'A Worthy Rival - how Ferguson's duel with Lippi and Juventus paved the way to European Glory'
When Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal in 1996 from Nagoya Grampus, few imagined that this professorial Frenchman would go toe to toe with Sir Alex Ferguson for years, in what was undoubtedly the most exhilarating battle for supremacy that the Premier League has ever seen. The face-offs went beyond the physical encounters of earlier Arsenal and United games. Both sides were graced with some of the finest players the league has seen in the form of Bergkamp, Henry, Overmars, Giggs and Scholes. The Keane and Vieira rivalry offering the unforgettable clash of captains. Until the emergence of Abramovich’s Chelsea, these two sides waged unforgettable war from the tunnel to the pitch, in what is largely considered the definitive battle of Ferguson’s reign in England. At the same time Wenger was settling in the Premier League, Ferguson was in the midst of a battle arguably just as influential elsewhere, the goal of which was the Champions League trophy. If the Old Trafford and Highbury showdowns satisfied the appetite of those addicted to the blood and thunder of English football, Ferguson’s battle on the continent was the thinking fan’s rivalry. Manchester United versus Juventus became the great continental duel of the era - when two managerial masters went head to head, Tuscan wine and Macallan whisky was flown between Turin and Manchester, and greats of the game sparred on the biggest stage.
Beginning in 1996/97, for three seasons in a row, Manchester United were drawn against Juventus in the Champions League.
The Italians set the benchmark for Ferguson, who saw them as the dragon that needed slaying if his own side were to believe themselves capable of conquering Europe. After a couple of humbling seasons in the competition, followed by a return to the Uefa Cup for 1995/96, United re-entered the Champions League in 1996, with Ferguson’s young team well settled, spearheaded by Eric Cantona and no longer restricted by Uefa’s ‘foreigner rule’, which had previously meant only 3 non-domestic players could be picked. Ferguson had his eyes firmly set on Europe after 3 domestic titles in 4 years. When he was drawn against Marcello Lippi’s brilliant Juventus side in the group stage, it marked the start of a battle between two of the games most respected heads, and two of the 90’s greatest sides. Ferguson would later remark on the contrast of their first meeting, Lippi in Italian leather smoking a Cuban, calm and collected, Ferguson frantic on the touchline. It is hard to imagine the Ferguson we know today needing to look up to any manager, but in the mid-nineties, Lippi was that man.
Marcello Lippi had two spells in charge of Juventus from 1994-1999 and 2001-2004.
Juventus entered the 96/97 European season as reigning champions, having beaten Ajax’s brilliant side on penalties in the 96 final. Lippi oversaw a team of phenomenal talent. Conte, Boksic, Del Piero, Vieri, Zidane and Deschamps just a flavour of the best squad in Europe. United were largely composed of the same ‘fledglings’ that had left so much egg on Alan Hansen’s face in winning the double, but Ferguson had never made it past the second round in the Champions League. Completing the group were Rapid Vienna and Turkish champions Fenerbahce. When the sides met for matchday one at the Stadio Delle Alpi in September, the game was sandwiched between United routing Leeds and Nottingham Forest, emphasising that while England was their land to rule, they had it all to prove on the continent. The United line up that night contained a young Neville and Butt, bolstered by Pallister, Johnsen, Cruyff and Poborsky and was simply no match for Juventus, who dominated for long spells before and after Alen Boksic’s deft chip over Peter Schmeichel. By the time they met again in matchday 5, Juventus had all but secured top spot, while United were looking over their shoulder at the Turks. Once again, for all of their endeavour, United couldn’t get near Juventus, who were simply a class apart. They managed to at least restrict them to only scoring from the penalty spot, with Del Piero converting. Both sides went through the group, and United made what many see as the club’s first real stamp on the revamped Champions League in the Quarter Finals, blitzing Porto 4-0 with some of the most free-flowing football of Ferguson’s reign, Cantona excelling in a free role with his best European performance for United. They met their end against eventual winners Borussia Dortmund in the semi-final, left to rue a host of missed chances in the home leg. Juventus pummelled two-time finalists Ajax in the semi-final, 6-2 on aggregate, but were no match for Dortmund in Munich, who ran out 3-1 winners at the Olympiastadion in one of the better finals of the decade.
Ferguson, heartened by the progress in reaching the semi-final, was stunned in the summer by the early retirement of Cantona. Things were made worse when Cantona’s replacement as captain, Roy Keane, tore his cruciate ligament in the first of his now much-discussed encounters with Alfe Inge Haaland. Teddy Sheringham was signed to replace Cantona’s creative forward presence, with Ferguson otherwise happy to trust a side which had been progressing so well. Juventus added the tireless Edgar Davids and master in the box, Filippo Inzaghi to their already supreme squad, although Boksic and Vieri were let go. Lippi and Ferguson were again drawn together in the group, joined this time by Feyenoord and Slovakian minnows FC Kosice. If the win over Porto was the first sign that United were ready to represent English football competitively for the first time since Liverpool’s mid-80s’ peak, the home tie against Juventus on the first night of October 1997, was evidence to Ferguson that his side had well and truly arrived at European football’s top table.
The game was arguably the greatest group stage game in the competition’s history. Perhaps learning from the mistakes of the previous season’s tentative efforts, Ferguson trusted his side to take the game to Juventus, with Sheringham and Solskjaer starting up front. Old Trafford was rocking under the floodlights as the Champions League theme tune rang around the stadium, but less than sixty seconds in, the only noise to be heard was coming from the pocket of Juve supporters, as Del Piero brilliantly dummied Schmeichel before slotting into an empty net. Sheringham equalised from a Giggs cross, the Welshman so often at his exhilarating best on European nights, and when Didier Deschamps saw red after 66 minutes, United sensed their chance to finally topple their masters. Paul Scholes scored the second, rounding Peruzzi, before Giggs exploded into the area with a minute left and lashed an unstoppable strike into the top corner. Zidane pulled one back in stoppage time with a trademark free kick, but at the final whistle it was Ferguson who stood triumphant.
