For fans of a certain age, Juventus are as synonymous with the European Cup as Real Madrid. Surprisingly so, given that the club have brought the trophy home to Turin only twice in their history.
As the team prepare to face Barcelona in their eighth time at this stage of the competition it is worth looking back on a time when Juventus looked set to dominate the world.
In 1996, Juventus prepared to face the holders of the European Cup, that great Ajax team of Patrick Kluviert, Clarence Seedorf and the de Boer brothers. They had been to the final three times in their history at that point, winning only once, in Heysel in 1985.
The 1996 final was shaping up to be a clash of arguably two of the greatest club sides of the era. Ajax were the marginal favourites, but Juventus had leapfrogged AC Milan to become the strongest side in the World’s ‘premier’ league, Serie A. How they had done so was down to one man, Marcelo Lippi.
When Lippi took over at the Stadio delle Alpi in 1994, the Turin club had gone eight season without a Scudetto, their longest drought since World War Two.
Their squad held now legendary players such as a unfathomably youthful Alessandro Del Piero, Didier Deschamps, Roberto Baggio and the twin strikers of Vialli and Ravanelli. They had been nearly men in the league for a number of seasons but lacked the tactical nous on the sideline that Lippi would provide.
By the end of his first season in charge Juve were once again champions of Italy, winning the toughest league on the planet by a margin of ten points from second placed Lazio. In the mid-nineties, only the champions of a country advanced to play in the newly formed Champions League and so Juventus qualified for the first time.
The season was tinged with sadness however. Andrea Fortunato, a talented left back capped at national level, had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukaemia in the summer of 1994. He received a bone marrow transplant, won his battle against cancer and returned to the Juventus side in February of 1995 in a match against Sampdoria.
Sadly, Fortunato caught pneumonia and passed away on the 25th of April that year. His teammates dedicated their league title and Italian Super Cup victories to his memory.
Lippi’s second season started well but tailed off dramatically as winter approached. By the time Christmas presents were being opened Juventus had lost six times in the league and were all but out of contention for the title.
On the continent, however, the team went from strength to strength. Back to back, thrashings of Rangers and victories over Borussia Dortmund and Steaua Bucharest meant the club qualified for the Champions League quarterfinals with ease.
There they dispatched Real Madrid over two legs before doing likewise to FC Nantes in the semi-finals. The final, taking place in Rome was set and Juventus would challenge the much-loved Ajax side that had ended AC Milan’s bid to become the greatest of all time just a year earlier.
In contrast to Juventus’ record of three losses on their way to the final, one each to Dortmund, Real Madrid and FC Nantes, Ajax had only record one loss in their whole campaign.
In the group stage they had recorded five wins out of six, included two wins over Real Madrid, before defeating Borussia Dortmund home and away in the quarters.
Their one loss came as the biggest surprise in the tournament that year, Panathinaikos winning the first leg of the semi-final 1-0 in Amsterdam.
The return match in Greece saw Ajax run out 3-0 victors. This was the legendary team mostly groomed in Ajax’s famed youth academy and they were odds on with the bookies to retain the European Cup.
Around 67,000 spectators packed the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to watch an even match. Neither side held the upper hand for too long, both had to endure their own share of defensive pressure. A mix up by Frank De Boer and Edwin Van Der Sar allowed Ravanelli to slot home the opener from a very tight angle.
Ajax hit back and nearly had their equaliser through a Kluviert flick on at a corner after Peruzzi, the Juve keeper, was found in no man’s land. He managed to scramble back and scoop the ball off the line at the last second.
Peruzzi was at fault Ajax’s goal in the 41st though. A tame free kick came directly to him and instead of catching the ball he opted to punch it away. The ball fell back in to the crowd of players that had been waiting and Jari Litmanen fired home from close range.
Nothing should remind people of football in the nineties so much as a keeper unnecessarily punching the ball away. The match finished 1-1 and went to penalties, Juventus winning 4-2 after Edgar Davids and Jan Silooy missed their spot kicks.
This one meant more to them than their victory nearly ten years previously. Roberto Bettega, a Juventus official, summing up the mood of the club:
We have waited a long time. We never really considered 1985 as a victory because of Heysel.
Heysel was tinged with sadness, this was pure joy for the Old Lady of Turin.
The club would move forward in the years following their victory, signing Zinedine Zidane, Alen Boksic and Christian Vieri in the summer of 1996 and winning the Scudetto in 1997 and again 1998.
They would also reach the next two European Cup finals as well, losing both times to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid respectively. The club would not appear in the final again until 2003’s loss to AC Milan, whilst Lippi would move on to win the World Cup with the Italian national side in 2006.
Much has happened to Juventus since then of course. Scandal, relegation, promotion and redemption in their home country have defined the club for the past decade. All that is left is their return to the stage they practically called home for a time in the nineties.