On Friday 20th June 1997 it was announced that Inter Milan had pulled off the signing of the summer, capturing the signature of Ronaldo from under the noses of his current club FC Barcelona. The Brazilian had a release clause in his contract that allowed for his departure should the buying club offer an agreed amount, so when Inter’s owner Massimo Morrati wired over the necessary transfer fee it was believed to be a done deal. Barcelona argued that the clause only applied to Spanish clubs, however the legal eagles at UEFA would soon rule in Inter’s favor and sanction what would be a world record transfer a just over 17M pounds.
Despite finishing runner up to Real Madrid in season 96/97 Ronaldo established himself among football’s elite by finishing as La Liga’s top goal scorer with 34 goals, as well as firing the winner in Barcelona’s Cup Winners Cup Final success over PSG in Rotterdam.
Ronaldo’s arrival at Inter Milan coincided with a managerial change at the club, as the avuncular Roy Hodgson departed at the end of his contract to manage Blackburn Rovers, he was replaced with Napoli Head Coach Luigi Simoni.
Moratti would augment Simoni’s new squad with no fewer than 17 new signings, spending just shy of 50M pounds in the process. Banner signings included Paulo Sousa from Borussia Dortmund, who had a previous spell in Serie A with Juventus, Ze Elias from Bayer Leverkusen, Benoit Cauet from PSG, Alvaro Recoba from Nacional, Taribo West from Auxerre, Francesco Colonnese from Roma and Francesco Moriero from city rivals AC Milan.
By the summer of 1997 Marcelo Lippi had been in charge of Inter’s title rivals Juventus for three seasons, during which time he had built a highly functioning unit that was competitive in both domestic and European football. In season 94/95 Lippi would win the title at the first time of asking, bringing Juventus their first Serie A championship since 1986. The following season Juventus would fail to retain the title as they lost out to a runaway AC Milan side, however their consolation came in the form of a Champions League trophy after defeating Ajax in the Final in Rome via a nail-biting penalty shootout. 96/97 saw the Serie A title return to the Stadio Delle Alpi, however Juve would fail in their efforts to retain their Champions League trophy, losing 3-1 to a Paul Lambert inspired Borussia Dortmund at the Olympiastadion in Munich.
Such was the nature of success in Serie A clubs such as Juventus rarely stood still, which is best exemplified through their transfer dealings in the summer of 1997. Leaving the club would be Christian Vieri to Atletico Madrid for 12M pounds, Vladimir Jugovic and Alen Boksic to Lazio for a combined 4M pounds, Michele Padovano and Attilio Lombardo to Crystal Palace for 2M pounds and Sergio Porrini to Rangers for 3M pounds.
Replacing these outgoing first team members were the signings of Filippo Inzaghi from Atalanta, Edgar Davids from AC Milan, Fabio Pecchia from Napoli, Daniel Fonseca from Roma, Alessandro Birindelli from Empoli and Marcelo Zalayeta from Penarol for a combined total of around 30M pounds.
Unsurprisingly Inter and Juventus went toe to toe throughout the first portion of the 97/98 Serie A season, with Udinese providing an unexpected outside challenge in an attempt to break the duopoly. Inter were ahead by just a single point as the two sides met in the opening derby d’italia of the season, on Sunday 4th of January 1998 at the San Siro.
After what had been a strong performance in the first half by Inter they would have to wait until the second half to get their rewards, with Youri Djorkaeff finishing off a counter attacking move that was set up via a Ronaldo cross at the back post. While there were to be no further goals in the match there were no shortage of talking points, as the match quickly descended into a series of robust challenges culminating with a red card shown to Benoit Cauet for a stamp on Juve’s Alessio Tacchinardi.
The pressure on Inter to maintain their newly acquired 4 point margin at the top of the table appeared too much to bear, as by the end of January the found themselves back level with Juve after a 1-0 home loss to Bari and a 1-1 away draw with Sampdoria.
Inter’s form throughout February continued to be patchy at best, with losses to Bologna and Lazio sandwiched around a 1-1 draw away to Fiorentina. While Juve were now back on top of the table, they too would drop points in an away defeat to Fiorentina as well as an away draw with Brescia.
