the noise made it impossible for the Milan players to hear any instructions from the bench. So, they took matters into their own hands. In truth, it wasn’t entirely without authorisation. As domineering as Rocco so often came across, he placed great trust in his senior players. A group consisting of Rivera, Maldini and Giovanni Trapattoni formed the coach’s ‘internal commission’, who he would regularly consult before games. It was also telling how many of Rocco’s players, in contrast to Helenio Herrera’s, succeeded in management. At a fraught stage of the 1963 final, they would illustrate why. Maldini told Trapattoni to take over the job of marking Eusebio from the ailing Victor Benitez.
In the previous season’s final, the then 20-year-old forward had signalled his ascension as European football’s dominant star by besting both Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano to score the double that won the trophy. Di Stefano handing Eusebio his shirt after the game was seen as a symbolic passing of the torch. A year on, there seemed no one either on the continent or that final to match him in terms of box-office quality or basic talent.
Trapattoni, at the least, began to match his every movement. Conspicuously, after 29 minutes, Eusebio was left limping and requiring treatment. It marked another shift. Rivera also made his mark on Coluna, stealing the ball before nutmegging a defender. Milan began what was probably their best period of the game, pummelling Pereira’s goal and forcing him into all manner of flaps… but with no end product. At that stage, Altafini was enduring a miserable afternoon. On 35 minutes, defender Mario David hooked a hugely inviting ball across the face of goal, which seemed to only require a touch. Instead, Altafini completely missed it, compounding the error with the awkward manner in which tried to lift his right leg to finish it. It was not the movement of a confident forward. Altafini could immediately be seen holding his hands up to winger Bruno Mora.
Although the forward would go onto become the fourth highest scorer in Serie A history, his reputation was rarely beyond reproach. On first taking over at Milan in 1961, Rocco publicly railed against Altafini more than any player other than Jimmy Greaves. The coach felt the duo were disconnected from the rest of his developing system, and unwilling to work for it.
“These two need to understand,” Rocco once bellowed, “that during a football game you get kicked and not just well paid.”
To a degree, the dilemma further displayed the manager’s fundamental approach to the game. Bestowed with two of the game’s greatest ever goalscorers, he sought to force them into a system rather than facilitate their main ability. It failed to function, with Milan dropping to seventh in the table by November of the 1961-62 season.
To his credit, Rocco eventually found a solution. As fed up with the unhappy Greaves’ indiscipline off the pitch as well as on it, the coach replaced the English forward with Brazilian passer Dino Sani. Altafini was spared. In theory, the move represented another regressive step, given how it involved the use of another midfielder at the expense of a forward. In practice, it immediately gave Milan balance and unlocked their attack. From Sani’s debut against Juventus, Milan took 31 points from the next 34 available to win the title. There was suddenly a clear line from Sani through Rivera to Altafini. In that match against Juve, the forward scored four goals in a 5-1 win.
By the 50th minute of the 1963 final, though, Altafini had already squandered four glorious chances. On the stroke of half-time, he followed the miss from the David cross by heading straight at Pereira from just yards out. Two minutes after the break, he drove wildly across goal. Moments later, he somehow put the ball over from just under the bar.
It was because of occasional wastefulness like that Brera nicknamed Altafini ‘Conileone’: he supposedly combined the weakness of a rabbit, coniglio, with the fierceness of a lion – leone.
This match at Wembley would sum up that contradiction, even if it would also finally banish the accusation that he never produced in big games. Because, out of nothing, Altafini equalised. Or, at least, out of a bad Benfica miss of their own.
On 57 minutes, Eusebio picked the ball up in his own half and started to power through Milan in much the same manner he did in the 1962 final against Real Madrid. Instead of cutting inside as in that game, though, he was forced to pass wide. The ball was floated across the box, only for Torres to head it back the same way with the goal at his mercy.
Reprieved, Milan eventually work the ball up the right through David. He lofts it inside for Rivera, who attempts to power it at goal. The shot is blocked but takes a lucky bounce for Altafini to opportunistically fire it into the corner. Milan were deservedly level.
As intermittently poor as Benfica had been by their standards, the goal couldn’t have been described as a true turning point. It wasn’t something the Portuguese were unaccustomed to, given how they normally intended on just outscoring opposition. The approach had worked in the previous two finals.
In 1962 in Amsterdam, they had suffered the supposedly psychological blow of Puskas putting Real Madrid straight back into the lead after Benfica had pulled back a 2-0 deficit, only to still win 5-3. In 1961 in Berne, they recovered from an early Sandor Kocsis header to defeat a brilliant Barcelona 3-2.
Coluna had scored clutch long-range shots in both of those finals and was now similarly attempting to alter the course of this one. Although Eusebio personified that Benfica team through his goals, his Mozambican compatriot undeniably powered them. In fact, it was arguably the arrival of the young forward in 1961 that allowed Coluna to truly flourish. The transfer meant Guttmann could move the playmaker back to left-half, from where he had even more scope to dictate games with his precision and influence from deep. Rocco recognised this more than anyone, explaining the surprising Pivatelli decision. “He had practical intelligence, common sense and was extremely intuitive,” Rivera later said. “He always knew where the least expected danger would come from.”
It was well inside his own half, about a minute after Altafini’s equaliser, that Coluna proactively intercepted a Pivatelli pass and strode forward.
