In May of 1994 AC Milan President Silvio Berlusconi stood beside Head Coach Fabio Capello as the pair held aloft the Champions League trophy, following Milan’s 4-0 destruction of Johan Cruyff’s FC Barcelona. Eight years into Berlusconi’s tenure as the controlling shareholder of the club, he was about to turn his hand to another form of leadership, one that would lead him to the office of Italian Prime Minister.
Berlusconi had broken the mold in terms of a traditional Serie A club owner, placing himself at center stage in a time when those who brokered power often worked behind the scenes. He was a larger-than-life figure who had shaped the media landscape such that Italy now used television as a means of devouring it’s most beloved sporting pastime, thus allowing him to use his financial success to further AC Milan’s ambitions on the field. Such was the speed in which Milan rocketed to the summit of world football, this fostered an ambition within many likeminded members of the Italian business community to step forth and emulate Berlusconi.
A New Dawn
In 1992 the head of the Cirio food conglomerate Sergio Cragnotti was the latest industry tycoon to complete the purchase of one of Serie A’s leading clubs, with Lazio in the nation’s capital becoming the beneficiary of his vast fortune. The disastrous signing of Paul Gascoigne threatened to derail his early vision of Lazio as a destination for the world’s elite, a signing that led to an underwhelming spell of transfers that failed to capture the imagination of the Roman public.
What followed was a turbulent time with Zdenek Zeman in charge, a hire that moved away from a player centered model and afforded the Italian adopted Czech coach full control of incoming players. During Zeman’s three years in charge his dogmatic style would help create a style of football that was free flowing and adored by the public, but fundamentally the poor return of trophies failed to legitimize Cragnotti’s investment.
In February of 1997 Cragnotti succeeded in persuading then Sampdoria manager Sven Goran Eriksson to renegue on a deal that would have saw the Swede join Blackburn Rovers in the upcoming July. He would instead embark upon a project with Lazio that was about to receive a significant increase in funds, leading to a total transformation in the playing squad. Eriksson not only brought the cache of a respected coach in Serie A, but if the side were to carry a higher expectation his standing in the game would bring legitimacy to those claims.
Berlusconi found himself in somewhat of a quandary as his Milan side trudged to a second consecutive finish in the bottom half of the Serie A in 1998. Having turned to both Sacchi and Capello to reignite success of the past, he instead turned to the highly respected Udinese manager Alberto Zaccheroni to re-engage Milan as a title contender.
In the post World Cup transfer maelstrom of 1998 AC Milan would bring in £35M worth of new talent, a figure that Lazio blew out the water as their transfer haul cost a reported £100M. In a time when Juventus had just competed in their 3rd successive Champions League final, Ronaldo was in full flow at Inter and Parma were building one of Europe’s most exciting squads, Serie A remained the destination for football’s elite.
Lazio would make a slow start to the 98/99 campaign, suffering a 1-0 defeat to Milan on matchday 10 that would leave Eriksson with three wins, four draws and three losses. Conversely Zaccheroni’s tactical overhaul brought better results from the beginning, with the Italian coach moving Milan away from their ingrained 4-4-2 into the 3-4-1-2 system he had used to such great effect with Udinese.
The early pace setters that season were Fiorentina, who with Batistuta in sparkling form were led by the experienced Giovanni Trappatoni who had returned to Serie A after three roller coaster seasons in charge of FC Bayern Munich. Troublesome away form would derail Fiorentina’s time at the top of the table, allowing Eriksson’s Lazio to overtake them as they went on a run of 9 consecutive wins in a row.
Lazio began April of 1998 at the top of Serie A, enjoying a five-point gap over 2nd place Fiorentina and a further two points over 3rd place AC Milan. What followed was a disastrous month, beginning with a draw at home to Milan followed by losses to Juventus and city rivals AS Roma. Successive wins over Udinese and Bologna at the start of May stabilized Lazio’s title challenge, but with their nearest rivals Milan now only a point behind it left little room for error with two matches remaining.
