When Internazionale won the UEFA Cup but almost got relegated

When Internazionale won the UEFA Cup but almost got relegated

The full-time whistle rang around the King Power Stadium at around 21:35 local time and was quickly followed by a euphoric cheer, the kind they had become used to in that corner of the East Midlands. Claudio Ranieri’s players had kept the Leicester City miracle alive by confirming top spot in their Champions League group and by progressing to the next round of Europe’s premier competition with a 2-1 win over Club Brugge.

Yet the absurdity of that achievement didn’t end there. Almost as peculiar as the fact that Leicester became the first team in Europe to win their group in UEFA’s showpiece tournament – admittedly, they only pipped Monaco to that honour by a couple of minutes – was the fact they did so while simultaneously holding the far less glamorous position of 14th place in the Premier League. Their 13 Champions League points from five games trumped the 12 points they had taken the first 12 Premier League matches of the 2016-17 season.

Had any other team ever experienced such a marked difference between their domestic and continental form? The short answer is yes – and here is the more detailed one.

The 1993-94 season was supposed to be Inter Milan’s year. Under Osvaldo Bagnoli, the man who had marched Verona to a shock 1984-85 Scudetto, the Nerazzurri had similarly surprised the country in 1992-93 by finishing in an unexpected second place, just four Serie A points behind Fabio Capello’s AC Milan side. With Inter having purchased the exciting Ajax duo of Dennis Bergkamp and Wim Jonk the following summer – and with Capello seeing Frank Rijkaard move in the opposite direction, while Ruud Gullit headed to Sampdoria – there was a belief that the end-of-season confetti and ribbons would this time be black and blue.

The domestic season got off to a bright start, with new arrival Jonk requiring just 14 minutes to open his Inter account with a sweet long-range volley against newly promoted Reggiana. Salvatore Schillaci added another in the second half to seal an opening day 2-1 win and Bagnoli’s men went on to take five points from the first three matches – this was, remember, back in the days of just two points for a win. That propelled Inter back to the second place spot where they had finished the previous campaign and suggested that the pre-season hype was justified.

Quickly, though, the initial bubble of optimism burst, particularly when it was revealed that Nicola Berti would be out for close to six months with a serious injury. Inter were especially poor away from the Giuseppe Meazza and it wasn’t until the fifth away match of the campaign – at relegation zone side Udinese – that they finally secured a victory on the road, by which point they had already fallen to fifth.

Their problem was one of scoring goals. Defensively they were as solid as Bagnoli’s title-winning Verona side had been nine years previously, with their three-man defence of Giuseppe Bergomi, Antonio Paganin and Sergio Battistini as inviting for opposition strikers as a row of cacti. They conceded zero blades of grass to whoever dared go up against them, with Walter Zenga an effective safety net for any chancer that did manage to jink their way through.

With just four goals conceded through the first nine matches, their goals against column read like binary code, and only AC Milan had a stingier defence. In attack, though, their counter-attacking strategy was making it difficult to find the back of the net and the Milanese side had, therefore, netted just eight times by the end of the Udinese trip, which was the eighth fewest in the division.

“I would be up there with [Rubén] Sosa and every game we were up against five defenders,” recalls Bergkamp, who would score just three league goals from open play that season. “If two midfielders joined the attack as well then I would look back and see my defenders and other midfielders still deep in their own half! That huge space between us is dead space and was killing me and the team.”

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It was an especially frustrating time for the young Dutchman, even more so because he had rejected the chance to join Johan Cruyff’s free-flowing Barcelona side in order to be there, having been assured by Internazionale president Ernesto Pellegrini that the club was planning to evolve into a more attack-minded team. That did not come to fruition and Bergkamp was isolated as he embarked on weekly one-versus-five battles against some of the best defensive units on the planet, while criticism of his performances unjustly grew louder. Pellegrini had essentially bought a cat and was now surprised to learn that it didn’t bark.

