The drama and emotion of the epic 2001/02 Serie A title race

The drama and emotion of the epic 2001/02 Serie A title race

It was the culmination of a fascinating and gripping title race that had it all: twists and turns, ups and downs, unpredictability, world-class talent, a fairytale story, and a final day destined to be monumental and unforgettable. Indeed, 5 May 2002 proved to be all that and more. It was a turning point in the Italian game, signalling the beginning of a power shift within European football.

Going into the final round of fixtures, Inter led the way under Héctor Cúper – the only non-Italian coach in the league, after Carlo Ancelotti had replaced Fatih Terim across the city six months earlier. Cúper was 90 minutes away from guiding the Nerazzurri to their first league title since 1989 in his first full season in charge, but if he failed, it would herald Inter’s longest drought without the Scudetto in their history.

Cúper had seemingly turned around the club’s fortunes – the purchases of goalkeeper Francesco Toldo and defender Marco Materazzi had added much-needed leadership to a previously hapless defence, while not only had Christian Vieri – so hampered by injuries since his arrival two years earlier – found a prolonged run of fitness, but the second half of the season saw the return of Ronaldo, who had played a total of seven minutes in the space of 14 months due to successive knee tendon ruptures.

Juventus stood one point off the pace at the start of the day, having made the daring gamble the previous summer to sell Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid for a world-record transfer fee of £46.6m and dismiss manager Ancelotti, who had himself kept the Bianconeri in the title race until the final day in each of his two seasons in charge, before losing out to Lazio and Roma respectively. The club announced the sacking of the highly-respected Ancelotti at half-time of their final league game against Atalanta, despite the club still holding title aspirations.

In their place, Juve reappointed Marcello Lippi and brought in a number of star names – Gianluigi Buffon, Lilian Thuram, Pavel Nedvěd and Marcelo Salas among them.

Fans of Roma woke on 5 May with lingering hopes that they could leapfrog both Inter and Juventus to retain the Serie A title. The Giallorossi lay in third place, two points off the top and knowing that they must win at Torino and pray that both sides above them slipped up. They would have to swallow their pride and support fierce rivals Lazio for the afternoon as they hosted Inter, whilst also hoping that Udinese – who needed a win to guarantee their top-flight safety ahead of Verona – would prevent Juventus from capitalising on any slip-ups.

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After a magnificent March, where Inter won the Derby della Madonnina against AC along with wins over Roma and Fiorentina, April had threatened to totally derail their title ambitions. A shock home defeat to Atalanta was followed by the conceding of a controversial last-minute equaliser at Chievo, who themselves were a fascinating subplot as they qualified for Europe in their first ever season in the top flight.

That same afternoon, Pavel Nedvěd – who had been given a free role as the side’s playmaker all season – struck a wonderfully improvised bullet into the top corner at Piacenza two minutes from time. It was enough to give Marcello Lippi’s men a narrow 1-0 victory and had meant that the gap to Inter had been cut from six points to one in the space of a fortnight, while Fabio Capello’s Roma had stuttered once more – a goalless draw at AC Milan had followed two vital points dropped a fortnight previously at already-relegated Venezia. Juventus could scent blood but knew that they needed Inter to slip up once more if they were to stand any chance of the title.

All eyes were on Rome’s Stadio Olimpico, just as they had been 12 months earlier when Roma secured their first Scudetto in nearly two decades with a 3-1 victory over Parma, which sparked mass celebrations and a chaotic pitch invasion due to the outpouring of joy. Inter hoped similar scenes would occur one year on, in a strange atmosphere which saw fans of Biancocelesti cheer on the visitors in the hope that Juventus would not triumph, but much more to their horror, Roma would not be crowned champions again.

Within two minutes, news filtered through from the Stadio Friuli in Udine – David Trezeguet had given Juventus the lead with his 24th goal of the season. The momentum had immediately shifted, and Juve fans began to believe. Nine minutes later, Lippi’s side doubled their lead; Trezeguet turned provider this time, releasing strike partner Alessandro Del Piero with a perfectly weighted pass and the Juve icon made no mistake with a powerful finish into the corner and out of the reach of Morgan De Sanctis.

No sooner had Inter fans had time to digest the reality that only a win in Rome would do, their side forced a corner. Álvaro Recoba’s inswinging delivery was fumbled by Angelo Peruzzi – the goalkeeper who had spent eight years at Juve – and Vieri was on hand to power home his 25th goal of the season, three years on from his then-world record £32m transfer from Lazio.

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It was frantic and it was restless. Within the opening 12 minutes, Inter lost the title before winning it back. Seven minutes on, they were to lose it again. Karel Poborský, once of Manchester United, ghosted into the Inter penalty area unmarked and fired home Stefano Fiore’s delivery. It was 1-1, and once more it appeared that the Nerazzurri were faltering.

As had been their instinct all season, caution was once more thrown to the wind and within five minutes of being pegged back, Cúper’s troops again forced a corner. Dead-ball specialist Recoba produced the perfect delivery, which was flicked home at the near post by Luigi Di Biagio, who whipped off his top and appeared on the verge of tears, such was his euphoria.

Fans of the Nerazzurri began to believe that this time, finally, their side would see this through. If they thought Lazio would be demotivated, they were wrong. Just as the first half ticked into stoppage time, Inter failed once more to deal with a Lazio cross on the counter as Iván Córdoba’s header went up in the air, before Vratislav Greško – in his 41st and final league appearance for Inter – made an error so costly that it would condemn him as the least popular player at the club for a decade. The Slovakian full-back inexplicably attempted to head back to Toldo but the header was so weak that the instinctive Poborský pounced and produced the simple close-range finish.

