Europe’s Champions: AC Milan 1962-63

WHILE Internazionale are credited with being the arch-exponents of catenaccio, the nerazzurri were not the first Italian side to adopt the defence-minded approach that squeezed the life out of Italian and European football. Inter’s stable-mates, AC Milan, were the forerunners.

Nereo Rocco, from Trieste, first used the system at Padova, where he led a modest team from Veneto to third place in Serie A. After success with Triestina, Treviso and Padova, Rocco got the chance to step up to the big time and was appointed coach of AC Milan in 1961.

As a player, Rocco’s time came just as Italy became world champions. He was capped just once in 1934, but the competition was fierce for a place in the national team. He played just 45 minutes of a 4-0 win against Greece, just enough to win the necessary accreditation to become a coach.

He got the call from Milan in bizarre circumstances. Gipo Viani, who had won the scudetto twice with Milan, in 1956-57 and 1958-59, suffered a heart attack and had to hand over the job to Rocco. During the next few years, Rocco competed head-to-head with Inter’s Helenio Herrera. Both were advocates of catenaccio, but they were very different characters. Both were certainly eccentric in their own way, but while Herrera was obsessive about discipline, both professionally and personally, Rocco was something of a bon viveur and would spend time drinking with journalists and other football people. He was almost a caricature, wide, stubby and ebullient.

He expected his players to adopt a strict approach and installed a near-totalitarian regime around his team. One player who fell foul of this was prolific goalscorer Jimmy Greaves, who was signed from Chelsea in 1961 by Viani and lasted just a few months. Rocco didn’t rate Greaves as a professional, although his goalscoring record couldn’t be faulted.

Greaves, and some of his contemporaries, found it hard to adapt to Rocco’s style, which included “retreats” that took players away from view before games. Rightly or wrongly, it worked for Rocco’s Milan and they became the first Italian club to win the European Cup. By then, Greaves was back in  London with Spurs. El Paròn (the master) had got his way.

The 1950s had been kind to AC Milan. They won Serie A four times and reached the final of the European Cup in 1957-58, losing to Real Madrid. The Milan side that lost in Brussels included Nils Liedholm, the Swedish forward and Uruguayan World Cup hero Juan Alberto Schiaffino, who had joined the club for a world record fee of 52 million Italian Lire.

When Rocco took over, he inherited a team that included some legendary names from Italian football. In defence was Giovanni Trapattoni, who would go on to enjoy a highly successful managerial career. He was considered to be the most loyal and consistent disciple of the Rocco way. He was never a creative force, but “Il Trap” as he was often known, had the task of winning the ball and delivering it to Milan’s play-makers. And then there was defender Cesare Maldini, father of Paulo, and like Rocco, a native of Trieste.

The star of the show and later to become the most talked-about player in Italian football was Gianni Rivera, dubbed the “golden boy” by Viani. Everyone had a view on Rivera, whether he was a luxury item, or whether he could play alongside this player or that player. He was signed from his home town club, Alessandria, in 1960 and by 1962 he had been capped by Italy. For the next 15 years, he was a pivotal figure at AC Milan.

While Greaves weighed in with his share of the goals in the early weeks of 1961-62, Milan’s main striker was José Altafini. The  Brazilian had been bought by the club in 1958 just before the World Cup in Sweden, costing 135 million Lire. He was barely 20 years of age.

Milan started the 1961-62 season with an emphatic 3-0 win at Vicenza, Altafini netting the first two of his 22 Serie A goals and Greaves also getting on the scoresheet. But then came two defeats, a 1-0 loss at Bologna and a home loss against Sampdoria. Rocco was livid with Greaves, who despite scoring Milan’s two goals, got involved in a fracas.

By the end of October, Milan were trailing the leaders by six points. Greaves was sold to Tottenham Hotspur for £ 99,999 and Rocco signed Brazilian Dino Sani of Boca Juniors as his replacement. Milan seemed to gain fresh impetus and at the turn of the year, they were in third place, five points behind leaders Inter. Within a month, Fiorentina, Inter and Milan were all on 34 points. March 4 was a vital round of matches as Inter were beaten at Palermo and Milan beat Fiorentina 5-2. Milan were now a point clear at the top.  Both Inter and Fiorentina started to stutter and Milan stayed focused and consistent. On April 8, they clinched the title with a 4-2 win against Torino at San Siro.