Entering March both sides had reached the knock out stages of their respective European campaigns, with Inter overcoming Schalke by an aggregate score of 2-1 after extra time and Juventus advancing past Dynamo Kyiv with an aggregate score of 5 goals to 2.
On the 22nd of March Inter’s 3-0 win over city rivals AC Milan would take them to within a point of leaders Juve, who had to come from 2-0 behind to draw 2-2 with Carlo Ancelott’s Parma at the Ennio Tardini.
Kicking off the month of April Juventus would qualify for their third Champions League Final in a row after a 6-4 aggregate win over Monaco, while Inter would see past Spartak Moscow 4-2 on aggregate to set up a UEFA Cup final with Serie A competitors Lazio.
Both sides domestic form was also imperious throughout the month of April, each winning four consecutive league matches to set up what would be an enthralling derby d’italia. With Juve leading at the top of the table by a single point and only four Serie A games remaining it placed the match in an interesting balance, whereby both sides eagerly want to win yet neither can really afford to lose.
Starting Line Ups
First Half Analysis
Build Up Play
The players within Inter’s back three are all fine defenders but silky operators in possession they are not, so to compensate Coach Simoni positioned Benoit Cauet and Aaron Winter in central midfield to assist with build up play. Each had to work extremely hard to free themselves of pressure to pick up possession on the half turn while Simeone, who begins life as the attacking midfielder in the team, frequently drops deep to provide another building block to facilitate the attack. While Ronaldo and Djorkaeff worked hard to occupy Juve’s back line, each would alternate who dropped deep to create a numerical advantage in central midfield. Inter’s wing backs operated in very different yet complimenting ways, with Zanetti on the left more inclined to move centrally when defending to compact the space but explode out wide on the dribble as and when he was given possession. Moriero operated more as a traditional winger on the right side, positioning himself much higher and wider than Zanetti and frequently using the support of Cauet on his inside right to combine with.
Juve set up in a similar asymmetrical 3-5-2 formation, however with Deschamps as the only midfielder at the base of a central midfield three this provided more space for Davids and Zidane to receive passes higher up the field within the inside left and right midfield positions. As the game developed Juve began focusing much of their attack play on the left, with Pessotto taking up a deeper position at left wing back to open space for Zidane, Davids and Del Piero to create overloads on the left flank. Angelo Di Livio was Juve’s out ball should the overload not work out on the left, positioned on the right touchline waiting patiently for the switch of play.
While both teams attempted to build up play from the back, the nature of the aggressive man marking on either side’s forwards caused multiple turn overs in possession. There were other phases in which both sides could utilize these transitions to create attacks, typically after their defensive midfielders engaged with the ball.
Key Defensive Midfield Roles
Even with Juve being the home side Coach Marcelo Lippi is well at ease with his side using a more cautious approach, dropping his sides lines of confrontation into a mid-block that likes to engage in pressure when passes are made into the central portion of the field. When defending like this it requires high levels of concentration to intercept the pass, but also then use moments of transition to capitalize upon the disorganization within the team who have turned the ball over.
In Didier Deschamps, who we covered in this 1993 Champions League Final tactical analysis, Juve have a midfielder who is exceptional at reading the play. Not only can he intercept passes in defensive situations close to his own goal, but he also has a remarkable ability to sense out danger should his team lose possession in attack thus preventing the opponent from launching a counterattack.
Inter too were happy to drop off and collect their defensive shape as Juve built forward and in response to Deschamps Inter had a defensive weapon in midfield of their own. Aaron Winter was schooled in the technical surroundings of Ajax as a young professional, but by 1998 was a battled hardened Serie A operator with 4 years under his belt at Lazio before moving to Inter in the summer of 1996. Defensively Winter’s main task was to cover Zidane, however in moments of transition he shows a terrific awareness of when to step to the ball and in turn create attacks of his own.