In Europe, however, the young striker and the team enjoyed far more joy going forward. As his teammate Davide Fontolan put it: “Dennis always scored in the UEFA Cup, but in Italy he couldn’t reach double figures because the Italian defenders followed him.” Bergkamp exploited the more orthodox defences of the Nerazzurri’s UEFA Cup opponents, receiving a standing ovation from the home crowd as he netted a hat-trick against Rapid Bucharest in the first round 5-1 aggregate win, with a classy scissor kick the pick of the bunch.

In the second round, Inter faced Cypriot side Apollon Limassol and headed into the first leg on the back of consecutive 0-0 draws against Napoli and Torino, so there was no shortage of local pressure. A seventh minute Bergkamp goal calmed tensions and took his European tally for the season up to four, double his domestic return. A similarly early goal in the return leg helped steer Inter towards a 4-3 aggregate win and their name made its way to the hat for the third round. 

By the time Bagnoli took his team to England to take on Norwich in the UEFA Cup last-16 at the end of November, it had become apparent that Inter were in serious domestic bother. This was no longer simply a sluggish start. Instead, they had drifted to sixth place and stood four points behind city rivals AC Milan after losing the first derby of the season 2-1. Jonk came the width of a credit card from equalising in the final minute of that match, but his shocking failure to place the ball into the open goal sent the two neighbours down different paths.

Again, though, Inter found escapism in the UEFA Cup. The tournament was quickly becoming their drug and they enjoyed another high when they eked out a 1-0 victory at Carrow Road in dramatic late circumstances. With Uruguayan forward Sosa racing towards goal, a blur of yellow and green came flying in from his left-hand side to send him tumbling to the Anglian turf. Bergkamp stepped up to send Bryan Gunn the wrong way and to secure an important lead for the second leg.

Norwich did stay in the tie for the majority of that match at the San Siro, but eventually the bank holiday crowd had something to cheer about when their Dutch star skipped past Mark Bowen and curled into the corner with two minutes to go. “Don’t call us lucky, as we won both games,” Bagnoli said in response to the suggestion that Norwich had deserved more.

Little did the coach know, however, that he would never again take charge of a European fixture. By the time of the March quarter-final against Borussia Dortmund, he would be out of work and would retire shortly afterwards.

Although Inter had not fallen any further than sixth place by the time the Milan native was sacked, a disastrous fortnight at the end of January and beginning of February prompted Pellegrini to take action. The team crashed out of the Coppa Italia at home to Sampdoria on 27 January, after which they required a last-minute goal to salvage a point against Cagliari at the Giuseppe Meazza three days later.

A third home match without a win would have been unacceptable, but in the following week’s hosting of Lazio it appeared that a much-needed victory was on the cards. With five minutes to go, the home side led their guests from the capital by one Rubén Sosa goal to nil. Yet the scoreboard read 1-2 by the time the full-time whistle sounded and Bagnoli was soon packing his bags.

AC Milan Inter Milan

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In his place came Giampiero Marini, one of the club’s youth coaches and a man who had spent a decade wearing the black and blue as a hard-working ankle-biting defensive midfielder. He was expected to energise the floundering squad, but defeats away at Piacenza and Torino, as well as home stalemate with Napoli, saw Inter fall to seventh.

Fortunately, though, the UEFA Cup was dusting itself down and preparing to return from its winter hibernation. The tournament had been so kind to Inter in the first half of the season and, with AC Milan already 14 points ahead with just 18 left to play for, taking back the cup that Inter had first claimed three years previously became the priority.

With Borussia Dortmund having reached the 1993 final of the competition – where they lost to Juventus – Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side were expected to provide a serious challenge to the misfiring Inter, especially in the first leg in front of their home fans. Yet a two-minute lapse in concentration saw the Germans fall 2-0 behind, with Jonk netting in the 33rd and 35th minutes of the match. Michael Schulz pulled one back for Dortmund from a corner to reduce the magnitude of the victory, but Igor Shalimov added a third away goal as he rounded off a final minute counter attack.