Victory gave Milan the chance to make amends for their 1958 defeat in the European Cup final. Real Madrid were not the force of old and the big noise across Europe was Benfica, spearheaded by Eusebio, who had netted twice when the Lisbon eagles had beaten Puskas and co. in the 1962 final. Real went out early in the 1962-63 competition, so Milan and Benfica were seen as favourites to meet in the final.

Meanwhile, Milan’s grasp on the scudetto was slipping. As 1962 became 1963, Milan were five points behind Inter and four short of second-placed Juventus. It got worse, largely due to Milan’s penchant for drawing games – by the end of the campaign, they had drawn 13 of their 34 league fixtures. They recovered some ground towards the end of the season, but ended in third place, six points short of Inter.

But they had the European Cup in their sights. Milan beat Union Luxembourg 14-0 on aggregate in the preliminary round, with Altafini scoring no fewer than eight. Ipswich Town, Turkey’s Galatasaray and Scottish champions Dundee were all beaten on the way to the final, where – true to form – Milan lined-up against Eusebio and Benfica. The holders, Benfica, had a stress-free road to Wembley, beating Sweden’s Norrköping, Dukla Prague of Czechoslavakia and the Dutch side from Rotterdam, Feyenoord.

Only 46,000 turned up at Wembley to see the final, leading some commentators to complain about the lack of interest among English fans. But the press sang the praises of the two teams, who displayed excellent footwork and ball control, which was a far cry from the clumsiness of the game in Britain. One of the reasons that the crowd was lower than expected was the kick-off time, 3pm on a midweek afternoon.

Although Milan seemed nervous at first, Rivera dictated the game at the Empire Stadium, creating several chances for his team-mates, while Maldini, Mario David and Trapattoni stifled the Benfica’s forwards. Against the run of play Eusebio, demonstrating speed and power, accelerated past two defenders and gave Benfica the lead. Torres should have extended that advantage. Milan struggled for a while, but the game really swung their way when Benfica’s Mario Coluna was fouled by Gino Pivatelli and left the field with what turned out to be a broken foot. This was the turning point of the game.

Rivera sprung to life and set-up two goals for Altafini, who had endured a disappointing afternoon up until then. The goals were enough to give Milan the trophy. Benfica, meanwhile, were so distraught that they almost forgot to collect their runners-up medals.

Rocco departed Milan in 1963 but had two further spells with the club. In 1962-63, Inter won Serie A and embarked on a three year period where they took catenaccio to a new level. Some say Rocco was the inventor of the Italian version of catenaccio, but he had one burning desire – to win at all costs. His approach set the theme for an era, one that would not end until the start of the 1970s.

UEFA Champions League: Another English tea party?

WITH the top three in the Premier League in the last eight, it was no surprise the draw for the closing stages of the UEFA Champions League came out looking very favourable for another all-English final in Paris on May 28 2022. Chelsea and Manchester City could face each other in the semi (indeed, so could the two Madrid sides) and Liverpool could force their way through to the final in the other half of the draw.

Manchester City v Atlético Madrid

City and Atléti have never met in European competition, but Spanish clubs are regular visitors to the Etihad Stadium. In the past decade, City have played 16 games against La Liga side, winning seven and losing seven. In the league this season, City have lost three times and they’ve all been against London clubs, so if Chelsea prove to be their opponents in the semi-final, it should be very interesting. Chelsea, of course, beat City 1-0 in the 2021 Champions League final and City have gone out to Premier clubs in three of the last four seasons. After a decade of trying, City need 2022 to be their year in the competition, but at times, their goalscoring capability seems to have trouble finding the back of the net. Raheem Sterling and Riyad are top scorers this season with 10 apiece. Atlético reminded everyone that they are canny operators in Europe when they overcome Manchester United and they will be a tough nut for Pep Guardiola’s team to crack. City will be Atléti’s third English club in the 2021-22 competition, but they are unlikely to allow themselves to be jostled out of the Champions League like United were.

Prediction: Manchester City, but the tie will go the distance.

