Inter Milan 1989 – Italian football with a teutonic twist

SERIE A in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a fiercely competitive landscape with all-star line-ups comprising some of the world’s best players. Italy was a magnet for top talent, including Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten, Diego Maradona, Gianluca Vialli and Michael Laudrup, to name but a few. The rest of Europe just sat back and envied the Italian public, who were watching the greatest football on the planet.

AC Milan had won Serie A in 1988, fighting it out with Maradona’s Napoli, who had lifted their first Scudetto in 1987. Inter Milan were struggling to keep pace, but in the summer of 1988, they followed the example set by their San Siro neighbours of acquiring two or three players from the same country. Milan had three Dutchmen in the form of Gullit, Van Basten and, latterly, Frank Rijkaard. Inter went German, signing Lothar Matthäus and Andreas Brehme from Bayern Munich for over £ 4 million. A year later, they would sign Jürgen Klinsmann from VfB Stuttgart.

Talent

Inter also signed the sought-after midfielder Nicola Berti from Fiorentina, paying the equivalent of £ 3.33 million. He quickly developed a good understanding with Matthäus. The Nerazzurri were also trying to sign Porto’s Rabah Madjer, who had been instrumental in his club winning the European Cup in 1987. Madjer failed the medical and so Inter turned to 29 year-old Argentinian striker Ramon Diaz, also from Fiorentina. He was a technically gifted player who had a superb left foot. The fans loved him, but he stayed just one season with the club before moving to Monaco and then on to River Plate and finally, Yokohama Marinos. Bizarrely, he managed Oxford United between 2004 and 2005.

Inter had assembled a team that could square-up to AC Milan and Napoli, making the 1988-89 Serie A campaign difficult to forecast. Inter’s coach, Giovanni Trapattoni, was in his third season with the club and the pressure was on him to deliver after a disappointing 1987-88. AC Milan had charmed Europe with their Dutch-infused take on “total football”, a refreshing alternative to the Catenaccio of the 1960s and 1970s, and were about to dominate the European Cup with three triumphs in six seasons. As for Napoli, they had their Argentinian talisman, who was still in good shape, and their title team still had some mileage left in it.

The key to Inter’s revival in 1988 was really Matthäus, a strong midfielder who was considered to be one of the most complete players of his time. As well as excellent passing ability and tough tackling, he could unleash tremendous shots as he drove through to the penalty area. West Germany’s captain, Matthäus had won three Bundesliga titles in the previous four years but later said his success with Inter in 1988-89 was the greatest achievement of his club career.

Inter started their Serie A programme in exceptional form, going unbeaten until February – a total of 16 games without defeat. They beat AC Milan in the first Derby della Madonnina of the season, 1-0, thanks to a goal by Aldo Serena and held Napoli and Juventus. They conceded just five goals in those 16 games, keeping 11 clean sheets. Their defence was solid, with Walter Zenga in goal, arguably the best keeper in the world at the time. They also had Giuseppe Bergomi at the back, an accomplished full back or sweeper. Brehme, a penalty and free-kick expert, was at left back, a player who would go on to score the winning goal in the 1990 World Cup. He had been recommended to Inter president Erensto Pellegrini by former Inter forward Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Inter also had Riccardo Ferri at the heart of the defence, a tenacious player who was a specialist man-marker. Forwards didn’t like playing against Ferri and Marco van Basten called him the toughest central defender he faced during his career.

Inter’s first defeat was on February 12 in Florence, a see-saw seven-goal thriller which Fiorentina won 4-3. Inter were still on top, where they had been since the first league tables were compiled, but Napoli were breathing down their necks.

Trapattoni’s team remained focused, though, and won their next eight Serie A games, extending their lead to seven points by mid-April. Napoli had lost some of their impetus and after Inter thrashed Bologna 6-0, with Diaz and Serena on top form, they only had to beat Maradona and co. to clinch the title with four games to spare.

Consistency

The San Siro was heaving but was stunned by Napoli taking the lead through Careca. Inter turned the game around, however, and Matthäus scored the winner to claim Inter’s Scudetto amid scenes of ecstasy.

Three of the remaining four games were won, with Inter’s second defeat coming in the penultimate fixture against Torino. Only two sides came away from the San Siro with a point, AC Milan and Juventus and Inter’s margin of victory, 11 points, was a record for an 18-team, two points-for-a-win season.

What was the secret of Inter’s success? Consistent team selection was key – 11 players played more than 30 Serie A games and the team essentially picked itself. Their fast, powerful, a compelling mix of Italian flair and German determination, simply overran opponents. They also retained the traditional Italian qualities of an iron-clad defence and hence conceded just 19 goals in 34 games.

Inter lost their title in 1989-90 to Napoli, despite the arrival of Klinsmann, and surprisingly went out of the European Cup in the first round  to Sweden’s Malmö. The following season, they won the UEFA Cup, beating Roma in the final. Trapattoni left the club in the summer of 1991, joining Juventus. Matthäus, Brehme and Klinsmann all departed in 1992. Things were never quite the same again.

