The Joy of Six: European Cup final goals
Before you start, Zinedine Zidane’s goal against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 has already been included in .
Matt Busby’s plan was to be cautious and protect the 3-2 lead that Manchester United had carved out in the first leg of their European Cup quarter-final against Benfica. Everything was in place for the second leg in Lisbon on 9 March 1966. Busby prepared his tactics meticulously: United were to play conservatively, sit back, frustrate their formidable hosts and wait until the time was right to strike on the counter-attack. Benfica only needed a 1-0 win to go through and with Eusébio leading their attack, they were confident of getting that goal.
And they did score once. The only problem was that when they did after 52 minutes, they were already 3-0 down on the night and trailing 6-2 on aggregate. It turned out that one man had not been listening to Busby’s instructions in the United dressing room: George Best. “Our plan was to be cautious, but somebody must have stuffed cotton wool in George’s ears,” Busby said, almost but not quite managing to sound exasperated, his words instead highlighting the awe that Best inspired in those who watched him play.
It was one of the all-time great performances in the history of the European Cup. Best gave United the lead after six minutes and scored again seven minutes later, before John Connelly made it three. “Perhaps it was because I was so wrapped up in my performance,” Best wrote in his autobiography, Blessed. “I barely remember half-time, except for the fact that we were celebrating and Matt Busby was trying to tell us that we had to be careful, that it wasn’t over. But after Shay Brennan knocked in an own goal, Pat Crerand and Bobby Charlton both scored in the second half and we had an unbelievable 5-1 win. It was surreal stuff. To be a part of such an experience was unreal.”
Benfica were presented with the chance to gain revenge when they met United in the final at Wembley two years later and although Bobby Charlton headed United into the lead after 54 minutes, Jaime Graca’s equaliser with 12 minutes remaining appeared to put the Portuguese side in control. Indeed, but for a spectacular save from Alex Stepney in the dying minutes, Eusébio would have won it for Benfica. The striker applauded United’s goalkeeper because of his “sense of fair play”.
United, missing the injured Denis Law, needed their big players to step up in extra-time. Shortly after the restart, a long clearance from Stepney was flicked on – and then Best suddenly whirred into action. Racing on to the loose ball, he poked it through the legs of a covering defender and then readied himself for a confrontation with José Henrique, Benfica’s goalkeeper.
Some players might have taken the sensible option in that position. Don’t try to be clever – shoot first, ask questions later. If you miss, so be it. But that wasn’t Best’s style and no footballer had more style than him in the 60s (of course, your dad will tell you that no footballer in the history of the game has ever had more style than Best). Instead he jinked right and then, as Henrique dived at his feet, Best swerved away from him with a jerky jab to his left, leaving him with one open goal and one red-faced goalkeeper.
Even then, Best wasn’t done taunting Benfica. His finish was struck with just enough power to make Henrique think that he could reach it and as the ball trundles over the line, there is the magnificent sight of him leaping into one last, futile, doomed dive to reach it, like Tom trying to jump on Jerry but ending up with a mousetrap fastened to his nose.
And even then, Best, ever the showman, wasn’t quite satisfied. “I used to dream about taking the ball round the keeper, stopping it on the line and then getting on my hands and knees and heading it into the net,” he said. “When I scored against Benfica in the European Cup final, I nearly did it. I left the keeper for dead, but then I chickened out. I might have given the boss a heart attack.” Knowing what we do about Best, he probably would have scored anyway.
The European Cup has never been retained in the Champions League era. Barcelona wasted the chance to make history in 2010 and 2012; Manchester United couldn’t do it when they reached the final in 2009 and nor could Ajax in 1996, while it was beyond Bayern Munich this season. Although Real Madrid won it three times between 1998 and 2002, they never retained it. Harder than it looks, this Champions League business.
Juventus, who came as close as anyone to pulling it off, don’t need a reminder. It still rankles that they blew the chance to make history in the late 90s, when they reached the final on three consecutive occasions but only won it once, beating the holders, Ajax, on penalties after a 1-1 draw in 1996 but then losing to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid in the following two years when immortality beckoned.
Serie A was still Europe’s dominant power at that point and Marcello Lippi’s Juventus were the continent’s most intimidating side, a feeling enhanced in England by the lesson they gave United in the group stage at the start of the 1996-97 season. They had an impeccable defence, Zinedine Zidane in midfield and Alessandro Del Piero, Christian Vieri and Alen Boksic to choose from up front; and they were expected to beat Dortmund when they met them in the final in 1997.