Chelsea v Real Madrid

The two clubs met for the first time in the Champions League semi-finals last season, although they had faced each other in the final of the 1971 European Cup-Winners’ Cup. Chelsea are likely to finish third in the Premier and are still in the FA Cup. They were also beaten on penalties by Liverpool in the EFL Cup. The club has a shadow hanging over it in the aftermath of Roman Abramovich being sanctioned by the UK government and Chelsea are expected to be sold in the coming days. Unless a new agreement is made, Chelsea may have to play behind closed doors at Stamford Bridge. They have done remarkably well to stay focused during the Ukraine war and their record in the Champions League this season has been very impressive, winning six out of eight games. The reigning European champions have a tough task against La Liga leaders Real Madrid, who came back well against Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16. Karim Benzema is on fire at the moment and the team, which still has too much experience to have a long future, may see this season as its last chance to recapture the Champions League with the current squad. Real have been knocked out of the competition by English clubs in the past two campaigns.

Prediction: Chelsea, narrowly.

Benfica v Liverpool

It’s great to see Benfica, winners in 1961 and 1962, still in the competition, but it is hard to envisage them overcoming Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, who are in fine form, despite losing their round of 16 second leg against Inter. Benfica are currently third in the Portuguese Primeira Liga, but they are too far off the pace to overcome Porto and Sporting. They’ve had their problems this season and sacked manager Jorge Jesus in December. They’re out of the cup, lost the league cup and have struggled against their closest rivals. But they came through a tough group stage, finishing ahead of Barcelona and pulled off a surprise win at Ajax in the round of 16. Liverpool have been operating at full steam for weeks and have opened up the Premier title race when it looked as good as over. They’ve also started to reshape their team and their forward line has been given greater options with the signing of Luis Diaz. Mo Salah, as ever, has been prolific and has netted 28 times, eight in the Champions League. Liverpool have already won the EFL Cup and they are in the last eight of the FA Cup. People are talking of an unprecedented treble and they should come through against Benfica without too much trouble, but then Ajax didn’t expect to go out to the Eagles of Lisbon.

Prediction: Liverpool, comfortably.

Villareal v Bayern Munich

Bayern, on paper, have one of the easier draws, but they will be foolish to underestimate Unai Emery’s Villareal, who won the Europa League last season against Manchester United. Villareal also pulled off a shock win in the round of 16, beating Juventus in Turin 3-0 and finished second in a group that included United, Atalanta and Young Boys. It is worth noting that Villareal have drawn all four La Liga games with the two Madrid sides and only two clubs have conceded fewer goals than their 26. They are currently seventh in La Liga. Bayern Munich are on course for their 10th consecutive Bundesliga title, but their lead at the top is now just four points. They have been more careless than usual and were beaten by Bochum and Augsburg in the league and were demolished 5-0 in the DFB Pokal by old rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach. Robert Lewandowski has scored 43 goals this season, 12 in the Champions League, including a hat-trick in Bayern’s 7-1 thrashing of Salzburg.

Prediction: Bayern Munich, but they will have to be careful.

If all goes to plan, the semi-finals will be Manchester City v Chelsea and Liverpool v Bayern Munich. That’s supposing everyone is firing on all cylinders, which cannot be guaranteed. What is fairly certain is the quarter-finals will be compelling affairs and certain to excite. However, there’s always a shock or two, so don’t be surprised if the semi-finals look far different, but we’re plumping for a Manchester City v Liverpool final in Paris.

League Focus: Portugal on the rise

THE PORTUGUESE Primeira Liga could be one of the most interested title chases in Europe this season. It’s no surprise that the contenders are Porto, Sporting and Benfica, but there’s been something of a shift in the balance of power in Portugal and the club we always associate with the Iberian nation, Benfica, is struggling to keep pace with the other members of the “big three”.

Porto ended 2021 with a 3-1 victory against the Eagles of Lisbon and thus remained unbeaten in league games for the calendar year, a remarkable landmark even in such an imbalanced league. For Benfica, who replaced their manager, Jorge Jesus at the end of December, it was another blow to their sagging confidence. Prior to meeting Porto, Benfica had been beaten twice in the league, both at home and their most recent setback was at the hands of Sporting, their Lisbon rivals. But they had also qualified for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League, no mean feat given they had Bayern Munich and Barcelona in their group and they face Ajax in February. 

