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The 2003 Champions League final is usually seen as the gold standard of bad, big football occasions.
The all-Italian affair between Milan and Juventus ended 0-0 after 120 minutes – one of just four from the 64 Champions League and European Cup finals to finish goalless – and was decided on penalties, Andriy Shevchenko ultimately scoring the winning kick for Milan.
The game has gained a reputation as one of the dullest finals in memory, but is that fair? On the Totally Football Show this week, we looked back on that game and wondered if it was as bad as legend would have it. Was it, as Duncan Alexander posited, as bad as Liverpool v Tottenham in 2019?
“It wasn’t great, by any means,” said James Horncastle. “[But] I thought the final in 2001 between Bayern and Valencia was a worse spectacle than this one. It looks great on TV – they cut the grass in the centre circle so it looked like the Champions League ball.
“It’s not a bad game. Shevchenko has a goal ruled out after nine minutes, which is debatable: it was one of those ones where you have two players offside who were deemed to be interfering with the goalkeeper’s line of sight.
“Buffon is one of the stories of this tournament, as is Casillas: you have two young goalkeepers being brilliant throughout. [In the final Buffon] makes an unbelievable save from Pippo Inzaghi. The definition of a bullet header which looks like it’s destined to go in the back of the net.
“Juventus finished the first half quite strongly. Nesta, who was one of the best players on the pitch, takes the ball of Ciro Ferrara’s head after a bicycle kick from Del Piero. Antonio Conte – with significantly less hair on his head than he has now – comes on in the second-half and hits the bar with a diving header.
“The penalties themselves were quite dramatic in a) how bad they were, but b) there’s Buffon, who has been told by the media that the one flaw in your game is penalties, he saved the penalty in the semi-final from Figo, and he saves two here. Dida out-does him, but he makes three saves from awful penalties.”
Duncan Alexander chipped in with a topical reference: “Dida is also halfway to Barnard Castle for Paolo Montero’s penalty. He’s almost out of the six-yard box. It’s the most illegal penalty save I’ve ever seen.”
In a wider context, it’s probably worth remembering how important this game was for one of the men on the sidelines.
James Horncastle said: “This game was really important in the legacy that Carlo Ancelotti starts to build for himself with Milan. This was Ancelotti going up against his former club, Juventus, where he wasn’t considered a failure, but hadn’t met expectations. He’d lost the title on the final day in the rain in Perugia (in 2000). He’d won the Intertoto Cup but gone out of the UEFA Cup 4-0 to Celta Vigo. He wins the trophy that defined him as a player and a manager.
“This was a key game in Milan’s history, in the sense that they’d had a lot of instability over the previous three years. They’d sacked Alberto Zaccheroni, Cesare Maldini and Mauro Tassotti had done a little double-act for a while, Houllier-Evans style. Fatih Terim didn’t work out. It looked like that great era in the 1980s and 90s was over – in actual fact it was only just beginning again.
James Richardson summed things up:
“‘A pig can’t be a manager’, which was the banner Juve fans welcomed him with when he joined them as their manager. He was sacked by them in 2001 after finishing runner-up twice, he managed second place with Parma, he was Arrigo Sacchi’s assistant when Italy lost the 1994 World Cup final on penalties. Effectively, he was seen as the nearly man, but he went on to take Milan to three Champions League finals, winning two of them.”
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