There was something liberating about Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019. It wasn’t just the fact the Amsterdammers played a brand of wonderfully attacking football, or the fact they did so with such a young team. Ajax represented a breath fresh air, a reminder that, occasionally, sides outside Europe’s elite – financially in their case – can challenge the status quo.
It was as brilliant an achievement as it was rare. Porto won the Champions League way back in 2004, and Monaco reached the semi-finals in 2017, but neither quite captured the collective imagination in the manner Ajax did. To find the last team to enjoy such a thrilling and captivating run, one has to go back to the 1998/99 season, when Dynamo Kyiv dazzled fans across Europe before Bayern Munich denied them a spot in the final in Barcelona. In those days, leading the line for Valeriy Lobanovskyi’s team, was a promising striker, blessed with lightning-quick pace and an eye for goal, by the name of Andriy Shevchenko.
Slender and effortlessly elegant, Shevchenko looked more like a winger than a centre-forward as he glided past opponents at will, accelerating away like a sprinter shifting gears on the home straight. The forward’s name had been on everyone’s lips since he had stunned Camp Nou the previous season, scoring a first-half trick as Dynamo trounced Barcelona 4-0. A year later, he put another Spanish giant to the sword, scoring three times over two legs as Dynamo knocked Real Madrid out of the competition. Silvio Berlusconi had seen enough and, in July 1999, he signed off on a $25m cheque to bring the forward to AC Milan.
In today’s overinflated market, the transfer fee may seem almost ludicrously small, but two decades ago it represented a record figure. Shevchenko accounted for almost half of Milan’s spending that summer, as the Rossoneri did what the top Serie A teams did best back then: spend lavish amounts. For reference, in that same summer, Juventus and Lazio both spent over £30m, while Milan and Roma’s spending was north of £50m and Internazionale almost outspent the quartet combined, splashing out almost £130m.
Despite a considerable transfer fee putting considerable pressure on his shoulders, the 23-year-old hit the ground running and marked his Serie A debut with a goal against Lecce. Another 23 goals would follow over the course of the campaign, earning him the distinction of being only the second foreign player after Michel Platini to be Serie A’s top scorer in his debut season.
Both a great goalscorer and a scorer of great goals, some of Shevchenko’s efforts were almost preposterously beautiful. In his first season with i Rossoneri, he scored a 25-minute hat-trick away at Lazio in a 4-4 draw which included a candidate for the goal of the season. Standing just inside the penalty area, Shevchenko evaded Giuseppe Favalli’s challenge without even touching the ball, as he simply allowed it to roll past him, before dribbling past the onrushing Luca Marchegiani and firing the ball into the roof of the net. It was the kind of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment that combined Shevchenko’s swiftness of feet with an impeccable eye for goal.
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Against Juventus in 2001, he pounced on a loose ball approximately 40 yards for goal, nonchalantly controlling it with his thigh, before motoring away from Edgar Davids and Paolo Montero. Mark Iuliano’s intervention forced the Ukrainian to veer sharply to the right before evading Gianluca Pessotto’s tackle. At this point, seemingly heading towards the right touchline, Shevchenko simply straightened his run and exploded a right-footed effort that streaked into the top corner past Gianluigi Buffon. Whether the Ukrainian intended the goal as it developed is still a source of debate, 18 years on, but it speaks volumes for his mercurial talent that the effort looked deliberate.
To Shevchenko’s credit, spectacular finishes did not come at the expense of consistency. He scored 24 goals in both of his first Serie A campaigns, netting a combined 63 times in all competitions over the course of the two seasons, and adding another 17 in 2001/02. If the goals flowed, however, the trophies did not.
Shevchenko had joined the defending Serie A champions but during his first three seasons in Serie A, Milan never finished higher than third. Milanese fortunes were even more disappointing in Europe, where the Rossoneri were knocked out in the group stage of the Champions League during his first two campaigns and then reached only the UEFA Cup’s semi-finals in 2002.