Eriksson’s side travelled to the Stadio Artemio Franchi on the penultimate day of the season and would go behind to an early goal curteousy of Gabriel Batistuta. While Christian Vieri levelled on the half hour mark, Lazio failed to secure the necessary three points and were lucky to leave with anything when Fiorentina’s Rui Costa missed a late penalty.
Milan would take advantage of Lazio’s stumble by overcoming Empoli at the San Siro, winning by four goals to nil and moving to the top of the Serie A table.
Ahead of the all-important showdown on the final day of the league season, Lazio faced off against Real Mallorca in a midweek Cup Winners Cup Final. Villa Park in Birmingham would play host to what would be the last ever Final in this competition, a match that Lazio would win 2-1 to claim their first ever European trophy.
On a nail biting final day for both sets of supporters, Lazio kept their title challenge alive as they won 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico against Parma. Milan had to equal or better Lazio’s result but doing so was made more challenging as they faced Perugia in an away tie at the Renato Curi.
Early goals from the Argentine winger Guly and top goalscorer Oliver Bierhoff would put the Rossoneri 2-0 ahead, however a goal before half time from Perugia’s Japanese international Hidetoshi Nakata would make for a nervy second half.
Milan held out to claim their 16th Serie A title in dramatic fashion, spending only the final two weeks of the season in top spot as they claimed the title from under Lazio’s noses.
As Lazio entered their centenary season in 99/00 Sergio Cragnotti was in no mood to back down from his desire to see the club lift the Serie A, strengthening Eriksson’s squad with £40M worth of talent that included Parma duo Juan Sebastian Veron and Nestor Sensini, as well as Inter’s dogged midfielder Diego Simeone.
Similarly, despite Milan’s title victory Berlusconi was certainly not resting on his laurels in the summer of 1999, illustrated by his investment of £65M into Alberto Zaccheroni’s playing squad, £20M of which going toward the recruitment of Andriy Shevchenko from Dynamo Kyiv.
When both sides met on Matchday five at the Stadio Olimpico each had made an unbeaten start to the season stretching across all competitions. Milan’s recent visits to Lazio hadn’t been entirely fruitful, with their last victory coming after a stunning George Weah strike in the 87th minute gave them a 1-0 win in December of 1995.
Starting Line Ups
Sven Goran Ericsson would set up his Lazio side in a conventional looking 4-4-2, however the movements and rotations of the players performed slightly differently to what we might expect.
Lazio’s backline was more conservative in its positioning, primarily as the overall team strategy was to sit deep and absorb pressure before counter attacking forward through their strike partnership. Given each defender had a direct opponent within their zone, the back line defended entry passes into the final third using a man-oriented press. This ensured that each Milan attacker had immediate pressure should they receive the ball, while the remaining members of the back four stayed agile as to provide coverage in behind the active pressing defender.
Both Almeyda and Simeone were positioned as defensive midfielders that screened the back line without getting too close to their direct midfield opponents. This allowed them to pick up 2nd balls and create attacking transitions, but in moments of defensive transition it also allowed them to move laterally to cover the wide areas alongside the full backs.
On Lazio’s right wing was the Portuguese Sergio Conceicao, a traditional outside right who hugged the touchline in search of picking up possession and driving to the endline. On the left was Ericsson’s playmaker, the Argentine Juan Sebastien Veron who would perform a free role and initiate much of Lazio’s attack play. We will see in the video analysis that while his starting position was on the wing, his role within the team was to attack very differently.
In attack Alen Boksic would partner Marcleo Salas, both of whom working extremely hard to support the attack as well as position themselves inside the box when it mattered most.
By this stage in Zaccheroni’s tenure his 3-5-2 system was now fully operational, having made targeted purchases to suit his preferred style of play.
In the back line his three defenders worked as a collective unit, shifting laterally to cover wide areas when required. Roberto Ayala displayed the athleticism to cover Maldini and Costacurta should either step forward to attack the ball in the air, but we also saw him step forward to man mark like a traditional center back allowing Costacurta and Maldini to push wide when defending.
Serginho and Guly were the wing backs in the system, primarily taking their starting positions from the midfield line with an emphasis on attacking the flanks. In defensive transition both were tasked with dropping back and defending the back post like a full back.