The investment in the German duo of Matthäus and Brehme paid off in 1989 and the team produced some stunning football on the way to the Serie A title. It was a golden, almost decadant time for the Italian game and a year later, one of football’s great nations hosted the World Cup. Inter’s German contingent would triumph again in different circumstances.

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA

 

Premature evaluation and Liverpool

EVEN AT this early stage, Liverpool’s current team, as exceptional as it is, is being prematurely labelled the club’s best ever side. There’s a degree of “presentism” about this claim, not least because if any club has a phenomenal list to choose from, it is Liverpool.

Liverpool are odd-on champions-elect this season but as yet, Jürgen Klopp’s team has won just a single prize, albeit a big one, in the form of the UEFA Champions League. Challengers for all-time honours have to be successful over a sustained period, the sort of timeframe that characterised Liverpool in the 1970s and 1980s.

Admittedly, Liverpool fans are desperate to place a modern-day team on a pedestal, but constant eulogising about the current team is a little ahead of its time. A year ago, Manchester City were being heralded as the greatest ever Premier League team, but would they call them that now? True excellence, the type that others benchmark themselves against, is more than one season of superb football.

Liverpool have not won the title yet and it is always possible in football that teams can collapse. Simon Fletcher of CCN made a bizarre comment when he said: “It is fitting then that the club’s first Premier League title will be claimed by a team that can justifiably be considered the greatest ever to play in the league.” This sounded more like marketing copy than a carefully considered opinion.

This is certainly the best Liverpool team since the last championship winning period of 1986-1990 when they won three league titles and two FA Cups. Perhaps that is why some people are getting over-zealous with their praise. The “drought” – for all the angst about the league, Liverpool have won 10 trophies in 30 years – is coming to an end and Liverpool fans are 150% behind the team that will take them back to the top. Anfield seems a far noisier place these days, arguably the most passionate crowd in England.

Richard Jolly, writing for the National, put it into perspective: “In one respect, Jurgen Klopp’s group cannot yet rival the feats of 1976-84, a nine-season spell that yielded four European Cups, a UEFA Cup, seven league titles and four League Cups, though not the Club World Cup that eluded them in an era when they took it less seriously.”

Jamie Carragher, former Liverpool defender and Champions League winner with the Reds, believed Liverpool are the best team in the world at present. Liverpool have certainly made the best ever start to a season with 64 points from 66 and Carragher says Klopp has transformed them from a team that produced edge of the seat football to consistent brilliance. He added that: “Liverpool are not buying superstars, they are making them.”

Jonathan Wilson, in the Guardian, said that statistically, this is likely to be Liverpool’s greatest season. He pointed out the only season where the club came close to their current points haul was 2018-19, when they didn’t actually win the title: “Statistics must always be considered in context.”

Wilson takes five past great teams from Liverpool’s history: 1965, 1974, 1978, 1988 and 2005 and lines them up against the Klopp side of today. If nothing else, this reminds us of a remarkable run, from 1963 through to 1990 (27 years!) when the club set its extraordinary high standards.

Turning to 2019-20, Wilson says: “This is a very great side, one that essentially updates the principles of Paisley’s best team, pressing opponents and then cutting them apart from rapid passing moves.”

Wilson rightly notes that the current financial structure of modern football has widened the gap between the top and bottom, and therefore, 95 points is easier to achieve than it was in the days of Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly and even Kenny Dalglish.

Unsurprisingly, the Manchester United camp struggle to concede that Liverpool are poised to become one of the truly great teams. Ole Gunnar Solskjær said Liverpool 2020 are still behind the United team of 1999 in which he played. “We showed we could cope with three tournaments…I am sure Liverpool can win all three, so let’s see in May. You have to do it again and again.”

Football London, predictably, lists the games that could end Liverpool’s unbeaten run and extinguish any hope of Arsenal’s “invincible” achievement being matched. “Liverpool have not only made it through 21 (now 22) matches of the Premier League this season without a defeat, they have done so winning 20 (now 21) of those games. It is hard to see a weakness in their team that can be exploited by their remaining foes in the topflight this season.”

One of the heroes of Liverpool’s glory days, Phil Thompson, told Sky Sports that he didn’t think they would match Arsenal 2004. “”I don’t think they will go unbeaten. I think there will be a hiccup along the way. Hopefully there won’t be too many games. The Invincibles was an astonishing season but they did draw more games than Liverpool have.”

Thompson, when comparing the Klopp side with those he played in, said: “We did it for nearly two decades. Greatness comes from doing this on a regular basis. If this team are going to be one of the greats, and bring it back after 30 years of hurt, it’ll be a most wonderful thing – but then they need to keep on doing it.”

Evaluation of a team is a process that comes with hindsight, not while history is in progress. Liverpool’s reputation over the decades has created a rich club history, the very thing their fans claim some opponents do not have. Therefore, judging how good the current Liverpool team versus other outstanding sides will only be truly accurate when its achievements can be assessed – not based on potential acquisition of silverware.

