Milan against the world: five of their greatest nights on the big stage | Milan
As Milan prepare for a Champions League quarter-final, we remember some of the best performances in their history
By Henry Bell for The Gentleman Ultra
Wed 12 Apr 2023 07.12 EDT
If Real Madrid are the undisputed kings of Europe, Milan must be the princes. They are streets ahead of other Italian clubs when it comes to winning continental trophies: seven European Cups, two Cup Winners’ Cups and five Super Cups sit in their vast trophy cabinet.
Spiritually, they feel like a European club. They were founded by an Englishman – hence the spelling of their name – and were early adopters of continental football, competing outside Italy as early as 1938 in the Mitropa Cup and winning the Latin Cup in 1951.
Choosing just five nights from 85 years of continental football is difficult, but these Milan sides brought icons to their knees and dominated teams featuring SkinHugo Sánchez, Pep Guardiola and Cristiano Ronaldo, who were coached by legends such as Alex Ferguson and Johan Cruyff.
Milan 3-0 Manchester United, 2007
This match was a meeting of footballing masterminds. Ferguson was piecing together his third great Manchester United side and they were on a roll in the Champions Leaguehaving finished top of their group and dismantled Roma 7-1 at Old Trafford in the second leg of their quarter-final. United would go on to win the trophy the following year but 2007 belonged to Milan.
Carlo Ancelotti’s team, set up in his 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree formation, had lost the first leg of this semi-final 3-2 at Old Trafford, but they made easy work of United at San Siro. The midfield trio of Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini taught Paul Scholes, Darren Fletcher and new signing Michael Carrick a lesson in how to run a European tie, Gattuso also bullying Cristiano Ronaldo out of the game for good measure. With Clarence Seedorf and Kaká just in front of them and Filippo Inzaghi providing the finishing touches, Milan were on a mission. Two years after losing the 2005 final to Liverpool in the Miracle of Istanbul, they were not going to be stopped in their journey of redemption.
This Milan team possessed remarkable footballing intelligence all over the pitch (even without the injured Paolo Maldini) and Seedorf excelled in such company. He was imperious in this game – setting up Kaká’s opener and holding off most of the United defence before firing in Milan’s second.
A rainy evening created a slick passing surface and Milan’s precision with the ball was encapsulated in their third – an Ambrosini through ball released substitute Alberto Gilardino to end the tie. The 70,000 Milan fans could not have cared less about the weather. They were in fine voice at San Siro, sending their team off to Athens to beat Liverpool in the final and collect their seventh European Cup.
Milan 4-0 Barcelona, 1994
Johan Cruyff committed an act of sporting hubris in the buildup to the final when he said of Fabio Capello’s team: “They are nothing out of this world. They base their game on defence; we base ours on attack.” The Barcelona manager left the pitch in Athens in May 1994 humbled and humiliated by a complete Milan performance.
Capello had replaced Arrigo Sacchi in 1991 and won three league titles in a row. While not a philosopher like his predecessor – or his opponent in this final – Capello was a winner. His success was built on one of the greatest back fours of all time, but he also had some aces up his sleeve. One of them, his enigmatic No10 Dejan Savicevic, was the chief architect of Barcelona’s defeat.
Capello did not always see eye-to-eye with his mercurial playmaker but Savicevic, freed up by Marcel Desailly and Demetrio Albertini’s dominance in midfield, tore Barcelona apart. He set up Milan’s first with a devastating counterattack and scored their third, lobbing Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta from outside the box. It remains one of the all-time great goals in a European Cup final.
Barcelona played like a Dutch team but, unfortunately for the Catalans, they were more like the side that lost the 2010 World Cup final. Far from showing off their Total Football, Barça’s main contribution to the game was a series of appalling fouls. Miguel Ángel Nadal was particularly guilty of some horror tackles. After Desailly burst through to score Milan’s fourth in the 58th minute, Capello’s side generously took their foot off Barcelona’s throat. In the end, the result flattered Cruyff’s side.
Milan 5-0 Real Madrid, 1989
Milan delivered one of the greatest team performances of all time in the second leg of this European Cup semi-final. It was the magical culmination of Sacchi’s managerial genius and the world class Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard.
They were up against an excellent Real Madrid side that boasted the homegrown talents of Manolo Sanchís, Rafael Martín Vázquez, Míchel and Miguel Pardeza – collectively known as “La Quinta del Buitre” – and the prolific Mexican striker Hugo Sánchez. Real Madrid were in the middle of a run of five straight La Liga titles but they were no match for Sacchi’s pressing side, whose intricate moves had been worked out in precise detail in his now legendary coaching sessions.
The first leg in Madrid ended as a 1-1 draw, Sánchez opening the scoring before Van Basten equalised for the visitors. The second leg was a walkover. All five of Milan’s goals showcased different elements of their team.
They opened the scoring with a goal that required no tactical thinking, Ancelotti thundering the ball in with a 30-yard screamer. Rijkaard scored the second with a powerful header. Gullit headed in the third after a typical Sacchi triangular passing move. The fourth showed off the talent throughout the side: they passed the ball about in midfield until Rijkaard spotted an opening and launched a long-range pass to Gullit, who headed down for Van Basten to slam it home. Roberto Donadoni scored Milan’s fifth from a smartly worked short corner.
Sacchi had ended an era in Madrid while announcing Milan as a European powerhouse once more. Ever modest about his footballing achievements, Sacchi described this performance in his memoir as “art”. It’s hard to disagree.
Milan 4-2 Santos, 1963
The 1963 edition of the Intercontinental Cup gave fans the opportunity to see reigning champions Santos face a Milan side that contained the legendary Gianni Rivera as well as two World Cup-winning Brazilians: José Altafini and Amarildo.
The tie was billed as a battle of two great number 10s, and the Rivera v Pelé showdown did not disappoint. Milan took a 2-0 lead in the first half in Italy, Giovanni Trappatoni opening the scoring before Amarildo added the second. Pelé was not going to lie down that easily though. He pulled a goal back at the start of the second half, combining well with Zito and lashing a shot into the bottom corner. Rivera responded by laying on Milan’s third with a glorious 20-yard assist for Amarildo. The young Italian was not finished. He burst forward from the halfway line and provided another perfect long-range assist as Milan went 4-1 up.
Pelé had the last laugh though, scoring a penalty despite Amarildo’s best attempts to put him off. His late goal in Milan proved crucial. Santos won the return leg at the Maracanã 4–2 and went on to win a playoff two days later – even if there was some controversy about the refereeing. The trophy stayed in Brazil, but that first leg at San Siro remains one of the most glittering nights in Milan’s history.
Milan 5-0 Lille, 1951
The Latin Cup was a precursor to the Uefa competitions, pitting the champions of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy against each other. The competition was hosted at San Siro in the summer of 1951, with Italy represented by a Milan team that had just ended a 44-year wait for a league title.
Lajos Czeizler’s side contained the legendary Swedish trio Gre-No-Li: Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm. Gren and Nordahl played up front, with Liedholm controlling the game from midfield. Milan thrashed Atlético Madrid 4-1 to book their place in the final against Lille. Nordahl was the star on the night, scoring a hat-trick in a 5-0 win.
Italy had been given a taste of European football, with Milan leading the way. Daily paper The Gazzetta dello Sport devoted much of its front page to the gamedeclaring that Milan had won in “superb style”. Uefa does not officially recognise this nascent continental competition, but Milan’s two victories in 1951 and 1956 paved the way to the seven European Cups they won between 1963 and 2007.
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