While Zaccheroni had typically used an attacking midfielder to support the strikers, he began this game with a more robust midfield trio. Ambrosini and Albertini are more possession-based players, those who like to switch the point of attack while maintaining the tempo of the game. Giunti’s only move forward came in support of the strikers as they pressed, stepping onto Almeyda or Simeone to deny simple entry passes. In attack the three midfielders worked in unison to ensure Milan had at least one player supporting the strikers, however the bigger focus was to ensure two screening midfielders were in place at all times to maintain a central structure and cover either Serginho or Guly during moments of transition.
Shevchenko would partner Weah in attack, each of which displayed the ability to drop deep and collect the ball while the other attacked the space diagonally.
First Half Tactical Analysis
It became apparent when analyzing Lazio’s transitional play that Ericsson identified the spaces at either side of Milan’s back line as a potential weakness. Given how aggressive Milan’s wing backs attack in Zaccheroni’s 3-5-2 system, the open spaces on the flanks create more 1v1 situations for the outside center backs to have to defend.
Alen Boksic role was to operate as a target man for Lazio, but not in the conventional way of attacking the ball in the air centrally. The Croatian instead did his best work when pulling wide, collecting the ball, then holding up play as his teammates attacked the box. Something that we saw him do during his early career with Marseille before he made the switch to Serie A.
Right from the first whistle we see Lazio use Boksic’s skill set in transition by firing balls into the sides of Milan’s defensive third. This not only created havoc in attack but would also generate set plays for which Lazio had a rather impressive weapon waiting in reserve.
For the opening goal of the game, we see Boksic evade the advances of both Ayala and Costacurta before crossing toward the back post, where a Sergio Conceicao header would create a shooting opportunity closer to the goal. A stray touch from Roberto Ayala at the edge of the six-yard box set up a chance for fellow countryman Veron, who stepped forward to connect first time with a drive that proved too powerful for Christian Abbiati.
As Milan sought to regain some control of the match, they slowed the tempo by using their numerical advantage centrally to carefully maintain possession. Both Albertini and Ambrosini looked to draw pressure from Almeyda and Simeone by moving deeper toward Lazio’s forward line, giving them more time and space to turn forward before playing a penetrating pass. Guly on the right of Milan’s midfield line also offers a possession option, as he carefully adjusts his starting position between Favalli and Veron. When in possession Guly’s preference is to combine with those around him, which provides Weah the perfect partner in which to use give and go’s to penetrate the final third.
Zaccheroni’s strategy is to move Lazio’s defensive shape horizontally as his side work the ball up the field, ensuring that his players wait patiently on a vertical opening to become available before they play an entry pass into Shevchenko or Weah. When the forwards receive the ball their creativity and movement is highly functional, either they link together to probe the Lazio back line or they drop to feed the wing backs while the other attacks the goal from the resulting cross. This pattern of play was evident during Weah’s equalizing goal, one that was actually awarded to Sinisa Mihajlovic who’s lunging tackle would turn the ball into his own net.
Serginho was only five games into his Milan career in October of 1999, but he had clearly made an impression on the Lazio coaching staff who ensured he was to receive some close attention in the opening stages of the game.
Throughout the opening forty-five minutes we soon began to understand why Lazio sought to close Serginho down so quickly. The Brazilian’s frightening pace is an asset few in the division could cope with, making him a serious threat when carrying the ball forward and, as we saw with Milan’s equalizing goal, when evading pressure to create scoring opportunities from the flank.
Lazio Left Wing Approach Play
Ericsson’s use of rotations between Boksic and Veron created multiple structural problems for Milan’s right side.
In this shot we see a move that has begun with Veron playing an entry pass into Boksic. Veron takes up a wide position to draw pressure from Costacurta, Milan’s right center back, who has stepped forward to cover the space behind Guly. As Veron feeds Boksic the Croatian attacks the flank like a left winger, pulling with him Roberto Ayala. Centrally this now leaves Salas to attack the box with just Paolo Maldini for cover, but in support of the striker Veron now makes a diagonal run toward the top of the box, exposing the central space behind Albertini and Ambrosini.
