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A Tactical History Of Juventus In The Champions League Final

Ahead of Juventus’s enticing Champions League final clash with Barcelona this Saturday, Tactical Calcio takes a look back at the Bianconeri’s past final experiences from a tactical perspective. Here, in the second of a two-part series, we assess their performances in previous Champions League finals.

1996: Ajax 1-1 Juventus (2-4 on penalties)

The European Cup was no longer, the Champions League had been born and, just as they had done in their first European Cup final, Juventus would face Ajax in their first final since the re-brand. The match would take place in Rome.

This Ajax were much different to that of the Total Football era, however. Under Louis van Gaal’s management, the emphasis was on rigorous adherence to the system, something that made them extremely effective but also meant they were less loved than their artistic forebears. In fairness, the comparison is a tough one. Almost anything would look dull and dreary when held up against the blazing light of Total Football.

louis van gaal

Van Gaal’s (R) Ajax weren’t as loved as their forebears.

Under van Gaal’s stewardship Ajax were an unmitigated success and had won the Champions League in 1995 to certify their quality. Juventus – now under the auspices of Marcello Lippi – were only at the beginning of their own period of high achievement.

In his first year Lippi had guided the Bianconeri to their first scudetto in eight years. Now at the end of his second season at the helm, his team had made the Champions League final; clear progress was being made. He had arrived at the Stadio delle Alpi with the aim of re-structuring the team. In this vein he would make the bold decision to dispense with Roberto Baggio, selling The Divine Ponytail to AC Milan for a £6.8 million fee. Alessandro Del Piero would inherit his number 10 shirt.

Like Rinus Michels and Stefan Kovacs’ Ajax, van Gaal’s team lined up in a 4-3-3 system, but there was not quite so much positional fluidity as there had been within this same formation in the 1960s and ‘70s. Within van Gaal’s system, players were asked to stick to specific individual roles. One of the centre-backs would push forward into midfield, occasionally forming a diamond and temporarily altering the formation to a 3-4-3. The wingers, meanwhile, were expected to stick to their respective wings, while the midfielders behind them were told not to overlap so as not to crowd space and leave their defence exposed.

This more restrictive movement arguably played into Juventus’ hands, as Lippi had devised a gameplan built upon intense pressing in every area of the pitch. He too utilised a 4-3-3 formation though, unlike van Gaal’s, possession was not a core aim. Lippi’s version was more reactive and defensively aggressive.

He certainly had the players for the task. On the right of the midfield was Antonio Conte, a neckless, voracious bull of a player, while on the left was tenacious Frenchman Didier Deschamps. Up front, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Del Piero had the pace and durability to put pressure on the Ajax defence, while full-backs Moreno Torricelli and Gianluca Pessotto were extremely hard working. As good as Ajax were on the ball, Juventus offered them very few obvious outlets.

juve ajax 96

Juventus’ pressing limited Ajax’s passing options.

On 13 minutes the pressure paid off, with Ravanelli latching on to a poor headed backpass from Frank de Boer to sneak past Edwin van der Sar and slide the ball into an empty net from a tight angle. Seven minutes later the potential pitfalls of their pressing game were exposed, however. As several Juventus players crowded Jari Litmanen on the halfway line, space was left in behind for the Finn to exploit. That he did, picking out Finidi George, who in turn crossed for Kiki Musampa to fire straight at Angelo Peruzzi.

That was one of very few moments when Lippi’s strategy looked like a mistake. Generally, Ajax were contained and harangued, unable to get a grip on the match. That didn’t stop them from equalising from a set piece however, with Peruzzi punching a free-kick to the feet of Litmanen, who placed beyond him on 41 minutes.

Towards the end of the second half Juve’s attacking spearhead Gianluca Vialli nearly won the match on two separate occasions, hitting the bar and the sidenetting. The 1-1 final score beckoned extra-time, which itself turned into penalties thanks to more chances spurned. There, Edgar Davids missed against the club he would later join, while Juve converted all of their spot-kicks with confidence and accuracy. The trophy was won on the back of a penalty from Vladimir Jugovic, who found the bottom left corner without blinking. Juventus held the Champions League aloft in Italy’s capital city.

1997: Dortmund 3-1 Juventus

The summer of 1996 saw Gianluca Vialli descend upon London for his career swansong, while Fabrizio Ravanelli also left Turin to test Premier League waters, arriving in Middlesbrough. The exits left a vacuum atop Juventus’ attack. The gaps were plugged by the signatures of Alen Boksic and Christian Vieri. Another signing that summer would prove to be more prominent in future, though.

Zinedine Zidane arrived from Bordeaux, a city known for its wines and – just like the liquid of the grape – he would get better with age. A player who combined a sophisticated touch with the raw brawn of a rugby back, he was an attacking midfielder seemingly without place; Lippi would have to alter his system for Zidane to fit. It wasn’t too much of a hardship.

