Salernitana snatching a tie against Milan on Saturday night may have come as a surprise to many calcio followers. However, that was not the first time that the Granata gave the Rossoneri a run for their money in recent history.
On January 31, 1999, a gritty Salernitana side put Milan to the ropes and only surrendered to a 2-3 loss after being denied by the posts several times. They ended the season with a relegation – a possible scenario this time around as well – while the Diavolo quite surprisingly ended up capturing the Scudetto.
Perhaps the Milan fans will find their consolation by looking at this precedent as they try to bounce back form an overly disappointing performance at the Arechi Stadium on Saturday night. So, let’s learn more about this Serie A classic game.
The Serie A 1998/99 season is remembered among the most peculiar in the history of the Italian top-flight, if only because Juventus was not among the top title contenders.
Coming from two titles in a row, Marcello Lippi’s Juventus shockingly ended out of the top 4, with the Viareggio-born gaffer sacked after prematurely announcing his deal to move to Inter the following summer. He was replaced by a young Carlo Ancelotti whose first “achievement” as a coach was making Thierry Henry play completely out of position. Whoa.
With the Bianconeri out of contention, the battle for the title involved Giovanni Trapattoni’s Fiorentina, Sven Goran Eriksson’s Lazio and – quite unexpectedly – Alberto Zaccheroni’s Milan.
The Rossoneri were just out two dreadful seasons and seemed at the end of a cycle, but somehow emerged as the winners after a last-gasp head-to-head with Lazio. Most Milan fans would agree that it was probably the most unexpected title in the more-than-centennial history of the Diavolo.
The previous season, coach Alberto Zaccheroni had led Udinese to an unprecedented third place in the table. With the firm intention of bringing the Rossoneri back to where they belonged, President Silvio Berlusconi swooped in and took him away from Udine, along with defender Thomas Helveg and methodical German striker Oliver Bierhoff – the hero of Euro 1996.
Zaccheroni found a roster that was a convoluted jumble of aging glories like quick-tempered goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi, Roberto Donadoni and George Weah, mixed with the products of some bizarre transfer market operations like France’s Ibrahim Ba and Bruno Ngotty or Italy’s onetime future Domenico Morfeo.
And yet, the mild-mannered coach managed to weather such storms as a 0-4 setback at Parma to ultimately bring Milan to some unhoped-for glory.
When they welcomed Salernitana at the San Siro on January 31, 1999, the Rossoneri were sitting third in the table, five points behind top-ranked Fiorentina. The Granata, on the other hand, were second to last but still with plenty of chances of surviving a relegation battle involving at least nine clubs (!)
The outcome was anything but written in a season that had already offered many surprises. But Milan got off on the right foot as Bierhoff was quick to serve the specialty of the house after just two minutes: a powerful header to make the best out of an Andres Guglielminpietro cross from the right-hand side.
Salernitana almost reacted, though. The Granata followed a similar pattern as the Rossoneri: a cross in the middle of the box and a header from prolific striker Marco Di Vaio that drew a great save from goalkeeper Christian Abbiati.
This was just the third cap with Milan for the home-grown goalie. He had debuted two weeks earlier, filling in Seba Rossi’s gloves after the veteran shot-stopper almost beheaded Perugia’s Christian Bucchi with a vicious wrestling-style chop, earning a five-match ban as a consequence.
Abbiati was fast to show some glimpses of his talent but could not do anything as Federico Giampaolo (the brother of present-day coach Marco…) pounced on the save and tapped the ball in, making it 1-1.
Salernitana meant business and veteran defender Alessandro Costacurta had to make himself heard with his teammates after clearing away a dangerous cross in the middle of the box.
He was right to be worried as the Granata put their heads ahead before the 15-minute mark. It was defender Alessandro Del Grosso (not exactly a goleador…) to propel the visitors in the driving seat with a magnificent left-foot lob shot from outside the box that would have been a great candidate for the Puskas Award, had that been invented already . This time, the young Abbiati paid a price to inexperience as his positioning could have been better.
When Guglielminpietro left the pitch after a head collision with his teammate Luigi Sala, Zaccheroni must have though it was going to be a bad day as the Argentine had become a key piece in his setup.
Milan came out of the darkness with shrewdness, though. After committing a foul, Salernitana’s Salvatore Fresi spent too much time protesting while the Rossoneri thought well to restart the game with Zvonimir Boban, who picked Bierhoff on the right flank. The German served Weah in the middle of the box and for the big Liberian it was child’s play to just push the ball into the back of the net from point-blank range.
Bierhoff was unstoppable and, after missing the target with a close-range shot, went again for one of his deadly headers, calling keeper Salvatore Balli to an incredible save. Applause for the Granata goalkeeper and curtains down on a spectacular first half.
The second period showcased the talent of the mercurial Domenico Morfeo, who was very active all throughout the game. The former Atalanta and Fiorentina man set up Weah with a perfectly timed pass but, this time, the Lion King’s conclusion didn’t live up to his fame.
Then again, Morfeo crossed the ball in the middle of the box with his magic left foot and – guess who – Bierhoff jumped ahead of his marker Drazen Bolic to head the ball home. Balli couldn’t do anything this time.
But it wasn’t over.
Bolic must have learned something from his close encounter with Bierhoff as, a few minutes later, the Serbian defender headed from a corner kick, forcing Abbiati to palm the ball away and prevent it from ending its run right into the top right corner of his goal .
Salernitana were far from willing to surrender and, before the end, Abbiati had to thank his posts twice for pushing back both a deadly strike from Di Vaio and then a David Di Michele screamer that made the woodwork rattle.
That was their spirit. An indomitable team with a remarkable roster if compared to today’s Serie A standards, Salernitana featured a remarkable set of strikers in Marco Giampaolo, Marco Di Vaio and David Di Michele (the latter two would go on to play for Juventus) and even a 21- year-old Gennaro Gattuso at midfield.
But in the ultra-competitive Serie A from the 1990s that was not enough. Despite fighting until the end, the Granata lost their relegation battle in the last match day to disappear from the top-flight radar until this season. One thing they never lost though, is their fond for giving big clubs a hard time, as Saturday night’s match at the Arechi Stadium confirmed.
January 31, 1999 – Serie A 1998-99 Round 19
SCORERS: 3′ Bierhoff (M), 7′ Giampaolo (S), 14′ Del Grosso (S), 25′ Weah (M), 60′ Bierhoff (M)
|MILAN (4-3-3): Abbiati; Sala, Costacurta, Maldini, Guglielminpietro (23′ Ba); Ambrosini (79′ Ngotty), Boban, goat; Bierhoff, Morfeo, Weah (Frezzolini, Donadoni, Giunti, Ganz) Coaches: Zaccheroni|
|SALERNITANA (4-4-2): balli; Bolic, Fusco, Fresi, Del Grosso; M. Rossi, Bernardini, Breda (84′ Kolousek), Tosto (71′ Di Michele); Giampaolo (61′ Vannucchi), Di Vaio (Ivan, Monaco, Ametrano, Belmonte) Coaches: D Rossi|
REFEREE: Mr. Pellegrino from Barcellona Pozzo di Gotto