He and Milan would end their wait for a trophy in emphatic style 12 months later, as Carlo Ancelotti delivered the club’s sixth European Cup crown. After going through three managers and two caretakers in less than three seasons, after winning the Scudetto in 1999, Milan had to roll the dice and turned to their former star in 2001. Their numbers came off spectacularly from the moment Ancelotti opted to convert Andrea Pirlo from attacking midfielder into a deep-lying playmaker, which unlocked Milan’s attacking potential.
Shevchenko, however, contributed little to Milan’s new-found attacking verve. Sidelined with injuries, he could only look on as Filippo Inzaghi, who had arrived from Juventus in 2001, took on the mantle of chief goalscorer at San Siro. The Ukrainian finished the campaign with just ten goals in all competitions, his worst return during his first spell with the Rossoneri. Short in quantity, the goals were certainly not lacking in importance. Shevchenko was on target against Ajax in the second leg of the Champions League quarter-finals and scored Milan’s only goal of the tie in the semi-finals as the Rossoneri knocked out eternal rivals Internazionale on away goals.
Milan’s neighbours were one of the Ukrainian’s preferred victims and with 14 goals he remains the all-time top scorer in the Derby della Madonnina, one ahead of Giuseppe Meazza. His penchant for scoring against Inter was only bettered by his knack of finding the net in Europe, where he ranks as the fifth all-time goalscorer in European competition with 67 goals.
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It is rather ironic, then, that, statistically speaking at least, the most important of the lot does not count towards the tally coming as it did against Juventus in the penalty shootout that decided the 2003 final. Not that anyone connected with the club cared one iota as Shevchenko rolled the ball past Buffon to secure Milan’s first Champions League since they dismantled Barcelona in 1994.
With Europe conquered, Milan added the Coppa Italia a few days later and set their sights on reclaiming the top spot domestically. Sheva, as usual, played a crucial role, scoring 24 goals in 32 league games to earn the title of Capocannoniere for a second time as Milan won the Scudetto for the first time in five years. Shevchenko scored the winner as Milan secured the UEFA Super Cup in 2003 and then a hat-trick to lift the Italian Super Cup a year later, his final piece of silverware with Milan.
Recognised as the European Footballer of the Year at the end of 2004, Shevchenko’s triumph turned to despair a few months later in Istanbul. The hero in 2003, the Ukrainian was the villain in 2005, with Jerzy Dudek saving his tame effort to hand Liverpool the trophy. The miss capped a miserable night for Shevchenko, who had squandered a glorious chance to win the game in extra time after Milan had oh so famously surrendered a three-goal lead.
By the time Milan exacted revenge, two years later, Sheva had swapped Serie A for the Premier League, joining Chelsea in 2006 for almost £31m, at the time the highest ever fee paid by an English club. “His departure is surely the most painful of my time at Milan,” the club’s historic CEO Adriano Galliani told reporters, as he announced Shevchenko’s spell at the San Siro had come to an end. The love that had characterised that relationships was never replicated at Chelsea.
Two injury-plagued seasons ended on a low ebb, with the Ukrainian an unused substitute as his team lost the Champions League final to Manchester United on penalties in Moscow.
Two goals in 26 games during an emotional season-long loan at Milan did little to dispel the feeling his best days were past him. They did, however, bring his goal tally to 176 in 323 games, making him Milan’s second-highest all-time goalscorer, behind Gunnar Nordahl. By the time Shevchenko returned to Dynamo in 2009, they weren’t the force he left a decade earlier, yet he still managed to add the Ukrainian Super Cup to his trophy cabinet.
The symbol of Ukrainian football for a generation bowed out on a high from the international stage, scoring twice on as Ukraine beat Sweden in the first game of Euro 2012, which his country co-hosted with Poland, before retiring. Shevchenko then opted to represent his country in the political arena, before returning to his first love in 2016 when he took charge of the national side. Football has changed dramatically in the two decades since Shevchenko burst onto the scene, but his legacy remains unblemished.
By Dan Cancian @dan_cancian