There were stories that Jesus had “lost” the dressing room and that he was eyeing a return to Brazilian club Flamengo. The combination of player unrest, which came to a peak with an altercation involving club vice-skipper Pizzi and the coach, a defeat against Sporting and the cup defeat at Porto probably combined to force the Benfica management to act. 

As Jesus recently said, Benfica have to be challenging for honours, so with the league drifting away and a cup exit, two possible prizes already look beyond them. Such a situation was always going to be unpalatable for the people upstairs but even then, the parting of the ways was an emotional event, with club president Rui Costa and Jesus embracing. “I never wanted to be the problem at Benfica,” said Jesus. “I wanted to be part of the solution”.

Benfica’s solution was to appoint Nélson Veríssimo and the Porto clash was his first game in charge. Unfortunately, the 3-1 defeat was worse than it looked as Benfica were poor and are now seven points behind Porto and Sporting. 

Primeira Liga, top four

PWDLFAPtsg.d.
1Porto16142041944+32
2Sporting16142030744+23
3Benfica161213471537+32
4Braga16943301631+15

League Table as at January 1, 2022

Sporting surprised many pundits by winning the league in 2020-21, but they’re back at the top this year and the second half of the campaign is likely to be a two-way battle between the Lions and Porto for the title. Sporting also fought their way through to the last 16 of the Champions League and will meet Manchester City. This was an achievement given they lost their first two games in the group against Ajax and Borussia Dortmund. There’s a warning for Benfica as Ajax emphatically completed the double over Sporting, 5-1 and 4-2.

Sporting and Porto were recently penalised by UEFA for “non-compliance” with Financial Fair Play rules. Sporting were fined € 250,000 and Porto € 300,000. Importantly, there are two Portuguese clubs in the Champions League last 16 for only the second time in the past decade.

Porto never made the cut in the Champions League having finished third in a tough group that included Liverpool, Atlético Madrid and AC Milan. They have the consolation of Europa League football and face Lazio in the next round. Portugal have a fourth club in the knockout stages in the form of Braga, who have been drawn against Sheriff Tiraspol. 

Braga won the Taça de Portugal in 2020-21, beating Benfica in the final, and are currently in fourth place, but they are too far behind to make a title challenge. They have, however, established themselves as Portugal’s fourth club, consistently present in the upper echelons.

Portugal remains one of Europe’s best producers of talent and the top clubs have become experts at player trading, notably in bringing players from Brazil to Europe. Reigning champions Sporting, for example, are renowned as a club that develops its own players – around half dozen of their regular line-up has come through its youth set-up at some stage of their careers. Cristiano Ronaldo, of course, is a past product of Sporting’s system. Portugal, generally, is not only committed to nurturing young players, it is also good at producing top coaches.

The Premier League, in particular, has a penchant for Portuguese players. There are around 20 Portuguese among Premier squads, although nine players are employed by Wolverhampton Wanderers. The market attraction of Portugal’s best players was evidenced in Euro 2020 when only six of the 26-man squad were playing domestic football.  

Currently attracting envious glances is Sporting’s Pedro Gonçalves, who netted 23 goals in the Primeira last season from midfield. He was voted the young player of the year in both 2019-20 and 2020-21.

There is a growing feeling that the Primeira Liga is now stronger than France’s Ligue 1, which has been ranked among the top five for a few years now. Although UEFA’s coefficients would suggest France is marginally ahead of Portugal, the fact that Ligue 1 is invariably a one-horse race does indicate a lack of strength in depth. The UEFA data gives France’s top four clubs (PSG, Lille, Lyon, Marseille) and average of 60,000 points, while Portugal’s big four have an average of 56,250. Over the past five years, whenever Portuguese and French clubs have met, the Primeira Liga comes out on top with a 75% win rate.

It is not easy to envisage Portugal becoming a more democratic football landscape given the massive financial gulf between its top clubs and the rest of the Primeira Liga. Benfica, Porto and Sporting all draw big crowds, with Benfica enjoying more than 50,000 per game, but at least 12 of the 18 top flight clubs survive on 10,000 and lower. However, it is far more realistic to anticipate the big three becoming more competitive on the international stage. It might not mean that their will be a fifth Champions League title to celebrate, but for Benfica, Porto and Sporting to look the continent’s elite in the eye would be something in the modern age of football.