On 23 March 2004, AC Milan entertained Deportivo La Coruña at the San Siro in that season’s Champions League. As well as being the reigning champions, the Rossoneri, under coach Carlo Ancelotti, were many pundits’ favourites to win the title again. The outcome of this first leg match certainly did little to shake any such opinions.
After Depor had the temerity to take an early lead, courtesy of a Walter Pandiani goal, in the space of eight minutes either side of the half-time break, the home team thrilled and sated the 60,000-odd tifosi with four goals to remind the visitors of the established order of things.
Just ahead of the interval, Kaká levelled the scored, then immediately after the restart, a jinking run and shot by Andriy Shevchenko put Milan ahead. Three minutes later, Kaká netted again to extend the lead, and in the 53rd minute, an Andrea Pirlo dipping free-kick seemed to put not only the game but the tie beyond the Spanish team. Late on, Pandiani had an opportunity to reduce the arrears and offer a glimpse of light, but he headed tamely straight into home goalkeeper Dida’s arms.
Such was the scale of the victory and the domination of the home team that fans left the stadium contemplating potential next round opponents, rather than the second leg to come on 7 April at the Riazor in Galicia. After all, no team in the competition had ever turned around a three-goal deficit from the first leg, and Milan were yet to concede an away goal in the competition.
After such a sound beating, Depor manager Javier Irureta probably thought he had little to lose by declaring an all-out attacking policy for the return game, promising they would go at the champions with vigour and belief. To many, it seemed like a whistling-in-the-dark sort of rhetoric, and many home fans would have turned up at the stadium more with trepidation than expectation in mind.
That certainly seemed the way things would work out when the game got underway. Milan pressed early, threatening to net the away goal that would throw a wet blanket of reality over any fans harbouring faint hopes of redemption. They nearly struck after just four minutes when Jon Dahl Tomasson, starting in place of Filippo Inzaghi, had a chance to volley, but his effort was parried by José Molina in Depor’s goal. Another brief flurry in the box forced the goalkeeper to plunge down to his right to collect the ball. Just a minute later, though, there was the hint of hope for the home team.
The ball was played to Pandiani – El Rifle – on the edge of the Milan box. Whether the hype from the earlier game had seeped into the consciousness of the Milan back line wasn’t clear, but allowing the Uruguayan striker time and space to control, turn and fire in a shot was a mistake. The ball flew through the legs of Paolo Maldini as he tried desperately to block, and past the despairing dive of Dida to give the home team the lead. The striker ran towards the crowd, pumping his fists as if inflating the expectation of the fans. It was precisely what his goal had done.
Three years earlier, Pandiani had been the catalyst in driving a Depor recovery from 3-0 down to defeat Paris Saint-Germain with a hat-trick. Perhaps both home players and fans thought the same could happen again as Depor launched a series of enthusiastic attacks on Dida’s goal. For all fans, hope springs eternal.
It’s often said in football that it’s the hope that kills you, and if Pandiani’s strike had given Depor hope, the frantic attacks it gave birth to denuded the home team’s defence, exposing their goal to the pace of Milan’s breaks on the counter-attack. Any hopes of another inspired fightback were nearly snuffed out when Kaká broke with speed and skipped past the last defender, closing in on Molina. The last touch had taken him slightly wide to the right, though, and the Spaniard managed to close down the space and divert the Brazilian’s effort across goal where a scampering defence got back in time to watch the ball drift harmlessly behind.
This sort of attacking play was knife-edge stuff, high risk balanced against high reward. When you’ve only got the three of hearts in your hand, though, you have to play it and hope the other guy only has the two. Depor were playing the cards they had been dealt and calling Milan’s hand.
The first goal should have been a wake-up call for the Rossoneri, but if it was, it didn’t seem to be heeded. Under the pressure of constant attacks, even the threat of a break diminished as the team that had dominated the game a few short days ago appeared lethargic and unable to shake free of the torpor that gripped them.
Dida was forced to make a series of saves as his defence creaked under the pressure. When the second goal came, though, it was from a blatant error by the Brazilian.
The ardour and passion caused by Pandiani’s early strike was a hungry beast and the food needed to sustain it was goals. As time passed without further sustenance, the fragile belief began to draw away. Despite constant prompting by the excellent Víctor Sánchez, who twice went close to scoring, and played a neat wall-pass with Juan Carlos Valerón on 26 minutes that created an opportunity that Dida did well to save at the foot of his post. Jorge Andrade’s header also called the Brazilian stopper into action.
They couldn’t find the back of the net and, minutes after that initial strike, no further goals had come. The ten minutes remaining before the break, however, would see the tie swing decisively in favour of the home team.
Just as Depor hopes were beginning to wane, and Milanese confidence was on the rise, out on the left, Albert Luque swung another cross into the Milan area. There seemed little danger, but inexplicably, Dida lunged towards a ball he had little or no hope of reaching and as he flailed forlornly at the cross, it bypassed him, leaving Valeron the simplest of headers into an unguarded net to double the lead on the night.
If Pandiani’s goal had set the fuse on the match, Dida’s error and Valerón’s simple goal lit the blue touch-paper. The Riazor erupted, jumping on the goal like a starving man at a banquet. The beast fed voraciously, and the stadium roared on their team.