One of Juve’s top performers in the opening forty-five minutes was Edgar Davids. His tenacity and dogged pressing style has perhaps distorted our perception of the Dutchman who some refer to as a defensive minded player, yet in this match his ability to carry the ball forward at pace in transition perfectly illustrated what he was capable of in attack.
Alessandro Del Piero was another significant threat in transition for Juve, when he showed terrific awareness to pull into wide areas when Inter’s Moriero and Cauet were caught forward in attack. Within this split striker role, alongside Inzaghi, he has the freedom to roam from the center and pick up play before dribbling into the final third to generate shots or create chances for others.
As was to be expected when Ronaldo joined Inter at the start of the 97/98 season Head Coach Luigi Simoni would build a side that functioned almost exclusively in service of the Brazilian striker, yet in moments of transition there was little anyone could prepare for as the world’s most explosive footballer set off on goal. By the late 90s Italian defenses were certainly no strangers in how to handle the world’s top marksmen, no matter how reductive or primitive those measures may have to be, which was certainly demonstrated by Juve’s back line who continually swarmed Ronaldo whenever he picked up the ball. Mark Iuliano was tasked with man marking Ronaldo, charging out of the back line leaving Montero and Torricelli to hold the fort while he worked with those around him to sometimes double and treble up on the Inter striker.
Despite the close attention Ronaldo received he did manage to threaten the Juve goal on two occasions. The first was from a free kick that didn’t dip toward Peruzzi’s goal as he would have liked, however the second came from a piece of quick thinking and displayed his electric pace and close control before he flashed a shot just wide of the mark.
As referee Piero Ceccarini blew for half time Juventus could perhaps feel slightly fortunate to head into half time with a 1-0 lead, such was the lack of any real attacking opportunities outside of Del Piero’s finish. However now with a lead to protect Juve had the confidence that comes with an unbeaten run at the Stadio Delle Alpi, stretching back to the 96/97 season.
There’s no doubt Ronaldo has the ability to win any game of football, but in the second half his teammates will have to do more to create attacks for the Brazilian that are closer to the Juve goal. He would frequently drop deep to pick up possession, allowing Juve to retain their defensive shape and contain any Inter advances but simply taking away his options.
Second Half Analysis
Given the speed of play in the opening forty-five minutes its unsurprising that we saw a more measured and patient approach from both sides at the start of the second half, during which time both coaches would also make some changes to their personnel which affected the overall tactical shape of the game.
On 56 minutes Luigi Simoni made the first change of the game, bringing on Ivan Zamorano for the largely anonymous Francesco Moriero, with the Chilean partnering Ronaldo up front. Benoit Cauet moved from central midfield to right wing back, with Djorkaeff moving back into midfield beside Diego Simeone, leaving Aaron Winter as the single pivot in front of the back line. Simoni altered his teams build up play to move away from central penetration, instead focusing on feeding the wing back areas so Zanetti and Cauet could supply crosses into Zamorano and Ronaldo more frequently. On 67 minutes Simoni went for broke by bringing on Ze Elias for Winter and essentially playing with three forward thinking midfielders in search of an equalizing goal.
Marcelo Lippi’s first switch was enforced as Alessandro Birindelli replaced the injured Paolo Montero in the back line, however the next substitution would see the introduction of Antonio Conte into central midfield replacing Filippo Inzaghi. Zinedine Zidane moved into the forward line beside Del Piero, which gave Juve two attackers who could carry the ball forward in transition, thus allowing the midfield to focus more on building the play and protecting against counter attacks. Conte instantly gave Juve more control, such was his quality of passing to maintain tempo, but also as he was better suited to win back possession during defensive transition. Later in the match Pecchia would replace Davids in a like for like switch, at which point Juve were simply running down the clock.
In these clips we can see that while the slight tactical tweaks caused the overall tempo to reduce it would lead to more chances of a higher quality as a result.
In a second half that felt like the temperature was steadily rising, the match reached boiling point on 70 minutes when Diego Simeone was booked for a jersey pull on Edgar Davids near the halfway line. Replays later showed Davids kicked out at the Argentine after the initial foul which went unnoticed by the officials, resulting in the Inter players aggressively surrounding the referee to remonstrate. A collection of Juve players joined their opponents in the center circle, which resulted in Angelo Di Livio getting into a shoving match with Francesco Colonnese. Despite the players clearing in a very amicable fashion the underlying tension was there for all to see.
