Champions elect, AC Milan, moved to within four points of their first title since 2011 at the Stadio Marc’antonio Bentegodi in Verona yesterday.
With a convincing victory, Milan finally believe that they have laid to rest the ghosts of ‘la Fatal Verona’, where they have twice had the Scudetto snatched from their grasp. The Bentegodi Stadium has earned its nickname – with Milan twice losing the title there.
In 1973, when a point clear of both Lazio and Juventus, Milan collapsed. Just four days previously, Milan had beaten Leeds United by a single goal to nil in a tight European Cup Winners Cup Final. In a bitterly contested match that saw Norman Hunter assault Rivera in retaliation for a blatant kick by the Italian, the English side battered and bruised the Rosseneri (red and black). In advance of the final, Milan had requested an extra day to recover before their final day encounter with Hellas Verona. Ultimately, this proved to be to no avail and the Federazione Italiana Giuoco Calcio (FIGC) denied their request on the grounds that all matches on the final day should be played simultaneously.
Consequently, an exhausted Milan took to the field in Verona and promptly went 3-0 behind within half an hour. Although the Rosseneri fought back late in the second half, by then the damage had already been done. Eventually losing 5-3, Milan would need to rely on results elsewhere going in their favour. Lazio duly obliged; they lost 1-0 in Napoli. Juventus, however, were not so generous. With time running out in their final day fixture at Roma, Antonello Cuccureddu lashed an 87th minute winner past the Roma keeper and ‘The Old Lady’ claimed their fifteenth title. The following season Milan finished a lowly seventh in Serie A, missing out on Europe. Hellas Verona, were relegated after being punished for alleged bribery.
If what happened in Verona in 1973 had been a shock, then what happened in 1990 was an earthquake. This time, Milan travelled to Hellas Verona on the penultimate day of the season. Now owned by Silvio Berlusconi, Milan had brought in the talented Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. With Arrigo Sacchi at the helm, they had won the 1987/88 title: their first Scudetto in nine years. The following year they had added the European Cup and would repeat the feat again in in 1990. Before doing so, they had two games left to secure the Serie A title: a trip to Verona followed by Bari at home. Milan’s 12th scudetto appeared to be a mere formality.
Once again Milan’s visit to Verona came on the back of an energy sapping tie in Europe. Just four days before the match in Verona, the Rosseneri had triumphed in an epic European Cup semi-final with Bayern in Munich, coming through a two-legged affair to win in extra time. With their tails up, Milan headed (as they had done in 1973) to the Bentegodi.
Milan started the match brightly and scored through Marco Simone in the 33rd minute. Simone’s free-kick from way out somehow found it’s way through a crowd of players into the net and past the keeper’s right hand. Verona equalised on 63 minutes. From a corner on the right, Victor Hugo Sotomayor ascended highest to head the ball into the top right hand corner of the net, leaving Andrea Pazzagli stranded in the Milan goal. Then Milan imploded. First, Frank Rijkaard was sent off and then Marco van Basten followed him down the tunnel.
With coach Arrigo Sacchi already banished from the touchline, Milan appeared rudderless. When the winner came in the 89th minute, through a close range finish from Davide Pellegrini, Milan’s nightmare was complete. Meanwhile, in Bologna, Diego Maradona was inspiring Napoli to a convincing 4-2 away win. A week later, a final day win for Napoli at home to Lazio would seal the title for ‘Gli Azzurri’ and confine Milan to the runners-up spot.
It was in this context that Milan returned to the Bentegodi last night and they must have been fearful of ‘la fatal Verona’ when they went a goal behind on thirty-eight minutes to Davide Faraoni’s far post header.
However, in 2022 things are very different in Milan. This year’s team is greater than the sum of its parts and they fought back to win comfortably. The tireless Sandro Tonali scored either side of half-time, before Alessandro Florenzi surged forward to seal the win with a devastating right-foot finish, low into the bottom left corner, from the right side of the penalty area.
With the spectre of Bentegodi laid firmly to rest, Milan return to the San Siro in their penultimate match against Atalanta next Sunday, knowing that a win would leave them needing just a point on the final day at Sassuolo to secure their 19th Scudetto.