As expected, Dortmund made life difficult for the Italians in the return leg, cancelling out the first leg result with Michael Zorc and Lars Ricken goals either side of half-time. Then, with 10 minutes to go, the Italian Antonio Manicone picked the ball up in the centre of the opposition’s half and embarked on a dizzying run away from the chasing yellow-shirted defenders, before slotting past Stefan Klos. It was the only goal the number 4 would score in 1993-94, but it was one of the most important of the team’s season.

Although thrilled to be in it, the semi-final draw then threw up a problem for Inter: they were drawn against an Italian team. All season long they had been struggling in matches played on Italian soil and now more than ever, even with Berti having returned from his injury nightmare.

The team was down in eighth position and just four points above the relegation zone – which, in this 18-team league, was the bottom four. Having tasted just one Serie A victory since Marini’s introduction and having once again thrown away the chance of a point in the derby, the last thing that Inter wanted was for their embarrassing domestic form to impact on their bewilderingly impressive European performances.

As such, a tie against Cagliari – who had won 1-0 and drawn 3-3 against Inter in the Italian league – caused a great deal of concern. With the Sardinian side scoring twice in the final 10 minutes of their home leg to secure a 3-2 win, that concern appeared to have been justified and Inter’s horrific record against their domestic rivals looked set to continue.

Fortunately, however, that’s season’s Cagliari team was one of the least Italian-looking units in the league, perhaps encouraged by their isolation from the mainland of La Penisola. By the time of their UEFA Cup semi-final, the Rossoblu had leaked the third most goals in the division, including three in their January draw with Inter away from home.

That gave birth to some hope in Milan that the Cagliari defence could be exploited by the attacking talents of Bergkamp and co. Sure enough, the Dutchman opened the scoring in the second leg at a packed Giuseppe Meazza – albeit from the penalty spot – before Berti and Jonk scored either side of the hour mark. Inter had steamrollered their way to a 3-0 second leg victory and had booked a place in the two-legged final. What could possibly go wrong now?


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Relegation. That’s what could go wrong. While Inter had been content to concede the title race early on in order to put all of their eggs in the UEFA Cup’s basket, they now risked falling too far down the table in what was a very bunched-up Serie A.

A European final was marked in the calendar, but the final three league dates of the season were arguably even more important. Inter may have still been in eighth place in the table, but they were just four points from 15th and from the drop zone, so the prospect of a first ever relegation in the club’s history was to be taken seriously.

The first of those final three matches was away at Sampdoria, the team that had earlier knocked them out of the cup. It was a similarly unpleasant trip this time around, with the Genoa-based side sending their guests back to Milan with a 3-1 defeat and with their gap to 15th-placed Piacenza at the edge of the relegation zone down to just two points.

That made Roma’s trip to Milan in the season’s penultimate weekend even more blockbuster than it already was. With the capital city side pushing for a UEFA Cup berth, there was no way this was going to be easy and so it proved when Giuseppe Giannini fired the visitors into a 14th-minute lead after collecting the ball unmarked around the penalty spot.

As a restless stadium mulled over the prospect of Serie B football, Fontolan’s head was flying through the air to divert the ball past Roma stopper Giovanni Cervone from a corner. However, the awarding of a Roma spot-kick sent the anxiety levels soaring anew, but Siniša Mihajlović dragged his effort wide of the post, with the Giuseppe Meazza’s collective sigh of relief strong enough to confuse local meteorologists.

Spool forward to the 70th minute of the match and just as the game was becoming increasingly cagey, Berti sent a message to Arrigo Sacchi that he was healthy enough to make the 1994 World Cup squad by nudging the ball through the frame of Cervone’s goal. Yet the afternoon’s action wasn’t yet over and there remained enough time for Roma – aided by the introduction of a 17-year-old Francesco Totti – to pull level, with Massimiliano Cappioli getting a vital touch on an in-swinging cross.

It finished 2-2, meaning that Inter were still not safe. Having moved on to 31 points, they now led 14th-placed Reggiana and 15th-placed Piacenza by three points and 16th-placed Udinese by four points, but the relegation battle would go to the final weekend if Reggiana and Piacenza earned at least a draw and if Udinese won in their respective penultimate games, all three of which were to be played the day after the visit of Roma. 