Another variation of play began with a switch of play from Simeone to Veron, who after controlling the pass dribbled centrally to shoot at goal while Boksic drew pressure away from the ball with a diagonal run toward the flank.
Lazio Set Piece Specialist
Sinisa Mihajlovic was now a year into his time at Lazio, a move that brought about a reacquaintance with former Head Coach Sven Goran Eriksson whom he had played under at Sampdoria. The Yugoslavian international was a cultured center back with an elite level passing range and exquisite first touch, but what made him stand out against the crowd was his ability at set plays. Known for his stunning striking technique from direct free kicks this quality also extended to corner kicks, where his deliveries tested even the most robust defenses.
Throughout the opening exchanges Milan keeper Christian Abbiati was tested at his front zone, before an in-swinging corner from Mihajlovic resulted in the Italy international punching the ball into his own net.
Lazio Striker Link
While the inverted movements of Eriksson’s left side in the 4-4-2 were less conventional, one area that operated as expected was the combination of the front two. With Sergio Conceicao staying mainly on the right flank and Diego Simeone staying deep to protect the transition, this opened an inside right space for Salas to drop into and link the play. When the Chilean found the ball to feet and turned to face forward, he was supported by the diagonal run of Boksic who had moved to attack the space Salas had vacated.
This pattern of play was beautifully illustrated during Lazio’s third goal, when Salas dropped to combine with Boksic who then spread the play by finding Sergio Conceicao on the wing. The Portuguese’s delightful cross found the run of Salas inside the box, who then powered home a header with pinpoint accuracy. The entire move appeared effortless, despite it pulling apart a title winning defense in three simple moves.
As Lazio dropped their defensive line to negate the threat of attacks in behind, Shevchenko reacted by dropping to pick up the ball and featured largely in Milan’s build up as Weah attacked the box. On the few occasions when Shevchenko was able to penetrate the Lazio defensive third his threat in front of goal was felt immediately. He would first bring out a top save from Marchegiani after racing through on a counterattack, but he would eventually score his third of the season after a neat first touch was finished off as he rounded Marchegiani inside the 18-yard box before firing into the roof of the net.
With Milan cutting the deficit to 3-2 on the stroke of half time this set up what was sure to be another exciting half of football. Eriksson would have some thinking to do in how to prevent Shevchenko and Weah from linking so easily, while maintaining the balance of a midfield duo who were already doing some substantial defensive heavy lifting. Zaccheroni had some issues to resolve of his own, namely how he would adjust his side to compensate for the threat of Juan Sebastian Veron who is currently enjoying the freedom of the Stadio Olimpico.
Second Half Tactical Analysis
The only change in the much thus far came after an injury to Paulo Negro on 34 minutes, who was replaced with Giuseppe Pancaro. Neither coach elected to make any substitutions at half time, however it became immediately clear which side was the aggressor at the beginning of the second half.
Lazio Defensive Unit
With a lead to protect Lazio had to sharpen their focus as they sought to quash any momentum Milan brought with them into the second half. Pancaro and Nesta were particularly impressive in the opening stages, displaying a composure and poise when cutting out Milan attacks and preventing players such as Serginho from using his pace to penetrate the back line.
Second Half Milan Build Up
Milan’s greatest strength in possession wasn’t necessarily their cutting speed of play or intricate passing patterns, if anything their success came as a consequence of patience and a willing determination to wait for space to appear.
On 53 minutes a simple passing move resulted in Ambrosini picking up possession just inside the Lazio half, dribbling forward into space and splitting the Lazio back line with a through pass for George Weah.
This image illustrates the weakness in Lazio’s defensive system, as Simeone is unable to cover enough ground to put pressure on the ball and Lazio’s backline were split as the pass finds its way to Weah inside the 18 yard box.
The veteran Liberian striker latches onto the through pass and gets a touch on the ball just before bracing for impact as Marchegiani slides out to make the block. The Lazio keeper collides with Weah, leaving the referee with no other decision but to award Milan a penalty. Andriy Shevchenko steps up and slots home a cool finish to bring Milan back to 3-3.
Lazio Shifting Gear
As Lazio push forward in search of yet another goal, it appears as if Milan have learned nothing from the first half as Boksic and Veron continue to create chances from the left flank with relative ease.