The resulting free kick from Juve saw Davids pass back to Iuliano only for the Italian defender to completely slice his strike and gift the ball back to Inter. Diego Simeone would play a first-time lobbed pass forward for Ronaldo who’s challenge with Toricelli saw the ball break to Zamorano at the top of the box. The subsequent 50/50 between Birindelli and Zamorano resulted in neither player making contact with the ball, thus allowing Ronaldo to seize upon possession by taking a touch to evade Mark Iuliano who would collide with the Brazilian just as he was about to shoot.
In a decision that remains utterly perplexing referee Piero Ceccarini waved play on as the entire front line screamed in condemnation as Juve broke forward on the counterattack. Toricelli’s clearance reached Davids in midfield, who then worked quickly to spread play out to Zidane on the left wing. Both Colonnese and Fresi moved across to cover Zidane, but the Frenchman displayed his wonderful technique with a wonderful pass to split pressure and find Del Piero inside the box. Taribo West was Inter’s last central defender and his clumsy advance on Del Piero’s first touch saw the Italian striker collapse inside the box, which led to a decision that caused all hell to break loose.
Piero Ceccarini blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot, a decision that in it’s own right was the correct one to make, however given how incensed the Inter players had been at David’s kick going unpunished and the failure to award Ronaldo a penalty only moments earlier both conspired to cause an eruption of emotion that reached an epic scale. The Inter players charged at Ceccarini in a fashion that would likely get a match abandoned in the modern era, with Antonio Conte the first on the scene to help protect the referee as he walked toward the Inter bench. Replays showed Inter Head Coach Luigi Simoni had stepped onto the field to accost the referee as play advanced forward with Zidane, leading to his impending dismissal after Juve’s penalty was awarded. Images later showed Inter owner Massimo Moratti making his way down to the mixed zone, no doubt to share in his displeasure at the official’s denial of the penalty to Inter.
A full three minutes passed between the award of the penalty and Alessandro Del Piero stepping up to take the kick. Normally such a clinical penalty taker, Del Piero instead chose to strike the ball with power straight down the middle at what would be the perfect height for the keeper. Gianluca Pagliuca dived to his right side but his trailing leg blocked the ball, deflecting into the path of Francesco Colonnese who cleared the ball to safety.
With the match threatening to erupt in the closing 20 minutes Inter were still able to fashion some very good chances, in part thanks to the individual quality of Ronaldo and Zamorano inside the final third. With each passing opportunity it’s evident from Ronaldo’s body language that his frustration increased alongside his acceptance that Juve’s stranglehold on this match, and incidentally the Serie A title, was simply too strong for this Inter team.
The general temperature of the match had continued to rise since Inter’s penalty denial and would finally boil over when Ze Elias, who had only been on the field for 13 minutes as a second half substitute, was shown a straight red card for a horrific elbow into the face of Didier Deschamps during an aerial duel inside the Juve half. The Brazilian midfielder’s unceremonious exit was the perfect distillation of how Inter had collectively lost focus and who’s frustration as the extenuating circumstances had caused the collapse of their title challenge.
As the match drew to a close the Italian TV company who were covering the match captured all the unfolding drama that ensued inside the tunnel, as referee Ceccarini and his team were whisked back to the changing rooms, they were subjected to a hailstorm of verbal insults from an indignant Inter Milan squad who had followed them back into the stand. Meanwhile on the field Marcelo Lippi’s men were conducting a lap of honor style salute to the fans, taking in the adulation from their supporters who, like the Juve players, now firmly believed the title was theirs to lose as Juve’s advantage had now increased to four points with three matches to play.
Ceccarini has since been interviewed many times during the years following this match, each time slightly revising history by repositioning his viewpoint. On last inspection he had ludicrously stated that Ronaldo should have been penalized for conducting an offensive foul on Iuliano, like those found in basketball, which perhaps illustrates a need to be heard rather than understood.