Yet Lippi erred by leaving Del Piero on the bench and with Paul Lambert marking Zidane out of the game, Dortmund led 2-0 at the break after two goals from Karl-Heinz Riedle. Realising his error, Lippi introduced Del Piero at the start of the second half and, with three strikers on the pitch, Juventus began to dominate, pushing the Germans to the limit and halving the deficit after 65 minutes. Inevitably, it was Del Piero who scored, turning home Boksic’s cross with a cute backheel from close range.
Juventus roared forward in search of an equaliser, forcing Dortmund’s manager, Ottmar Hitzfeld, to turn to his bench for fresh legs with 20 minutes to go and on came Lars Ricken, who had scored in the semi-final against United.
Sixteen seconds later, Ricken was sent clear down the inside-right channel by Andreas Möller and when he saw Angelo Peruzzi invitingly off his line, promptly sent a delicious lob over the Juventus goalkeeper from 25 yards to secure Dortmund’s victory. Not only was it his first touch of the game, it was also the quickest goal scored by a substitute in a European Cup final.
As for Juventus, at least their defeat to Madrid a year later, Predrag Mijatovic scoring a clever late winner for the Spaniards, meant they didn’t have to fret too much about what might have been.
Gerd Müller wasn’t fussy. A goal was a goal, whether it was a 25-yard screamer or a scruffed toe-poke from close range that was so ugly even its own mother wouldn’t have had a good word to say about it. What was the point of being snobby? The end result was the same either way.
Der Bomber usually settled for the mundane rather than the explosive. Like Pippo Inzaghi, Müller was deadly from six yards out and that is meant as a compliment. If it was that easy to score from that range, then every striker would have records like Muller or Inzaghi, but they don’t, because the art of goal-poaching requires skill, timing, patience, ruthlessness and a cold-blooded streak to lure an opposition defence into a false sense of security, make them think you’re utterly harmless and then strike when they least expect it.
What’s Müller doing? Nothing. What’s Müller doing? Still nothing. Müller? Nothing. Wait. Where’s he gone?
Poachers are a rare breed. It might have looked like a fluke when Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick hit Inzaghi on the chest in and flew past Liverpool’s Pepe Reina to give Milan the lead in the 2007 Champions League final. But it just had to be Inzaghi who was in the right place at the right time, even if he knew little about it. If a teacher had asked to see his working, he would have failed – but Inzaghi still, despite himself, had the right answer. He didn’t mean it. But he meant it. He probably couldn’t explain it. But it still happened.
Nonetheless, to paint either player as limited is to do them a disservice. Marco van Basten would have been proud of this Inzaghi volley against Barcelona in 2010, while Müller proved his technical qualities in Bayern Munich’s thrashing of Atlético Madrid in 1974. The final went to a replay after a 1-1 draw in the first game – both goals were scored in extra-time, Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck for the Germans, Luis Aragonés for the Spaniards – and Uli Hoeness gave Bayern the lead after 28 minutes.
Müller then made it 2-0 with an angled volley after 56 minutes, but better was to follow 13 minutes later. He had ample time and space on his hands when a cracking disguised pass sent him clear of the despondent Atlético defence and the best course of action for Müller to take appeared to be to take a touch, steady himself and then score. Instead he showed a level of improvisation and imagination that was not always associated with him.
Miguel Reina, father of Pepe, was off his line, but not so far that it made it realistic for Müller to lob him, especially as the ball was at an awkward height. No problem. From the edge of the area, Müller contorted his body, lifted his right leg off the ground and then generated awesome power and height to hoick the ball into the air and towards Reina’s goal. The ball went high, very high, so high that it seemed that it might not drop in time. But Reina knew. He was frantically backpedalling, because he knew that Müller was good enough to pull it off, and soon he was tumbling backwards in desperation as the ball looped over him and into the net.
It was a remarkable piece of skill, so unnecessary given the context and yet so beautiful given the context. The amazing thing is the trajectory of the ball: it goes high enough to take Reina out of the equation and yet it begins it descent quickly and sharply enough to go in. Look where the ball first touches the ground – not in the back or the roof of the net, but inches over the line. Müller judged it to perfection. Has there ever been a more natural finisher? Or, come to think of it, a better lob?