All of those strugglers drew their matches, which meant the distance between Inter and their relegation rivals hadn’t shifted over the course of that weekend, although it did mean that Udinese could no longer catch the Nerazzurri.

Coach Marini and his UEFA Cup finalists could, however, breathe a lot easier as they set off across the Austrian border, where SV Casino Salzburg – now Red Bull Salzburg – awaited them for the first leg of the continental final. That was because Reggiana and Piacenza would need Inter to lose away at Atalanta and would need to win their own final matches of the season with nine and 11 goal swings in goal difference in order to survive.


Original Series  |  The Football Italia Years

As unfortunate as Inter’s domestic luck had been, even something that extraordinary wasn’t going to happen and their place in the 1994-95 Serie A was officially booked when Parma held Piacenza to a goalless draw the following Friday, with the decisive relegation-related matches curiously being played on separate days. Those involved at the club were careful not to appear too pleased, however, as avoiding relegation was not just cause for celebration for a club with as much prestige as Inter Milan.

Winning a UEFA Cup, on the other hand, would be worthy of a party and, coincidentally, Inter were already well on their way to winning one.

Two days before Parma held Piacenza in the survival-clinching 0-0 draw, Marini had taken his team to Vienna’s Ernst Happel Stadium for the first leg of their final with Casino Salzburg. With both sides setting out in a 5-3-2 formation, it was a fairly turgid affair. Salzburg’s Brazilian playmaker Marquinho caused some danger on his own, while Nicola Berti gave Peter Artner a tough time of it in the centre of the park and threatened the goal of Otto Konrad. Sure enough, it was Berti who made a goal out of nothing for the first leg’s only rippling of the net, bringing down a quick Sosa free-kick inside the box and firing in from an impossible angle.

It was all going swimmingly for the Italians, but Alessandro Bianchi’s 49th-minute red card forced them to give Austria a lesson in Catenaccio. They parked the metaphorical bus and rode their 1-0 advantage back to northern Italy.

Having had their Serie A survival confirmed shortly after that match, Inter fell to a 2-1 defeat away at Atalanta in their final league outing of the season. “If we had needed the points [on the final day] we would have played differently,” Fontolan later said in justification of a defeat that saw Inter finish the season in a remarkable 13th spot and just one point above the drop zone.

What mattered, though, was that they were safe and they could now turn all attention to the return leg of the UEFA Cup final. A 1-0 advantage from the away leg could still, as any 1993-94 Inter fan would tell you, be whisked away in an instant.

After an even first half, that is exactly what looked like happening when Marquinho’s long-distance thump rebounded off both posts, first hitting the one to Walter Zenga’s right, before trickling along the goal line and being nudged to safety by the opposite upright. If Inter were to throw this wonderful European adventure down the drain then that was the moment. Fortunately for them, Lady Luck was wearing black and blue on 11 May 1994, and they survived that scare to extend their aggregate lead to 2-0 shortly afterwards.

Jonk leapt through the Milanese air to win the ball for his side with a header in the 62nd minute and was seconds later receiving it back from Sosa inside the penalty area, with only Konrad to beat. He chipped the onrushing Austrian, sending a delighted stadium into a frenzy.  The UEFA Cup belonged to Inter Milan once again and Giuseppe Bergomi was soon giving the lump of metal the traditional kiss, before raising it for the Inter faithful – and they really had been faithful that season – to enjoy.

That 1993-94 season was, therefore, even wilder than the Jekyll and Hyde performances being offered up by Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes this campaign. It would take a whole other level of European football escapism for Leicester to beat the record – as confirmed by the Rec Sport Soccer Statistics Foundation – set by that Inter Milan side for the lowest domestic finish – 13th place – of a team that won a UEFA competition in the same season.

If Leicester City can win next May’s Champions League final in Cardiff and follow that up with a second tier English Championship trip to play Cardiff City FC a few months later then the record would rightfully be theirs. That might sound ridiculous, but Leicester City and Inter Milan have both shown over the years that the bizarre can happen.

By Euan McTear. Follow @emctear

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