This match has since gone down in infamy as one of Serie A’s most memorable moments of the 90s, not just because of the rivalry between the clubs but also given the stakes on the line and the gravity of the Ceccarini’s decision. Inter had been without a Serie A title for 10 years by this point and it was viewed that Ronaldo would be the catalyst in changing the clubs’ fortunes, what they couldn’t legislate for was the burgeoning superpower that Juventus had become during this period and the success they would garner from it.
The Final Chapter
The following week both Inter and Juventus would record 0-0 draws against Piacenza and Vicenza respectively, drawing to a close any remaining title ambitions that Inter may still have. Inter would instead shift their focus to the UEFA Cup Final where they would face off against league rivals Lazio in three days’ time. Lazio coach Sven Goran Ericsson had chosen to rest his starting players ahead of the final, leading to a 1-0 away loss to Lecce.
With clubs no longer bound to the previous 3 foreigner ruling that UEFA had imposed on club competitions, three of Inter’s eight foreign starters would score (Zamorano, Zanetti and Ronaldo) to give Inter a 3-0 win and take the UEFA Cup back to the San Siro for the third time that decade.
A week later Juventus would secure the Serie A title with a 3-2 victory over Bologna at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Igor Kolyvanov would put Bologna ahead after only 11 minutes, but a quick fire double from Pippo Inzaghi on either side of half time would put Juve into a 2-1 lead. A goal from former Juve startlet Roberto Baggio, who at 31 had worked his way back into the national team squad for the upcoming World Cup, would score to bring Bologna back level. Late into the match Inzaghi would complete his hattrick to give Juve the 3 points and wrap up the title.
As Juve celebrated lifting the championship Inter’s league disappointment was compounded as they would lose 2-1 to Bari after Ronaldo had opened the scoring, with goals from future Inter striker Nicola Ventola and former Leeds United attacker Phil Masinga.
In the final week of the season a double from Ronaldo would see Inter close out the campaign with an impressive 4-1 win over Empoli. Marcelo Lippi chose to rest the rump of his starting lineup as Juventus drew 1-1 in their final Serie A match with Atalanta in Bergamo, just three days shy of the Champions League Final.
Juventus would travel to the Amsterdam ArenA to take part in their 3rd consecutive Champions League Final, where they would take on Jupp Heynckes’ Real Madrid. In contrast to Juve’s remarkable league campaign Madrid had finished in 4th place in La Liga, which in turn placed greater emphasis on their need to win the trophy as it would be their only pathway to competing in next year’s Champions League.
During a very pragmatic 90 minutes of football it would take a goal from Yugoslavia international Pedrag Mijatovic to separate the sides, giving Real Madrid their first European trophy in over 30 years.
Elsewhere in Serie A Alberto Zaccheroni would complete his final season with Udinese by finishing in an impressive 3rd position, before swapping Udine for Milan in the summer of 1998 as he replaced Fabio Capello at AC Milan. Capello’s disastrous return from Real Madrid saw his side finish in 10th position, which at that point had been the clubs poorest finish in the post war era.
The most interesting managerial story of the season has to be enigmatic Zdenek Zeman who had moved from city rivals Lazio to Roma at the beginning of 97/98 and would take his new Roma side to a league finish above Lazio for the first time in 6 seasons. While installing his unique brand of attacking football he would also make Francesco Totti a regular in the lineup where he would become club captain the following year.
Dropping out of Serie A this year was Napoli who would rotate through four managers in a tough year for the club, vastly underperforming despite having Argentine international Roberto Ayala, French international Reynald Pedros and Croatian international Aljosa Asanovic in their ranks.
Perhaps the biggest under achievers this season were Lazio who despite significant investment from owner Sergio Cragnotti would only finish in 7th place. In the summer of 1997, Cragnotti had lured new Head Coach Sven Goran Ericsson from Sampdoria, in addition to spending 15 million pounds on Roberto Mancini, Vladimir Jugovic, Matias Almeyda and Alen Boksic.