Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Costacurta and Mauro Tassotti were just four of the reasons why AC Milan were the best team in the world for a glorious period at the end of the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s. Arguably the finest back four in history, they kept clean sheets in Milan’s European Cup final victories in 1989 and 1990.
They remained together for the 1-0 defeat against Marseille in the 1993 final, while there would be another clean sheet in 1994’s 4-0 win over Barcelona, minus the suspended Baresi and Costacurta.
Milan succumbed to an outstanding young Ajax side in the 1995 final but a run of three titles and five finals in seven years wasn’t too shabby for the Italians. Just two goals were conceded in those five finals, highlighting the defensive solidity of a team that also lifted the Scudetto crown five times between 1988 and 1996.
In 1991/92, Milan didn’t lose a single match in their league campaign, and they also set a record unbeaten run of 58 games in that early-90s period. While they were dominant domestically, in Europe the Rossoneri’s success had created an aura that marked them out as the opponent you didn’t want to be drawn against in a knockout tournament.
To beat Milan in European competition, you had to be among the best, and only the brilliant Marseille of the early-90s (twice) and Ajax managed to get the better of them between 1989 and 1995. They had also managed to beat themselves in 1991. Following a floodlight failure, they refused to play out the last two minutes of their 1-0 quarter-final defeat in Marseille, earning a one-year ban in the process.
So the bar was set extremely high in terms of the difficulty in overcoming this AC Milan side. The odds were, therefore, stacked in Milan’s favour when the draw for the 1996 UEFA Cup quarter-final was made.
Bordeaux would be the Italians’ second French opponents of the campaign, having eased past Strasbourg in the second round. Milan were on their way to lifting yet another Scudetto and were hoping to add another piece of European silverware to the trophy cabinet.
Bordeaux had reached the last-eight the hard way, winning the Intertoto Cup just for the right to make it to the first-round proper. But the French club were really struggling domestically despite the presence of three of the country’s finest talents.
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Many of Europe’s top sides were competing for the signature of playmaker Zinedine Zidane, while left-back Bixente Lizarazu was another established international. The gifted but erratic Christophe Dugarry was the third of a trio who had helped Bordeaux re-establish themselves in the top tier following a relegation for financial irregularities.
The French club may have had Europe’s most exciting young player in a 23-year-old Zidane, but their UEFA Cup quarter-final opponents were on a different planet. Some of Milan’s early-90s greats had departed or retired, most notably the magnificent Dutch trio of Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, but the replacements were of a decent calibre.
In the quarter-final first leg in Italy, Baresi, Maldini, Costacurta and Christian Panucci made up the defence, while some of the players in front of them were among the top players in the world at the time. Marcel Desailly and a 19-year-old Patrick Vieira were the holding midfielders, while ahead of them Roberto Baggio, Stefano Eranio, Dejan Savićević and Marco Simone formed an impressive attacking quartet.
Milan eased to a routine 2-0 victory in the first leg, seemingly putting the tie beyond Bordeaux when Baggio curled in a free-kick with 15 minutes remaining. Richard Witschge’s late miss looked like it would prove costly for the visitors.
Bordeaux’s prospects hardly improved when Milan fielded an equally strong side for the second leg. Veteran midfielder Roberto Donadoni started in place of Savićević, while George Weah was an upgrade on Simone. This was a statement of intent at a time when clubs valued every European competition.
To upset the odds over 90 minutes, the French side would have to become the first in almost 11 years to put three goals past Milan in European competition – Lokomotiv Leipzig being the previous team to achieve the feat way back in 1985. Ominously for Bordeaux, Lokomotiv still lost the tie on away goals, the 3-1 win in Germany proving futile as Milan had won the first leg 2-0.
For the second leg, Bordeaux lined up against their Italian opponents in their claret away kit, a nod to the red wine that the city was famous for. In front of a passionate home crowd at the Parc Lescure, an early goal suggested that there could later be unlikely cause to uncork a few bottles in celebration. Witschge’s crossfield pass found Lizarazu on a trademark surge down the left wing. The full-back’s low cross reached Didier Tholot at the far post and the 32-year-old managed to direct the ball over the line with a scruffy finish.
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Celebrations from players and fans highlighted the collective belief in the stadium. It had indeed been a very un-Milan-like goal to concede, with Panucci beaten by Lizarazu before Baresi’s misjudgement allowed Tholot the space to score.