This screenshot is taken from a passage of play that begins with an unopposed ball forward from Lazio left back Favalli. In a similar fashion to the first half, we see that Zaccheroni has continued to position Costacurta beside Veron on the flank and Ayala centrally with Boksic, both of whom are unable to prevent the a cross from entering the box. Maldini handles Salas to the best of his ability, but as well see from the end of the move Serginho just doesn’t appear comfortable in defending Sergio Conceicao at the back post.
On 60 minutes both coaches chose to bring on a substitution, with Eriksson replacing Alen Boksic with Roberto Mancini and Zaccheroni sending on Leonardo for the departing Federico Giunti. Both changes were made in an effort to increase individual creativity, especially in a game that had thus far relied heavily on group functional attack play.
Eight minutes after those changes and Zaccheroni’s switch had already paid dividends. As Weah dropped deep to collect the ball following a restart in midfield, he now had both Shevchenko and Leonardo as targets in front of him. Positioned in what is termed the “trequartista” Leonardo occupied the space behind the strikers in a much more deliberate fashion than Giunti.
As Weah’s pass moved toward Leonardo the Lazio defense froze just as the Brazilian lifted his foot, appearing to control the ball, but would allow it to run through to Shevchenko. Two touches later and the ball was making its way past Marchegiani and into the bottom right-hand corner, Milan remarkably now found themselves 4-3 ahead.
Last Role of the Dice
Minutes after Milan reclaimed the lead Eriksson would go for broke by changing both his line up and his sides tactical framework. Much to the ire of the Argentinian, Diego Simeone was replaced by Simone Inzaghi in a move that would see the Italian go on to partner Salas in attack with Mancini dropping into midfield.
While on the surface this remained a 4-4-2, Eriksson altered the positioning of a few key areas to allow for better coverage when in the final third.
Favali moved into a more attacking role at left back, frequently making overlapping movements to support Mancini who was tasked with cutting in on his right foot to deliver in swinging crosses.
Veron moved inside to central midfield, allowing him to demonstrate his exquisite passing range as well as cause a threat on goal. His partner, Matias Almeyda, remained as the central defensive midfield lynchpin, giving cover to Favali should he get caught in transition.
In attack Inzaghi and Salas worked in tandem to occupy the Milan back line, forcing them to defend close to Abbiati’s goal as they went in search of a finish from either a Mancini or Sergio Conceicao cross.
With Salas equalizing on 71 minutes, Zaccheroni decided the time was right to drop anchor and protect the point Milan had earned. Serginho was sacrificed on 75 minutes in favor of Bruno N’Gotty, with the Frenchman moving to center back as Paolo Maldini operated as a more conservative left wing back. Ten minutes later Andriy Shevchenko was replaced by new signing Rino Gattuso, with the 21-year-old taking his place in central midfield as Zaccheroni moved to a more rigid 4-5-1 defensive structure.
In the closing stages of the game Sergio Conceicao managed to wriggle free of the advances of Gattuso and Maldini, leading to a cross from the endline that was blocked by the slide tackle of Demetrio Albertini. Replays showed that the ball had struck Albertini’s arm, however given the dubiety of the block location the referee awarded a corner kick.
Mihajlovic stepped forward to whip in a wicked cross into the back area of the six-yard box, looking to expose the space left by Abbiati who had only made provisions on his front post. As the ball dipped down Salas was able to evade the close marking of Roberto Ayala and connected with a header that looked set to give Lazio a late winner, however Abbiati showed elite level reflexes to make a stop that prevented yet another turnaround in the score line.
The Final Chapter
For the remainder of 1999 Lazio would continue to gather pace as they motored to the top of Serie A and progressed as group winners in the Champions League. AC Milan on the other hand produced inconsistent form in the league and were utterly dismal in Europe, finishing bottom of a Champions League Group featuring Chelsea, Hertha Berlin and Galatasary.
As the season reached its winter break and we moved into the new millennium, Serie A was as tight as it had ever been.