Stunned, the Inter players trudged off at the break knowing that Juventus held a two-goal lead in Udine and now had one hand on the title. A shaken side reappeared in the second period in a desperate search for goals. Peruzzi nearly spilt Di Biagio’s long-range effort into his own net while Giuseppe Favalli – who would later join Inter – came within inches of netting a comical own goal.

As Inter became increasingly frustrated, Cúper smoked more and more on the touchline. Much to his disgust, his team then fell behind when Diego Simeone – another who would later join Inter – headed home from Fiore’s free-kick 10 minutes into the second half.

For the first time, Juventus were now favourites for the title. Udinese had made few inroads into their half but their fans didn’t mind too much – Verona were 3-0 down in Piacenza to ensure that Giampiero Ventura, who had replaced Roy Hodgson earlier in the campaign, would guide the Zebrette to safety.

Original Series  |  The Football Italia Years

An afternoon which was supposed to be one of celebration for Inter was quickly unravelling into a nightmare. Antonio Cassano gave Roma a 68th-minute lead at Torino, ensuring that the incumbent champions leapfrogged Inter into second. Seven minutes later, Filippo Inzaghi’s younger brother, Simone, headed home another for Lazio as the Nerazzurri abandoned any defensive thoughts to kill any lingering title ambitions.

Ten minutes from time, Ronaldo was withdrawn, to be replaced by Mohammed Kallon, and the Brazilian striker sat on the bench, head in hands with tears streaming down his face. It would prove to be his last appearance for the club before being the star of the show at the World Cup and earning a multi-million pound move to Real Madrid. His emotions were as fraught as the fans who knew their side had blown it.

“The bitterness for the title defeat was even greater because the finish line was so close,” admitted the tearful striker. “Disappointment seems to be my partner in life. In a matter of moments our dreams vanished, overtaken by reality which seemed even harder to believe.” President Massimo Moratti was in no mood for any post-match diplomacy: “I am tired, fed up and angry. Today no fan of Inter wants to hear words of consolation and I’m no different.”

The scenes at Stadio Friuli were quite the contrast – relief for the hosts and utter jubilation for Juventus, who savoured their triumph after two years of near misses. Their final day loss at Perugia two seasons earlier was on the mind of Antonio Conte. “There is little to say, we’re enjoying this,” said the future manager, his tone one not just of satisfaction but of vengeance. “This is for the disappointment of two years ago at Perugia and there is someone watching who was at Perugia.”

Conte’s remarks were aimed at Materazzi, the Inter defender who Conte stated “acted with little respect” two years previously when his Perugia side beat the Old Lady 1-0 following a dramatic Umbrian rainstorm that saw Lazio crowned champions on the final day of the season.

It was a war of words between two fiery characters with genuine mutual animosity, one which spilt over weeks after the season had concluded. “Conte should buy himself a new wig with his championship bonus,” the former Everton defender blasted back. Conte’s response? To politely remind Materazzi that people now have hair transplants, not wigs, but “unfortunately for him, brain transplants still don’t exist”.

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The intensity, passion and emotions shown on and off the pitch demonstrated the great entertainment value in Italy, which was complemented by the supreme talent on show every week in what was widely acknowledged as the greatest league in the world. That season alone saw fascinating stories across the league, none greater than that of Chievo, the tiny club who not only had achieved their first promotion to the top flight but had the audacity to top the league for a six-week spell in the autumn.

Coach Luigi Delneri deployed an effective 4-4-2 system with two aggressive, attacking wingers – Eriberto and Christian Manfredi – with the deadly duo of Bernardo Corradi and Fernando Cossato up top. Delneri’s side missed out on qualification to the Champions League by a solitary point to AC Milan, who went on to win European football’s elite competition the following year.

At the other end of the table, Fiorentina’s financial crisis had worsened but, despite the gradual selling of many of their star performers, their relegation came as a surprise. It is an indicator of the league’s standing at the time that a side with Enrico Chiesa, Nuno Gomes, Adriano, Domenico Morfeo, Roberto Baronio, Daniele Adani and Moreno Torricelli could muster only five league wins all season.

All of these players, along with boss Roberto Mancini, were cherry-picked by rival clubs as the gravity of their impending doom became increasingly clear. The club was placed into liquidation and declared bankrupt. They were not accepted into Serie B the following season and effectively forced out of existence, with ACF Fiorentina rising from the flames as the club started afresh.

There was a similar, perhaps more drawn out pain for Venezia, the club where Recoba, Vieri and Filippo Maniero initially came to prominence. Frustrated with the team and the lack of support from the local council, owner Maurizio Zamparini pulled the project and relocated to Palermo, where he also took several star players. The club, from arguably the most beautiful city in Europe, was declared insolvent due to bankruptcy by 2005.

No matter where you looked, the 2001/02 Serie A season was packed full of incident, drama and controversy. It was a time when the league was contested by several of the world’s elite clubs and was guaranteed to go to the wire. In the 18 seasons since, only two have gone to the final day. Somewhat ironically, both of those have been won by Inter, with Roma the runners-up on each occasion. How the Italians long for a return to the halcyon days at the turn of the millennium.

By Colin Millar @Millar_Colin

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