San Siro, Milan
April 19, 1989
AC Milan- 5 (Ancelotti, Rijkaard, Gullit, van Basten, Donadoni)
Real Madrid- 0
There are times when a sportsperson or a team reaches such a level of perfection that the only option is to sit back and enjoy. Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan side of 1980′s was such an example. They were as close to perfection as you can get in football - sturdy defence, all-action midfield and accomplished strikers. And they have rarely played better than they did against Real Madrid on a summer night in 1989.
** Backdrop **
La Quinta del Buitre had revived Spain’s most successful club and reminding Europe about the heady days of original Galacticos. Back to back UEFA Cups, first time anyone had done it, was followed by back to back European Champions Cup semi-final appearances. Real Madrid knocked out defending champions in each of those two editions and followed the same pattern by knocking PSV out in quarter-final of 1988/89 edition thus exacting revenge for their loss to the same team in semi-final the previous year.
Under Leo Beenhakker, Real had waltzed to two La Liga titles and had effectively sewn up the hattrick after going on a 27 game unbeaten run in 1988/89 season. A rich array of Spanish talent was strengthened by the presence of Hugo Sánchez and the controversial transfer of Bernd Schuster after his eight year stint in Barcelona. Real lost their unbeaten streak against Celta Vigo in the weekend preceding this match and was accused of being too casual.
Silvio Berlusconi’s investments combined with Arrigo Sacchi’s tactics had brought Milan back to the path of success after uncertainties of early 1980′s. The previous season they had celebrated their first Serie A title in nine years but looked likely to lose it to Giovanni Trapattoni’s Inter in 1988/89 season (eventually finishing third). AC Milan struggled to get past Werder Bremen in quarter-final but was buoyed by a 77th Marco van Basten strike to earn a 1-1 away draw in first leg.
Second leg was also expected to a cagey affair.
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** The Match **
AC Milan: Giovanni Galli; Mauro Tassoti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta, Paolo Maldini; Angelo Colombo, Carlo Ancelotti, Frank Rijkaard, Roberto Donadoni; Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten
Real Madrid: Francisco Buyo; Chendo, Manuel Sanchis, Jesús Ángel Solana, Rafael Gordillo; Michel, Martin Vazquez, Bernd Schuster, Paco Llorente; Emilio Butragueño, Hugo Sánchez
Few minutes after the kick-off there was a period of silence to mourn the Hillsborough tragedy. Both teams started with a 4-4-2 formation and it was Real Madrid who got off the blocks quicker as Milan looked under pressure. The visitors got the first chance on 7th minute. Schuster started the move with a defence splitting pass and Galli had to parry away a dangerous cross from Michel. Milan came close three minutes later as van Basten’s header narrowly missed the mark.
Milan tried to penetrate Real Madrid’s left flank in first few minutes but were undone by Angelo Colombo’s mistimed runs. The Rossoneri finally took the lead two minutes after quarter-hour mark. Gullit did the spade work as he darted past three opponent players before passing to Ancelotti. Ancelotti, seeing Buyo off his line unleashed a perfect long ranged shot. It was a wonderful shot but Real ‘keeper had to take some blame for his positioning. Milan calmed down after the goal and took control of the midfield with Donodani and Maldini drifting in and out of central midfield to outnumber Real’s midfield.
Milan doubled their lead on 23rd minute after scoring a very “English” goal. Donodani played a short corner to Tassoti who lunched a flat cross towards the far post. Rijkaard rose highest among players inside the box and headed strongly past a diving Buyo.
Two minutes before the half hour mark Michel released Butragueño with a wonderful through pass but the Spanish striker failed to reach it as Galli came out of his line. Real Madrid’s best chance in the match came on 35th minute as Sachis’ floated pass went over Milan defence to Gordillo on left flank, who launched a pin point cross to Michel at far post. Michel beat his marker but his shot flashed across the goal.
Marco van Basten who had a quiet start, was coming into his usual self as he dinked and dribbled past multiple markers and became a constant threat. He drifted to the wings often and interchanged quick passes with Gullit, opening up Real defence with ease. Gullit almost made it 3-0 on 43rd minute but his close range header was straight at Buyo.
Milan’s third goal came at the stroke of half time. The move was started as Ancelotti intercepted Michel’s pass to win possession in midfield. He passed to Donodani on left-wing who played a pass to Gullit on edge of penalty box, to receive it back near corner flag. Donodani dribbled past Sanchis and crossed into penalty box with Gullit meeting it with his head, Buyo was left a mere spectator. Milan’s third goal and it’s timing effectively ended this contest.
Second half was less action packed, as expected. It started with Donodani trying an audacious long ranger but missing the target by miles. The three Dutchmen combined to score Milan’s 4th goal on 50th minute. Rijkaard’s cross from right side was headed down by Gullit to van Basten. The Serie A top scorer took two touches before unleashing an unstoppable left footer into roof of the goal.
The humiliation was completed at the hour mark when Donodani capped off an excellent game with a goal from edge of the box. Buyo, again was at fault as he failed guard his near post.
After playing 60 minutes of perfect football Milan took their foot off the gas pedal as rest of the match was played in a slower pace. Referee Ponnet preferred to run a clean game as he dished out very few cards and was lenient on both teams in terms of not giving penalties.
** Key Differentiators **
AC Milan’s defence was a solid unit made up with brilliant individuals, a rare combination. The best thing was an almost unbreakable offside trap. For a team like Real which depended on through balls often, it was impossible to get past Milan defence under existing offside rules. By the hour-mark Milan had frustrated Sánchez and Butragueño.
Milan pressed Real Madrid off the match. Every time there was a heavy touch or slight miscalculation from a Real player, there would be a Milan player hovering around to take immediate advantage. The way Milan squeezed out space in midfield was simply incredible.
Paolo Maldini was a much more adventurous full-back when he was young. He not only went into overlaps frequently but also cut back, working as an additional central midfielder and giving a man advantage in midfield. Real Madrid players struggled to pick his runs throughout the match.
Ruud Gullit was on a different level as long as he was on the field. He was playing a free role behind van Basten, freely moving between midfield and attack. He did everything, won tackles, sprayed passes around and was a constant goal threat. He played major part in first two Milan goals before scoring just before half-time.
** Man of the Match **
The world may never see defenders of Baresi’s intelligence ever again. Known for his exceptional match reading, Baresi was in full flow in this match, nullifying one of the most potent attacks in the world (the same attack which would score 107 league goals the following season). Thanks to his anticipation, it seemed like he always knew where the ball would be played, to whom it would be played.
He was rarely dived into tackles but frequently made the final, crucial interception around penalty-box. On more than occasion Real Madrid players thought they had the ball but were robbed off it by Baresi before they knew what had happened. Some of the best moments in the match came with Baresi joining the attackers, moving majestically through central midfield with the home crowd egging him on.
** Aftermath **
This match was effectively a passing of baton. Real Madrid was the most consistent team in continental competitions in that period but they would struggle to make an impact in following years. Milan on the other hand, would go on to score 4 goals in 47 minutes against Steaua Bucharesti in the final and start a golden run in which they would reach five finals in seven seasons, winning thrice.
Next Edition: Sócrates, Zico and Falcão’s Finest Hour