The atmosphere then reached fever pitch when Dugarry levelled things up in the 64th-minute. There was a bit of good fortune in the goal as Zidane’s free-kick from the left took a deflection off the referee. Dugarry was quickest to read the change in the ball’s direction and he swept home a smart shot on the turn.
Six minutes later the comeback was complete, and Bordeaux’s brilliant trio all played their part. First, Lizarazu released Zidane down the left. Zizou cut inside, ran at the Milan defence and earned another bit of luck when his first attempt at a through ball was intercepted but came right back to him. Dugarry had peeled away to the right and Zidane slipped the ball through for the striker to smash a thunderous shot into the roof of the net from 16 yards.
There was a nervy final 20 minutes for fans in south-west France to endure, but they managed to hold off anything Weah et al could throw at them to seal a famous victory. The seemingly unthinkable had happened. Milan had not just been beaten, they had collapsed. They hadn’t been bested by another world-class opponent – they had been turned over by a side struggling in the bottom half of Ligue 1, who would eventually finish in 16th place.
Bordeaux did have the magic of Zidane, the inexhaustible energy of Lizarazu and the inspired Dugarry, but on paper they were no match for Fabio Capello’s men. Nevertheless, Girondins had brought back memories of their 1980s glory days, having reached the European Cup semi-final in 1985, the last four of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1987, and lifted the Ligue 1 title three times in four years in the middle of the decade.
The class of 1996 would go one better than their predecessors by reaching the club’s first European final, defeating Slavia Prague home and away in the semi-final. Having overcome the might of AC Milan, the Bayern Munich of Oliver Kahn, Lothar Matthäus, Jürgen Klinsmann and Jean-Pierre Papin proved a bridge too far in the final. The French side’s marathon season had taken its toll; it had been almost 11 months since their Intertoto Cup campaign kicked off on 1 July.
Zidane and Dugarry were both suspended for the first leg of the final in Munich as the Germans eased to a 2-0 victory. The only similarity to the tie against Milan would be that result. Bordeaux couldn’t repeat the heroics of two months earlier as Bayern brushed them aside with a 3-1 win on French soil in the second leg to seal a 5-1 aggregate victory.
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For both AC Milan and Bordeaux, it would prove to be something of an end of an era. If Ajax had punctured Milan’s aura of invincibility in 1995, Bordeaux completely destroyed it in 1996. The result seemed to have a considerable psychological impact on a team that had seemed almost unbeatable.
The Rossoneri’s 1996/97 Champions League campaign was nothing short of disastrous as they suffered home defeats to Porto and Rosenborg, also losing at Gothenborg. Milan finished third in their group and were out of Europe at the first hurdle. It was staggering that the Italians had entered the final matchday needing just a point at home to Rosenborg but conspired to lose despite having the likes of Maldini, Baresi and Baggio on the pitch. In an irony of sorts, Dugarry struck Milan’s goal in the 2-1 defeat to the Norwegian side, having been signed by the Serie A champions following his exploits against them.
A year after lifting their 15th Scudetto, Milan finished the 1996/97 season in 11th. Baresi and Tassotti retired at the end of that miserable year as age caught up with them and the Milan side as a whole. It would take a few years and Carlo Ancelotti to return the Italians to the top of European football, with two Champions League titles in three finals between 2003 and 2007.
Having endured a miserable domestic season in 1995/96, there would be no European campaign for Bordeaux the next season. They would also be shorn of their three best players. Dugarry left for Milan, Zidane joined Juventus, and Lizarazu headed for Athletic Club.
Zidane would, of course, go on to legend, scoring twice in France’s World Cup final victory two years later, a match that Lizarazu also started, while Dugarry appeared as a second-half substitute. He also tasted Champions League success at Real Madrid in 2002, Lizarazu having claimed the same title at Bayern Munich a year earlier.
Dugarry couldn’t match the achievements of his teammates as his time at Milan ended after a year, before a brief and unsuccessful stint at Barcelona. Dugarry He to Bordeaux via Marseille before he was famously credited with saving Birmingham from relegation during a loan spell at the club in 2003.
While the players moved on, Bordeaux’s victory over a star-studded Milan side in March 1996 remains one of the most memorable nights in the club’s history. For the Italians, it was an indication of decline that was confirmed by their ignominious results in Europe later that same year.
By Paul Murphy @paulmurphybkk