Zidane's arrival meant a change in system for Juventus.

Zidane’s arrival meant a change in system for Juventus.

In Juve’s centenary year they brushed through the Champions League group stages and knockout rounds with an air of superiority that seemed to expound the idea that they were destined to retain their title. In the final they geared up for Borussia Dortmund, a side managed by Ottmar Hitzfeld, who had knocked out Manchester United in the semi-finals.

To bring Zidane into the fold, Lippi modified his forward line. Where in the past Vialli was at the forefront of attack with two outside forwards either side of him, now Zidane would play as a number 10 behind two centre-forwards. Juventus had gone from 4-3-3 to 4-3-1-2.

Zidane’s performance, or supposed lack of it, in the 1997 final is still spoken of to this day. Many point to a strict marking job administered by his unheralded Scottish opposite, Paul Lambert, but in reality he was simply boxed out by a very well-organised defensive unit. Stopping Zidane was never a one-man job and to suggest this was the case for Dortmund is foolish. Hitzfeld lined his BVB up in a 3-5-2 with two defensive midfielders – Paulo Sousa (formerly of Juve) and Lambert; a sweeper – Mathias Sammer and two centre-backs – Jurgen Kohler and Martin Kree. There was very little room for Zidane, and Juventus, to exploit.

Zidane struggled for space against an organised, packed Dortmund defence.

Zidane struggled for space against an organised, packed Dortmund defence.

Still, it was the Bianconeri who made the more impressive start and it was actually Dortmund’s number 10, Andreas Moller, who was crowded out. The strutting German was given no room to breathe by Deschamps, who was by now Lippi’s central enforcer of choice.

Despite the positive beginnings it was Juventus who went behind with Karl-Heinz Riedle bringing down a cross before driving home a low, hard strike. Within five minutes Riedle had doubled the tally for both he and his team, heading home an inswinging corner from Moller. Juve reacted well, with Zidane striking the post before Vieri had a goal harshly disallowed for handball, but went into half-time with a daunting assignment ahead of them.

In recognition of this, Lippi brought on Del Piero for right-back Sergio Porrini at the interval. Mark Iuliano went to right-back while Angelo Di Livio took up the left-back berth. Juve would attack in a 4-2-2-2 system, with Zidane and Del Piero scheming behind Vieri and Boksic.

After the hour mark the changes paid dividends, as Del Piero latched on to a dragged Boksic cross to tap home with a feint backheeled finish. It was a sublime moment of ingenuity that brought The Old Lady back into the tie. Hope was crushed within minutes however, as Dortmund substitute Lars Ricken lofted over Peruzzi after a slide-rule pass from Moller. Ricken sealed the win with his very first touch having come off the bench.

Dortmund’s wing-backs became more conservative as the match wore on, with Juventus failing to offer another glimpse of a comeback. The defeat was a surprise, a disappointment and – from a Juve perspective – a small injustice, all at once.

1998: Juventus 0-1 Real Madrid

Not intent on allowing the disappointment of a centenary year Champions League final defeat to overcome them, Lippi’s Juve pressed on the following season determined to re-establish themselves as the might of European football. The headline purchase of 1997 was their signing of Dutch pitbull Edgar Davids from AC Milan, where he had spent 18 unhappy months. Davids added mettle to a midfield three that would provide the solid foundational platform from which Zidane’s toes were granted license to twinkle.

Up front, there was no longer a Boksic-Vieri partnership. As had Roberto Baggio before him, Vieri did not see eye to eye with coach Lippi and jetted off to Madrid to sign with Atletico. Boksic, simply, was considered not up to scratch. His three league goals in his one and only season were deemed unproductive and the Croat returned to Lazio, where he created fonder memories.

Juventus finished behind Manchester United in the Champions League group stage but that wouldn’t stunt their forward march. Eventually they had foraged a path to their third consecutive final, where they would meet the illustrious Real Madrid in a match packed with international stars.

Madrid’s 4-3-3 formation came for the most part in liquid form. Clarence Seedorf was nominally one of the three central midfielders, though at different times he turned up on each side of the pitch depending on his whim. Predrag Mijatovic and Raul Gonzalez were apparently two of the three forwards, though they floated behind Fernando Morientes.

Juve’s more compact, narrow back four and feisty midfield trident was enough of a base to see them get the better of the central battle, though they had particular difficulty pinning down Mijatovic. On 26 minutes the slick Montenegrin skipped past Torricelli before playing in Raul, who found the side-netting with his shot.

Mijatovic caused Juve headaches with his movement.

Mijatovic caused Juve headaches with his movement.

At the back for the Spaniards, Fernando Hierro was doing his utmost to marshal Del Piero but Zidane was proving harder to track, he was at his elegant best. He didn’t just look in control of his own performance, but as if he had the entire match at his feet. Davids’ bustling runs from deep were causing issues of a different nature; his blockbuster left foot could not be permitted near the penalty area at risk of conceding.

