The end of the 1990s were good to Lazio. Backed by food mogul Sergio Cragnotti’s millions, the club was able to assemble a team capable of mixing it with calcio’s most seductive squads, featuring the likes of Diego Simeone, Juan Sebastián Verón and Marcelo Salas. Representing two more vital cogs in the machine were Alessandro Nesta and Pavel Nedvěd.
Nesta was a Rome local and every fan’s favourite, namely a boyhood fan who had the honour of captaining the club he loved whilst providing a rock-solid defensive presence. He was one of the world’s best in his position, famed for his athleticism and grace on the ball. Nedvěd, meanwhile, was the team’s brightest star, La Furia Ceca signing in 1996 from Sparta Prague after an impressive European Championship, providing determination, technique and flair on the left wing in equal measure.
When searching for the best player belonging to the letter ‘N’ from the 2000s, it invariably comes down to a toss-up between the pair. Such was their ability, either would have been able to walk into practically any side in the world. It is, however, impossible to compare the two from a purely technical point of view, owing to the vast differences of their positions.
In order to determine the winner of this dual, emphasis must be placed on their importance to the varying teams each player represented over the course of the decade, and the honours they helped them to achieve. When compared head-to-head, with every season of the decade under the spotlight, the results, which do so sway in the Czech’s favour, are as follows.
2000: Draw. The first year of the decade proved something of a false start in the race to the crown, with it impossible to decide between the pair, both playing an enormous part in what would prove one of the most memorable seasons in Lazio history. In a title race that went to the final day, i Biancocelesti would triumph after winning 3-0 at home to Reggina as Perugia halted Juventus’ challenge. As if ending a 26-year wait for the Scudetto wasn’t enough, four days later, a draw at Inter in the second leg of the Coppa Italia final would award Lazio the double. Nedvěd would score the opener in the first leg, a 2-1 win, whilst Nesta, as captain, would raise both trophies aloft.
2001: Draw. Defending the Scudetto would prove an insurmountable task for Nedvěd, Nesta and co, who could only manage a third-place finish in Serie A. As if to make matters worse, the title would remain in the capital, with bitter rivals Roma ending their own longing for the league. The Coppa would also be surrendered in a quarter-final elimination at the hands of Udinese. Under increasing financial pressure, August would see Nedvěd depart, tasked with the unenviable role of replacing Zinedine Zidane at Juventus. Both players would be nominated for the Ballon d’Or, alongside being included in the European Sports Media Team of the Year.
2002: Nedvěd. The debut season in Turin would prove a happy one for Nedvěd. He claimed his second Scudetto in three years as Juve finished ahead of Roma and Inter on a memorable final day. Nesta played a key part in deciding the title, with his Lazio side defeating Inter 4-2 to hand his former teammate the title. Unfortunately, he would end down in sixth and, with money proving increasingly tight, be forced away from his boyhood club. He signed for AC Milan.
2003: Nedvěd … just. This year is arguably the most troublesome when trying to place one above the other. On paper, Nesta tops the honours chart, winning the Champions League after beating Juve on penalties, as Nedvěd sat out suspended. However, Nedvěd’s contribution in getting Juve to the continent’s showpiece finale in Manchester, coupled with a string of impressive performances in the league, would paint the Czech in his finest hour. Winning what would prove his final recognised Scudetto, there was also the personal honour of Serie A Footballer of the Year, an award shared with Francesco Totti. Further crowning glory came in December as Nedvěd became the first Czech since Josef Masopust, some four decades before, to win the Ballon d’Or.
2004: Nedvěd. In the tussle for the Scudetto, on this occasion, Nesta would come out on top as Milan won their first league title in half a decade. Nedvěd’s Juve would finish a distance away, in third, some 13 points behind i Rossoneri. In Europe, both players would be eliminated by Deportivo, in the quarter-finals and round of 16, respectively. Nedvěd would also be selected for the prestigious Golden Foot award in Monaco, alongside captaining his national side to the semis of the Euros. By contrast, Nesta was eliminated in the group stages, albeit after a controversial draw between Denmark and Sweden.
2005: Draw. This year would prove a low point of the decade for both players. Nedvěd would see his season disrupted by a knee injury that forced him to seriously consider retiring. Nevertheless, he would still find himself in the UEFA Team of the Year. There would be no such accolade for Nesta, who was on the end of Liverpool’s famous Champions League comeback in Istanbul. At home Juve won the Scudetto, with Milan second, although all this was to prove irrelevant as the title was stripped during the Calciopoli scandal.
2006: Nesta. The most recent high point of the Azzurri, replete with Nesta bolstering their backline, swept all before them in Germany, including Nedvěd’s Czechs in the group stage, to claim their fourth World Cup. At club level, there was no shame in losing in the semi-finals of the Champions League to eventual winners Barcelona. Nedvěd, meanwhile, enjoyed success again in Serie A, although would also see this title also stripped as Juve were relegated to Serie B. Credit must go to him for sticking with the Old Lady, but the success belonged to Nesta.
2007: Nesta. Arguably the year offering most polarity between the pair. Nesta sought to gain revenge over Liverpool by winning the Champions League in Athens. Meanwhile, Nedvěd found himself lining up against the likes of Arezzo, Mantova and Rimini in Italy’s second tier. Despite the lower quality perhaps inevitably leading to his most prolific season for Juve in terms of goals, a year in the second tier was not without issue. A poor challenge against Genoa on Francesco Bega led to a five-match ban, with Nedvěd reiterating his threat of retirement.
2008: Nedvěd. Having won Serie B at a canter, Nedvěd set about helping Juve re-establish themselves in the top flight. A third-place finish was the reward for his exploits, helping Juve back into the Champions League. Meanwhile, Nesta’s defence of this trophy ended in the round of 16, against Arsenal, whilst a fifth-place finish meant he would fail to return to the competition the following year.
2009: Nedvěd. Indeed, this year was something of an issue for Nesta, who failed to enter the pitch until the final day of May. A serious back injury meant he missed the entire season, bar ten minutes of the final league game with Fiorentina. In his absence, Milan ended in third, with Nedvěd going one better on head-to-head record.
This year would also prove the final season in a glittering career for the Czech, who pulled the curtain down on his exemplary career, aged 36. Whilst Nesta was undeniably an equally quality player, in search sheer of moments of individuality, one cannot overlook Pavel Nedvěd. Despite falling short of the biggest prizes for both club and country, he would go down as one of the best players of the decade, a true Juventus legend. Quite rightly, the 2000s and the letter ‘N’ belonged to Nedvěd.
By James Kelly @jkell403