As the Benfica number-six raced away to power through one of the gaps that were so prevalent in European football of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pivatelli immediately sought to close it – just as he’d been trying all afternoon.
At the moment the Milan player reached, though, Coluna evasively and intelligently poked the ball away. In full flight, he was about to force a propitious three-on-two. Until, Pivatelli reduced it all to one kick.
The Italian lifted his leg and sent Coluna crashing to the ground. The action of the trip itself seemed minimal, almost innocuous. The consequences were both instant and immense.
Most conspicuously, it took Coluna a few moments to get up before he had to be helped off the pitch with a broken foot.
The injury didn’t appear to immediately affect Benfica. They remained on top for the next few minutes, with Simoes seeing a lot of the ball down the left. For all their charges, though, there were no actual chances; no one to suddenly open up all that increasingly enclosed space around the Milan box.
The offset, of course, was vast tracts at the other end of the pitch. On 65 minutes, Milan gave Benfica something of a warning about them, as Altafini flicked Mora through to bring a save from Pereira. That warning was not heeded.
With the Portuguese side pushing forward moments later, Rivera stole the ball in the centre-circle, deftly set himself up and threaded a fine through ball for Altafini. One on one with Pereira, the Brazilian – perhaps inevitably – saw his first effort saved. There was nothing to stop him finishing the follow-up. Milan, for the first time, were ahead.
Coluna has remained indignant about the entire incident ever since, at least right up to an interview with Ben Lyttleton in 2004.
“I ran past him but he chased me, fouled me from behind and broke my foot,” he said. Perhaps more interestingly, the playmaker thought Trapattoni was responsible.
“I never spoke to Trapattoni again, not even when he was managing Benfica in 2004-05. Nothing. I don’t want to talk to him again. He meant to do that. After the game [in 1987], an Italian TV station invited me to go to Milan to meet him live on a TV show.
“Trapattoni never showed up. This proved me that he really wanted to injure me.”
While Trapattoni evidently got unfair blame for that foul, he deserves a lot of credit for the effectiveness of Milan’s defending thereafter. At one crucial juncture, the left-half put in a cast-iron – but entirely clean – challenge on Joaquim Santana that completely ended a Benfica attack in the Italian box and allowed his side to keep the ball. It wasn’t far off the perfect tackle.
Riera didn’t see all of Milan’s efforts that way. After the final, he was reportedly shocked at the “ungentlemanly” approach of Rocco’s side. That was somewhat surprising given that the Benfica coach had been in charge of the Chilean team involved in the notorious Battle of Santiago against Italy during the 1962 World Cup, with many of his players keenly trading blows.
Either way, the last 20 minutes of the Wembley final fell into a pattern that was to become all too familiar over the next decade and beyond: an Italian team resolutely defending; an opposition side in charge of the ball but vainly chasing the game.
Coluna would hobble on again about 10 minutes from the end, but to predictably no effect.
In Benfica’s two previous finals, the relentless willingness to attack created an element of doubt about the outcome right until the end. Here, there was no grand rally, no rousing late chance. Milan had resolutely closed out the most open era in European football.
With one kick, the entire climate had seemingly changed. Rocco’s club were European champions for the first time, also shifting the continent’s centre of power from Iberia to the burgeoning city of Milan. The trophy would spend four of seven seasons in the Giuseppe Meazza stadium.
Because, across the famous arena, Angelo Moratti was already looking on enviously at all Rocco had achieved. The Internazionale president was so fed up of failure that in 1961 he went and paid a record £35,000 for the best manager in the business, Helenio Herrera. It was part of a period of Italian football driven by what the English press called ‘the lure of the lira’. The excess off the pitch, however, was contrasted by the economy on it. Although Herrera’s Barcelona had been one of the highest scoring sides amid even the abandon of the late 1950s, he gradually realised the tactical canniness of Serie A required a much greater degree of calculation. Catenaccio was now too widespread. In October of the 1962-63 season, after a defeat at Atalanta to yet another inferior side successfully practicing Rocco’s style of pragmatism, the Argentine made his Faustian decision. Inter would convert to Catenaccio.
Characteristically, Herrera did not just adapt the philosophy. He took it to extremes.
Inter immediately produced what was statistically the meanest defence that Serie A had ever seen to win the title, and then a series of the lowest-scoring ties the European Cup had yet experienced. The 1965 final was a nadir, as Herrera’s side beat Benfica 1-0 with a performance of astounding austerity.
Away from the pitch, though, there was an even grimmer aspect to their glory. Evidence soon arose of Inter using their riches to fix European semi-finals, while Herrera was accused of doping players.
Unlike Pivatelli’s own evasion of the rules in that 1963 final, there could be no disputing the intentions there.
There could also be no denying that Catenaccio had started to condition the sport as a whole, even if most teams were never going to go as far as Inter.
That 1963 final marked the mid-point of a period in which the then frenzied sport cooled to a recognisable version of its current form. The World Cups either side provide a telling barometer. In 1958, the average goals per game had been a thrilling 3.6. By 1966, it was a more moderate and modern 2.6.
More than anything, Pivatelli’s foul brought all this to the fore. While aggressively targeting opposition players was nothing new, it had never quite been as systemised as this. There was deeper method to any malice.
The 1963 final did not just lose Coluna. Football lost some of its innocence.