Well, Dejan Savicivic might have something to say about that. Weird as it seems, there was a time when Milan were one of the most glamorous clubs in Europe, not the shambling mess we see today, and their destruction of Barcelona in the final in 1994 was one of the most awesome performances in the history of the tournament, with Savicevic, the Montenegrin midfielder with magic in his boots, at the heart of it. With a number of key players missing because of injuries and Uefa’s three-foreigner rule, Milan were heavy underdogs against Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona, who left out Michael Laudrup, but Fabio Capello simply saw it as an opportunity to display the managerial prowess that would later be wasted on England. Milan were excellent and Savicevic was unstoppable. He helped create two of Milan’s goals and scored their third two minutes after half-time with a stunning lob, robbing the dawdling Miguel Ángel Nadal on the right and then embarrassing Andoni Zubizarreta from a difficult angle on the corner of the Barcelona area. Has there ever been a better lob? Well, Müller might have something to say about that.
Time was running out for Porto with 13 minutes to go in the 1987 final. Bayern had led since the 24th minute thanks to a goal from Ludwig Kögl and were closing in on their first European crown since 1976. The finishing line was in sight and, for Porto, it was going to take something special to break down Bayern.
Then something special happened. A pass from Frasco released Juary, who burst into the Bayern area on the right and drew Jean-Marie Pfaff from his goal, before dinking the ball over the goalkeeper and into the six-yard box. If it was a shot, it was not going in and if it was a pass to Rabah Madjer, it left much to be desired. The ball was behind the Algerian, forcing him to turn away from goal and think on his feet. So that is what he did. With barely a second to waste, Madjer weighed up all the options available to him and then hit upon the solution: one second the ball was bobbling on the uneven surface, the next it had been flicked past, er, Hans-Dieter Flick, utterly discombobulated by the most impudent of backheels from Madjer, who promptly collapsed with cramp.
After receiving treatment, Madjer was sufficiently recovered to create Juary’s winner with 10 minutes left after a mazy dribble down the left. The only disappointment for Madjer was that his goal would have been the greatest Pelé had ever seen, if only he had been nonchalant enough not to have a glance behind him as the ball crossed the line. Still, at least he didn’t turn into a pillar of salt.
Simplicity is underrated. There are goals that do not receive the credit they deserve because they were made to look easier than they actually were, but creating that illusion is a skill. Take Barcelona’s victory over Manchester United in the 2011 final. The outstanding goal in that match was David Villa’s clincher in the second half, a wonderful curler into the top corner from the edge of the area after some dreamy footwork from Lionel Messi. Yet although Pedro’s opener was not as eye-catching, it was just as impressive in its own way, a casual stroke past Edwin van der Sar and into the bottom corner, the ball gliding so smoothly that it was as if the pitch was made out of felt. Pedro’s first touch allowed him to open up his body for a shot and in the millisecond it took him to realise that an overcommitted Van der Sar expected him to aim for the corner, as the manuals say, he had calculated that the best route to goal was the illogical one – to take advantage of the gap left by the United goalkeeper and pass the ball into the near post. The shot was not struck with any venom, but a wrongfooted Van der Sar had been outwitted and could do nothing to rectify the situation.
Bayern Munich’s Hans-Jörg Butt experienced a similar feeling against Internazionale a year earlier. Not much had occurred in the opening 35 minutes when Inter’s Júlio César sent a long clearance deep into the Bayern half. But when Diego Milito flicked the ball on to Wesley Sneijder, who was playing the most effective football of his career, Bayern were in trouble. Milito peeled away from Martín Demichelis, whose failure to respond was fatal, and Sneijder then rolled a lovely weighted pass through to the Argentinian, who only had Butt to beat. With Milito in the form of his life, a goal was inevitable and, sure enough, he jabbed a shot high into the net to give Inter the lead.
There did not appear to be anything more to the goal than that when viewed in real time – while Milito finished well, he was not expected to miss. Yet the minor details are crucial. After the first replay, it starts to become apparent that something was up, that Milito had done something to the goalkeeper. Then comes the replay from behind the goal and that is where it all falls into place.
While Milito’s first touch took him away from Demichelis, Holger Badstuber was closing in from the other side. He did not have much time to make up his mind. Yet Milito was so confident in his ability, so sure that he could do nothing wrong, that he delayed, sitting Butt down and then, with a little jerk of his right leg, he feinted to shoot, causing the goalkeeper to flinch and throwing him off-balance. This was the football equivalent of fooling your opponent into giving you a free shot in a game of slapsies and with Butt helpless and Badstuber arriving a fraction too late, Milito finished off his subtle masterpiece. It was a truly brilliant goal and Milito scored again after 70 minutes, jinking past Daniel van Buyten and curling past Butt. The nervelessness is staggering.