Sources: The Guardian, CCN, Football365, The National, Football London, Daily Mirror.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

Great Reputations: Hellas Verona 1985 – a romantic tale to rival Shakespeare

Preben Elkjaer Larsen, Verona

MODERN football has made it nigh on impossible for provincial teams to win major prizes. As the game’s chief beneficiaries are mostly metropolitan clubs from large cities, the possibility of an unexpected championship triumph becomes beyond rare.

In Italy, Juventus from Turin and the Milanese clubs have invariably dominated Serie A, but very rarely, a smaller club has come to the fore. But if you take the clubs from Milan, Turin and Rome, along with Napoli, out of the equation, there have been only four Italian champions in the modern game from elsewhere – Fiorentina (1969), Cagliari (1970), Verona (1985) and Sampdoria (1991).

In 1984-85, Hellas Verona won their only scudetto, in an era when Serie A had some outstanding players from home and abroad. For a short while, the football club outshone the tourist trade in a city more known for its romantic links with Shakespeare and the tale of Romeo and Juliet.

That list of luminaries included Diego Maradona, who landed amid a blaze of publicity in the summer of 1984 as he sought refuge from his unhappy spell with Barcelona. Other clubs had their trophy acquisitions, such as Michel Platini at Juventus, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge at Inter, Zico at Udinese and Junior at Torino. Verona were not among the favourites for the title, although they had performed credibly since returning to Serie A in 1982. Verona’s prize imports, both signed in the close season of 1984, were a German, Hans-Peter Briegel, and Denmark’s Preben Larsen-Elkjær, who arrived from Bundesliga side Kaiserslautern and Belgian club Lokeren respectively.

Elkjær had been one of the outstanding players of the 1984 European Championship, scoring twice as Denmark charmed their way to the semi-finals, only to lose on penalties to Spain. It was Elkjær that missed Denmark’s fifth penalty that paved the way for Spain to go through to the final. At almost 26 years of age, Elkjær was now in his prime and if he was going to make an impact on world football, he needed a move to one of the top leagues. Verona gave him that opportunity, although if more people were aware of the power of the Dane, bigger clubs may have come in search of him. At Lokeren, he scored almost a century of league goals in six seasons, but it was his performances for Denmark that finally brought him to the attention of the international football community.

Briegel had been part of the West Germany team that won the 1980 European Championship. A versatile player, he was also a superb athlete and his physical strength played to the stereotyping of German footballers from the period, strong, upright and functional. However, Briegel won 72 caps for his country and for four consecutive seasons – between 1979-80 to 1982-83 – he was named in the Bundesliga all-star team.

Verona’s coach, Osvaldo Bagnoli, was in his fourth season in charge and had taken Verona up from Serie B in 1982. Bagnoli, a Milanese, had played for Verona in a journeyman career in which he made a reputation as a hard midfielder.

His methods were built around defensive solidity but with an emphasis on fast counter-attacking, you could say typical Italian qualities although this was not a team founded on the dreaded catenaccio. Verona had the toughest possible opening fixture, at home to Napoli – Maradona’s Serie A debut. Verona opened the scoring in the 26thminute through Briegel and ran out 3-1 winners as Maradona struggled against the German hard man. Verona continued their impressive start, winning their first three games and going 14 games unbeaten. At the turn of the year, they were top, two points clear of Inter and Torino. Their first defeat came on January 13 at the hands of Avellino.

Despite being pacesetters all season, there were still doubts that Verona could go the distance and win Serie A for the first time. On March 24, people really started to believe – Verona beat Cremonese 3-0 while Inter lost to Juve and Torino beat Milan. Verona were five points clear at the top. A week later, that margin extended to six points. Their next game was at home to Torino, one of the sides with hopes of overtaking Bagnoli’s team. Torino won 2-1, but that proved to be Verona’s last defeat of the season.

The final run-in was tense, Verona stuttering with four draws in the last seven games. But their rivals were equally hesitant: Torino drew three of their last four games; Inter lost three of their final seven and Sampdoria won just one of their last four. Throughout the final hurdle, Verona had a four-point advantage in a time when two points were awarded for a win. Only once did anyone draw level with them, in January when Inter and Verona were both on 23 points. The title was clinched on May 12 1985 at Atalanta, a 1-1 draw secured by a second half goal from Elkjær. At the same time, Inter were losing a seven-goal thriller at Roma and Torino were drawing 0-0 in Florence. It was enough to make the scudetto safe.

Verona ended the Serie A programme with a 4-2 victory against Avellino, with leading scorer Giuseppe Galderisi netting his 11thgoal of the season. Galderisi, a speedy, dimunitive player, had joined Verona from Juventus in 1983. He went on to win 10 caps for Italy but stayed only one more season after the title win and signed for Milan in 1986. The first regular to depart, though, was ever-present goalkeeper Claudio Garella to Napoli, where he won another Serie A medal.

In the closing weeks, the normally sedate city of Verona had acquired a frantic edge with every success celebrated as the team closed-in on the title. It was but a fleeting moment, for Verona finished 10thin 1985-86 and although they rose to fourth again in 1987, within five years of winning their only scudetto, Hellas Verona were relegated and Bagnoli departed. The good times were over for now, but it is fair to say that in 1985, the Veronese had never had it so good when it came to football.

Photo: PA