There was a gap of just ten minutes remaining between the goal and Milan’s escape to the refuge of the dressing room at half-time, when a few calming words from Ancelotti and a little reflection and reorganisation could have put the team back on balance. The Milan back four was missing the estimable Alessandro Costacurta, but with Cafu, Alessandro Nesta and Paolo Maldini, there was more than enough talent and experience to anticipate a resolute performance in the face of the pressure.
On this day, though, they seemed to melt under the attacks and apparent unshakable belief that had taken root and now grown in the home team and the fans bellowing from the stands in support. There were just 600 seconds to keep Depor’s rampant attack at bay before the break and a chance to regroup. They couldn’t manage it.
A through-ball seemed destined to be cut out by Nesta, but his attempt was tame and the ball escaped him, running on to be quickly followed by Luque. Running into the area, he lashed the ball left-footed with power into the net, leaving Dida stranded. It was his fourth goal in nine Champions League games, but none had brought a reaction like this one.
Milan, the reigning European champions, the team that hadn’t conceded an away goal in the tournament to date, had seen their apparently unassailable three-goal lead ripped asunder inside 43 minutes. Sensationally, taking Pandiani’s first-leg goal into the equation, Depor were now ahead on the away goals rule.
Had Milan survived those ten minutes, it may have been a different story. After the break, the champions began to look a little more like themselves, and an attack that had largely been impotent but for an initial opening flurry now began to look like it may have an influence on the outcome of the game.
Although they were now ahead, Depor did little to restrain their attacking instincts, perhaps adopting the Iola maxim of attack being the best form of defence. If the ball was some 120 metres from Molina’s goal, there was less danger of conceding. The logic may well have been sound, but the reality was quite different.
Just five minutes after the break, the paucity of Depor’s comfort zone was exposed when Tomasson broke clear, before pulling his finish wide of both Molina and his post. It was a warning shot that the three goals netted to date may not be enough to see the home team over the line against such experienced campaigners.
Just before the hour mark, Ancelotti sent on Serginho, removing Andrea Pirlo, and switching to a more progressive 4-3-1-2 formation to force the pace. While Milan began to enjoy more possession, their threats on goal still appeared to lack the potency and conviction of those of the home team. A clear chance to put Depor into clear water fell to Valerón but, with the goal gaping, he forced high over the bar from eight metres. Despite the spurned chances, it felt like another a goal – a decisive goal – would come, and with 15 minutes to play, it did.
Depor were back in the ascendancy now. A clumsy attempt to turn in midfield saw Milan squander possession. Jumping onto the mistake with eager vigour, a quick exchange of passes resulted in an attempt that flew over Dida’s crossbar. Another midfield squabble led to a ball being played through for Valerón but there was too much pace on it for his tiring legs and Dida snaffled the ball. Next time, they wouldn’t be so fortunate.
By now, Irureta had replaced the hard-working but tiring Luque with Fran. With 15 minutes to play, a long crossed from the right eluded all the players in the box. Closing in from the left, the substitute forced his way past a less than robust challenge from Gennaro Gattuso before firing in a shot that took a slight deflection from Cafu, eluding Dida and finding the net. The lead was now clear and took the away goals issue out of the equation unless Milan could score again.
Milan were now in desperate straits. Having already sent on Inzaghi for the underwhelming Tomasson just after Fran entered the fray, Ancelotti took the sort of gamble managers are often compelled to indulge in when the odds and time are running against them. Withdrawing defender Giuseppe Pancaro in his stead, he deployed playmaker Rui Costa in the hope that he might be able to swing the game back in Milan’s favour.
With time ebbing away, a long-range effort the Portugal international nearly pulled the required rabbit out of the hat with a 30-yard drive that Molina acrobatically threw himself across goal to parry wide. And that was pretty much it. Depor had pulled off the most incredible of comebacks in a game that would live in the memories of the 29,000 crowd for a very long time.
Understandably, Irureta was elated in his post-match comments. “The game turned out exactly the way I dreamed,” he enthused. “It was almost mission impossible but we gave a sensational first-half display to get the three goals we needed.”
For Ancelotti, the emotions must have been very different. In his always dignified way, his summary was very much on the mark: “We were up against a very good team who played very well, and there were some errors on our part. But it really is hard to explain this defeat. They did everything to their best and we certainly didn’t produce our best.”
Memories and warm glowing reminiscences were for the future. The present meant that not only had the Galicians eliminated the six-time champions with a comeback unprecedented in the dozen years or so since the Champions League had been born, they had also entered the last four of Europe’s premier club competition for the first time in their history.
That evening, and the previous one, had seen the demise not only of the Rossoneri but also Real Madrid and Arsenal, leaving the last four standing to be Depor, Chelsea, Monaco and Porto. Given the clubs that had been eliminated, it hardly felt like a high-pedigree list, and each would surely have fancied their chances of lifting the big pot.
For Depor, the dream would die in the semi-finals. After battling out a goalless draw in Portugal against José Mourinho’s Porto, they were beaten 1-0 at home when Derlei slotted home a penalty after Deco had been brought down.
If the defeat to the eventual winners felt deflating after the roller-coaster emotions of the game against Milan, it surely shouldn’t. Had Depor gone on to land the trophy, the semi-final – or inevitably the final – would have been the game that people would refer back to from the club’s European journey that year. The bigger the prize, the bigger the drama is often true of course.
All that said, though, it’s perhaps fitting that the game where the home team overturned mountainous odds to turf out the tournament favourites and holders should be the club’s finale that year. It was the game when a warm Galician evening saw Deportivo become too hot to handle.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze