Historical Football returns with a trip back to the summer of 1998. Milan were in tatters just four years after that demolition of Barcelona in the Champions League final. Consecutive mid-table finishes had somewhat tarnished the legacies of Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello and Silvio Berlusconi was left scratching his head at where to go…
It’s strange to think for younger generations that AC Milan have actually been this bad before. They were a second tier side when Berlusconi took over in the 1980s and by the mid 90s, they were struggling in mid-table with a number of exciting young players, that were signed for considerable money, faltering badly. The likes of Patrick Kluivert and Michael Reiziger had been shown the door alongside Capello after the disastrous 1997/98 season. So, where could Milan go from here? The answer, it turned out, was in Udine.
Udinese had been riding the crest of a wave under their exciting coach Alberto Zaccheroni. His 3-4-3 system was unique in Italy and had garnered a lot of success for Udinese in Serie A. A UEFA Cup spot in 1996/97 was followed up by a third place finish the following season as Italy began to take notice that Udinese were serious competition. Built on the goals of German international Oliver Bierhoff, Milan were already planning on signing Bierhoff and teammate Thomas Helveg that summer. With Capello gone, they took the plunge on not only the players but Zaccheroni as well.
Greeted by Adriano Galliani upon arrival, Zaccheroni asked the Milan CEO what was planned for the upcoming season. Rather infamously, Galliani gave him a blank sheet of paper. “They had not planned anything”, Zaccheroni remembers and he was tasked very simply of returning them to the Champions League that season. Milan were ready to back their new man in the transfer market and were very willing to splash the cash on a big name – none other than Lazio’s Croatian talisman Alen Boksic. Zaccheroni though was not impressed, saying later on:
“…I told Galliani I was not interested because I had information on his physical condition that was not the best…”
Zaccheroni’s information would prove to be correct but we’ll get to that. Bierhoff and Helveg were joined in Milan by a few other notable faces including Argentine defender Roberto Ayala from Napoli, goalkeeper Jens Lehmann from Schalke, Frenchman Bruno N’Gotty from PSG, defender Luigi Sala from Bari and winger Andres Guglielminpietro (Guly for short) from Gimnasia LP in Argentina.
Rated as outsiders once again, Milan’s season got off to a mixed start. Five wins, three draws and two defeats wasn’t setting the world alight but they were getting points on the board and getting results late on when they needed them. Bierhoff got off to a flyer with four in four but it was the late goals Maurizio Ganz in Piacenza, Demetrio Albertini in the derby against Inter and Leonardo in the 1-0 home win over Lazio that really gave Milan confidence. There were no capitulations this time, Zaccheroni had them fighting to the end to get results. A tight win over Fabio Capello’s Roma also helped confidence as they had taken seven from a possible twelve against sides in and around them.
The big issue for Milan was the performances of new number one Lehmann who was struggling horribly. He was at fault for Gabriel Batistuta’s hat trick at the San Siro in Milan’s first defeat of the season and only played five games before Zaccheroni benched him permanently. A hammering in Parma followed the Lazio win but that would prove to be the final slip-up in the first half of the season as Milan took all three points from Udinese before only getting a point with Juventus after Daniel Fonseca equalised late on for the Turin side. Milan’s record of eight wins, six draws and three defeats wasn’t exactly title winning pace but it had kept them in the mix despite Lazio beginning to storm away at the top.
Post-Christmas Milan began to grind out result after result – a last minute winner from Bruno N’Gotty in Bologna, a last minute equaliser by Ganz at home to Bari, a last minute own goal winner against Sampdoria – while the other sides around them began to stutter and fall. Injuries to other sides’ key men also helped an injury free Milan, the likes of Boksic, del Piero and Ronaldo big misses for sides that were struggling to find the results anymore. The runaway leaders Lazio were stuttering badly too with draws at Empoli and Cagliari really hampering them while a home draw with Milan gave the visitors the advantage.
As Lazio faltered in the run-in, Zaccheroni’s side began to turn on the style. Their only defeat at Roma was ignored quickly as they began to brush past teams Lazio were struggling against. Bierhoff’s goals were becoming crucial – a hat trick against Empoli, a double at Udinese, one at Vicenza – while others around him began to chip in more too. Ganz and Paolo Maldini got the goals in a comeback win against Parma while George Weah’s brace in Turin gave Milan their most important victory of the season with a 2-0 win at Juventus.
Lazio had seen their gap disappear to one point thanks to consecutive defeats to Roma and Juventus but it was their draw in Fiorentina that saw them lose the lead going into the final day. It turned out to be the fatal draw as, even though Marcelo Salas’ brace got them the win, goals from Guly and Bierhoff gave Milan the title in Perugia. It was a remarkable turnaround not just during the season but from a year previously. This was a Milan side that had finished tenth the previous season and was nowhere near the top of league and it had came from nowhere to snatch the title from Lazio at the death.
Much of the success can be attributed to the 20 goals of Bierhoff (bettered only by Batistuta and Udinese’s Marcio Amoroso). By far and away Milan’s top scorer that season, his goals were the difference maker in a league where one great goalscorer can be the difference between victory and defeat. Bierhoff contributed about a third of Milan’s goals in the league which is a huge amount. While others were lagging behind in numbers, the goals Milan did get were usually crucial ones. Leonardo’s ten included a last minute winner against Lazio while two of George Weah’s eight came in that massive victory at Juventus. Maurizio Ganz and Guly both got four important goals as well for Milan as they won their most surprising Scudetto ever.
Zaccheroni’s impact cannot be understated either. His 3-4-3 made Milan hard to beat and he had the right combination of flair and grit to ensure they were successful. The core of Maldini, Albertini, Costacurta and Ambrosini were superb while out wide, Helveg and Guly patrolled the flanks superbly. Up top, any combination of Weah, Leonardo, Bierhoff and Zvonimir Boban were lethal enough to scare any defence. It was a wonderful squad amongst a plethora of fine sides in Serie A at the time. What gave Milan the edge, according to Zaccheroni, “…was that there was no injury since Christmas…”.
This season proved to be the high point for a few people in the red and black. Zaccheroni struggled to take Milan to the next level as performances dropped with the added demand of the Champions League. Guly very quickly saw his career destroyed by injury while Bierhoff never quite reached the same goal scoring heights. Zaccheroni was gone before the end of the 2000/01 season as Milan slumped again but he did leave a lasting legacy when he signed a certain Andriy Shevchenko in 1999.
The 1998/99 season saw Serie A at its unpredictable and exciting finest. There might not have been many goals but the capitulation of sides like Juventus and Inter served to liven up the league while Lazio’s collapse and Milan’s climb gave the fans an exciting end to the season. It proved to be a bit of a false dawn for Milan but can the current side replicate the class of 1999? They’re in a similar situation with a new coach and some fresh faces to go with a solid core. It only takes a bit of luck in football sometimes.
- Zaccheroni MC: “In 1998-99…” – acmilan-magazine.com
- AC Milan: The Journey From Gli Immortali to I Meravigliosi – The Hard Tackle