A lively first-half didn’t cause nets to bulge, but within 20 minutes of the re-start a deflected Roberto Carlos strike broke to Mijatovic, who rounded Peruzzi and finished to score a goal that would clinch the title for Real Madrid. Bringing on Alessio Tacchinardi for Di Livio at the break may have quietened Mijatovic outside of the box, but once inside it he was as dangerous as ever.

Mijatovic (R) prepares to crown an excellent performance with a winning goal.

Mijatovic (R) prepares to crown an excellent performance with a winning goal.

The weaving slaloms of Del Piero forced an opening for Filippo Inzaghi on 67 minutes, but ‘Super Pippo’ put his shot wide from a short distance, an inexcusable error coming from a marksman who prided himself on efficacy.

Juve couldn’t find an equaliser as the match simmered just below boiling point. A series of niggles caused the temperature to heighten, but Madrid hung on to end 32 years of torment – the time passed since they had last won the European Cup.

2003: AC Milan 0-0 Juventus (3-2 on penalties)

Marcello Lippi left Juventus in 1999 only to return in 2001, taking over from Carlo Ancelotti, who became both Lippi’s successor and predecessor in the process. From there, Ancelotti quickly took up the reigns at AC Milan. Juventus qualified for the 2002/03 Champions League as Italian champions, though under the new rules of the competition Milan, who had finished fourth in Serie A, were also able to qualify. The two teams eventually met in the final at Old Trafford, having between them seen off the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Inter Milan.

The main storylines in the build-up to the match concerned the suspension of Juve’s Czech sensation Pavel Nedved due to an accumulation of yellow cards, the managerial rivalry of Lippi and Ancelotti, and the fact that this was the first all-Italian Champions League final. Once the match had kicked off however, the main theme became the inability of Juventus’ flat midfield four to cope with Milan’s diamond.

At the tip of the Rossoneri diamond was Portuguese maestro Rui Costa, a player who glided across the pitch in a lustrous trail of shimmies and nonchalant passes. His carefree demeanour belied an unremitting creator of scoring chances, from which Milan’s strike pairing of Andriy Shevchenko and Pippo Inzaghi hoped to profit.

Costa found space between Juventus’ lines, picking up the ball beyond the midfield to drive at the Bianconeri defence. On 10 minutes there was a glowing example of this, with Costa finding Inzaghi on the left side of the box. The former Juve poacher cut a cross back across the penalty area for Shevchenko to finish with the help of a deflection off Ciro Ferrara. The Ukrainian celebrated with abandon only to turn and see a raised flag. The game remained goalless.

Lippi's flat 4-4-2 had difficulty against Ancelotti's 4-3-1-2.

Lippi’s flat 4-4-2 had difficulty against Ancelotti’s 4-3-1-2.

Within the next 10 minutes, Gianluigi Buffon was required to make a fantastic reflex save, getting low to his left-hand side to deny an Inzagi header from a Seedorf cross as Lippi’s 4-4-2 was centrally overran by Ancelotti’s 4-3-1-2.

Gianluca Zambrotta’s ceaseless running was a real source of width down the left, something Juventus otherwise lacked. Lippi’s decision to pick Paolo Montero at left-back had been a missed opportunity, with Juve failing to act on Milan’s lack of width in midfield.

Juventus were unable to make a real impact on the match until late in the first-half, with Del Piero at the heart of the action as expected. First he ran on to a Mauro Camoranesi through-ball only to have his shot denied, before he had an overhead kick cross scrambled clear by the intelligently positioned Alessandro Nesta.

Juventus were overran in midfield.

Juventus were overran in midfield by Milan’s diamond.

Camoranesi was substituted at half-time, making way for the more experienced Conte as Juve aimed to get a grip on the midfield, which had offered little protection to a fairly rigid defence in the first 45 minutes. Conte was heavily involved from the moment he entered the field, latching on to a wonderful Del Piero cross to crash a diving header against the Milan bar. It was a warning shot from a Juventus side who had clearly been admonished by Lippi at half-time. Milan’s intricate passing and higher tempo had been too much in the first-half, but now at least Juve were competing.

The second-half was a tense affair. The further the match went with the deadlock remaining unbroken the risk associated with each move bore an increasingly heavy weight. The match ended 0-0 in normal time, with Milan perhaps having the slightly better chances to win it, though it was one of the more entertaining goalless draws in the history of major European finals.

In extra time, attacks were suppressed by early fouls, dogged marking and resolute defending as neither team gave an inch. Despite the enticement of a silver goal, the 2003 final descended into a penalty shoot-out. Once there the two ‘keepers, Buffon and Dida, engaged in a ferociously competitive game of one-upmanship: only two of the opening seven kicks hit the net. Juve missed more than Milan, though, and Shevchenko sealed the cup with the winning strike, then celebrated just as he had done around 115 minutes previously.

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