Highlights from Manchester United's 3-2 win over Juventus in the 1997/98 Champions League group stages.
It is tempting to imagine the two football intellectuals in the Scots’ office post-match, conversing in French as they did, clouded by Lippi’s cigar smoke, clinking glasses of Tignanello while the Italian welcomed Ferguson to the elite.
Speaking to the media, Ferguson was elated, saying that the win showed just how far his team had come. By the time they met again on the final day, United had already won the group, and a late Inzaghi goal settled a drab affair. Once again though, United fell short, losing on away goals to Monaco in the quarter-final, the French side’s goal scored by future Juve man David Trezeguet. Juventus, yet again, made the final, this time losing to Real Madrid in Amsterdam, after putting 6 goals past Monaco over two legs.
Having topped the group so convincingly, only to falter yet again in the knockout stages, while also being pipped to the title by Wenger’s Arsenal, Ferguson was moved to decisive action. He brought in Jaap Stam who had impressed at the World Cup in France for Holland. Dwight Yorke came from Aston Villa after a protracted transfer saga, adding guile to the forward line, and former United tormentor in Europe, Jesper Blomqvist arrived from Parma, to add depth and versatility. Equally as important were the returns from injury of Roy Keane and Andy Cole. It is often remarked that Ferguson’s brilliance came in his ability to refresh his squad, a conveyor belt of talent emerging to blend with well-chosen signings to minimise the amount of time in transition. For all his undoubted genius, this was perhaps Lippi’s failing at Juventus, trusting the side that had reached three consecutive Champions League finals and won two Italian titles in a row, with Del Piero and Zidane establishing themselves as two of the best players in the world. Unfortunately for Lippi, the lack of business in the summer of 98 backfired terribly. Del Piero badly injured his knee early in the season and Zidane’s year was plagued by injury after guiding France to the World Cup. Juve had an appalling start to the season, before four losses in five games in winter led to the great Lippi’s announcement that he would step down in summer. As it happened, he didn’t last that long, ousted in February and replaced by Carlo Ancelotti. It was an inglorious end to his reign, where he had firmly established Juventus as one of Europe’s best clubs.
United’s 98/99 season needs no retelling. By the time the sides were drawn together in the semi-final, Ferguson’s side had the treble in their sights. It was fitting that if Ferguson were to finally break through the ceiling and reach a Champions League final, it would be Juventus he had to overcome, the only shame being that the man he so respected was no longer in the opposition dugout. Despite the language barrier, Lippi would later liken Ferguson to a brother and the men’s familiarity on the touchline was missed. Juventus arrived in the semi-finals by way of a scare against Greek side Olympiacos, while United had seen off Juventus’ bitter rivals Inter Milan. The Italians arrived at Old Trafford somewhat rejuvenated under Ancelotti. As is so often the case in latter stages of tournaments, form went out the window, with Juventus – chasing a fourth successive final- taking early control. Deschamps, Davids and Zidane controlled the opening exchanges and it was a slick Davids pass that found skipper Antonio Conte in the box, who slotted home expertly and celebrated with all the exuberance Chelsea fans would come to know well. It took until the second half for United to fashion a meaningful chance, with Juve happy to sit back and protect their lead. A clear penalty was denied and Scholes missed a sitter, before Sheringham deflected a Keane shot in, only to be flagged for offside. Eventually the Italian resistance broke, as so often that season, United struck late, Ryan Giggs the hero, lashing into the roof of the net from close range to give United a fighting chance.
The second leg came two weeks later, one week after Giggs has scored his dramatic extra time solo effort against Arsenal in the FA Cup semi-final. It would prove to be the last meeting of the two sides until the 2002/2003 competition, and was the greatest of all 6 battles of the era. Inzaghi looked to have put Juventus out of sight with two goals inside eleven minutes. Roy Keane pulled one back before earning the now infamous yellow that would see him miss the final and turning in a masterful captain’s performance, though Keane himself argues that the dominance of his display has been embellished through the years. When Dwight Yorke met a Beckham cross with a diving header before half time, United were suddenly the ones in charge. With eyes only for the final, fans of the time probably didn’t consider that they may have been witnessing the last battle of two great sides. Schmeichel, Beckham, Keane, Scholes and Yorke, having it out with Zidane, Davids, Deschamps and Inzaghi. Inzaghi thought he’d won it, but was correctly ruled offside and with time running out, Schmeichel’s long clearance was misread by the Juve defence. Yorke stole in and was hauled down by Peruzzi, but before the ref could signal for a penalty, Andy Cole had swept the loose ball into an empty net and United, and Ferguson, were finally on the way to the final. They would of course, go on to dramatically seal the treble against Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp.
Highlights from the second leg of the 1999 Champions League Semi-Final.
United’s European success was made possible by the mid-nineties rivalry with Juventus, which shaped Ferguson’s side and tactics, refining his style on the continental stage, as he slowly chipped away at Signor Lippi’s magnificent Juve. Be it Messi and Ronaldo, Keane and Vieira or Boca Juniors and River Plate, every great player or side needs a worthy rival with which to do battle. For Ferguson, it was Lippi’s Juventus that set the standard he strived to reach. Without Messi, would Ronaldo have felt so compelled to his relentless pursuit of brilliance? Without Vieira, would Keane have brought such an intensity to those epic Premier League clashes? And without the cigar smoking Lippi and the brilliant side he’d built, would Ferguson have ever conquered Europe?
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