With only eight points separating the top six sides this placed yet more pressure on Eriksson to juggle a title challenge alongside a European campaign, especially given that UEFA had instituted a second group stage phase into the Champions League. The additional six match days would inevitably take their toll on Lazio, who over the course of the spring were overtaken by a Juventus side free of European responsibilities following their UEFA Cup exit to Celta Vigo.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Juve side had only conceded 13 goals in 26 games, but on matchdays 27 and 28 their miserly defense wasn’t helped by a misfiring forward line. Juve failed to score in losses to rivals Milan and Lazio, narrowing their margin at the summit to just four points.
Lazio’s 3-3 draw with Fiorentina led many to suggest the title was over, however Juve’s shock defeat away to Hellas Verona a few weeks later put everything back in the balance.
To add to the drama of such a close title run in, on the penultimate weekend of the season Juve’s match with Parma was left shrouded in controversy when referee Massimo De Santis disallowed a perfectly legitimate Fabio Cannovaro goal in injury time. With Juve leading 1-0 into the closing stages of the match, the Italian defender rose above his marker to power home a header but was ruled to have felled his opponent in the process.
In the press after the match Cragnotti protested, “our football has to be completely rebuilt. Everybody saw what happened in Turin, and no one is able to explain why that goal wasn’t allowed. Lazio deserve the league title, both morally and for football.”
With just two points separating the title contenders as they headed into the final day of the season, Lazio found themselves in an eerily similar predicament as they had faced just twelve months earlier. Lazio required nothing less than a victory over Reggina at home and had to hope for a minor miracle in Umbria, as yet again their title rival faced off against lowly Perugia.
Inside the sun kissed surroundings of the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Lazio would conduct a routine dismantling of Reggina and come out 3-0 victors. Meanwhile, Juventus were tied 0-0 at half-time when a torrential rainstorm hit the Renato Curi Stadium and threatened to postpone the match. The game would restart a full 80 minutes after the final whistle had went in Rome, leaving the fans inside the Olimpico with an agonizing wait to hear the outcome of Juve’s match.
An Alessandro Calori strike four minutes into the second half put Perugia ahead and left the Lazio faithful with that uneasy feeling of being on the edge of victory, one they had encountered so many times over the past two seasons. Juve’s attacks on the Perugia goal fell as often as the raindrops on the turf, however Ancelott’s men simply couldn’t find a way to breach Andrea Mazzantini’s goal.
Juve’s loss meant that the Scudetto was heading to the sky-blue half of Rome for the first time since 1974, leading to an eruption of emotion inside the Olimpico as the fans congregated on the turf to celebrate.
Four days after their title triumph Lazio somehow managed to pull themselves together to complete a league and cup double, securing the Coppa Italia after a 2-1 aggregate win over Inter Milan at the San Siro.
As we return to the protagonists of this story, 99/00 wasn’t exactly a vintage year for Berlusconi and Milan however it was certainly the high-water mark of Cragnotti’s Lazio reign. AC Milan would once again return to the summit of the European game throughout the 2000s, however mounting debts and a failure to reproduce the form of 99/00 led to the ultimate demise of Cragnotti as Lazio president.
Less than a year later Sven Goran Eriksson had accepted an offer to take over the England national team, captain Alessandro Nesta would leave to join AC Milan and talisman Pavel Nedved had jumped ship to Juventus. As each piece of this expensively orchestrated puzzle departed so to would Lazio’s credibility as a viable title candidate, culminating in the eventual departure of Cragnotti in 2002 when news surfaced that his company Cirio had defaulted on its bonds worth in excess of €1.12 billion.
The game we have covered today was, and is, iconic for so many reasons. It represents a time in the pantheon of European club football whereby the level of competition was easily one of the highest we have experienced, displaying a collective and individual talent far in excess of anything I have personally witnessed since. It also embodies a time of largesse and poor economic governance that led to wider financial ramifications, the effects of which are still being felt throughout the wider Italian society to this day.
What makes this story compelling is that this Lazio team were not supposed to triumph, especially in a time when larger Italian institutions held the broader power base and were intent on steamrollering all before them. Albeit highly flawed, Cragnotti and Eriksson created a side that won in the face of adversity, doing so in possibly the most entertaining and engaging way possible for us the viewer.