At the end of the 2003-04 season, it was a time of reflection for Barcelona. In Frank Rijkaard’s first season as manager of the Catalan giants he had improved on their previous 6th-placed finish, coming second, five points behind Rafael Benitez’s Valencia.
Simply bettering Louis van Gaal and caretaker coach Raddy Antic’s work wasn’t good enough for Barcelona, further improvement was necessary. Partnering Ronaldinho in Barcelona’s front three had been Luis Garcia and Javier Saviola; the Brazilian’s class was obvious but, while good players, the others weren’t of the needed quality. Garcia followed reigning La Liga champion Benitez to Liverpool and Saviola left for Champions League finalists Monaco. In return for Saviola, Monaco sent Ludovic Giuly to Barcelona for €7 million while Mallorca’s all-time leading domestic goalscorer Samuel Eto’o was brought in for €24 million.
With their new strikeforce Barcelona won the 2004-05 La Liga title and a league and Champions League double the next year, finishing 12 points clear of second-placed Real Madrid. Their greatness was backed up by individual accolades too: Ronaldinho named Ballon D’Or winner in 2005 and Samuel Eto’o Pichichi award winner in 2006.
Ronaldinho was the playmaker, cutting in from the left onto his favoured right foot to weave his magic; Samuel Eto’o was the focal point of the attack, his intensity giving Barca an added dimension to their pressing as well as an accomplished goalscorer; Ludovic Giuly was the least talented of the three, but was key to freeing the others’ talents. Although comfortable playing centrally, Giuly was best when played wide – Ronaldinho and Eto’o needed space to work in so Giuly stretched the defence, opening up gaps for the others to work in.
Then it began to unravel. Giuly was first to go, ousted by youth graduate Lionel Messi, and was followed a year later by an out-of-form Brazilian whose party lifestyle had caught up with him and not impressed his new manager Pep Guardiola. Samuel Eto’o was forced out a year later despite his excellent performances in Guardiola’s debut season and is the only one to sustain his high level of play, winning the treble in his first season at Internazionale and currently leading their scoring charts with 17 goals in 15 appearances.
Gunnar Gren – Gunnar Nordahl – Nils Liedholm (Milan/Sweden)
A trio so good their names were forced together by the Italian media. Gre-No-Li burst onto the footballing conscious at the 1948 London Olympics, where they won gold for Sweden with twelve goals in four games. AC Milan had finally found the players they needed to win their first league title since 1907.
Nordahl was the first to arrive, taken from IFK Norrköping in 1949. A tall powerful striker, Nordahl scored two goals on his debut against Pro Patria and carried on in this vein, scoring 225 goals in 291 games – second in Italian football’s all-time records, behind only Silvio Piola, who scored his 274 goals in well over 500 games. However, arguably his most valuable contribution was the meeting he had with Milan’s owners to persuade them to purchase Gunnar Gren and Nils Liedholm from IFK Göteborg. Reunited again, Milan won the scudetto just a year after their arrival.
Gren spent a year managing Milan before heading to Fiorentina, and goalscorer extraordinaire Nordahl followed him in 1956, having won another Serie A title in 1955 and been overall top scorer in five of his six seasons, moving to Roma. Meanwhile, Liedholm was the only one to stick around, continuing to play for Milan until his retirement in 1961 and spending several spells over the next few decades.
Francesco Totti – Gabriel Batistuta – Marco Delvecchio (Roma)
As Fabio Capello’s first season coaching Roma didn’t go exactly to plan – finishing sixth while city rivals Lazio won Serie A – a shake-up was needed. The previous season, strike partners Marco Delvecchio and Vincenzo Montella had combined for 30 league goals, but there was still room for improvement: Montella was the clever poacher and Delvecchio was the hard-working target man – Capello wanted a striker that mixed these attributes.
Roma’s Director of Football Franco Baldini looked to have found a suitable man: Fiorentina’s Gabriel Batistuta. The problem facing them now was getting him. “Batigol” was fiercely loyal to the Florentine club and had made it clear he didn’t want a move away, however, with Fiorentina’s precarious financial situation, there was a chance that he could be convinced to leave if it was clear we would be helping the club by leaving. The issue soon became convincing owner Franco Sensi to spend a large enough sum on a 31 year-old to convince Fiorentina to let him go.
Teaming up with Mario Sconcerti, editor of the flagging Corriere dello Sport, they hatched a plan to pressure Sensi into opening his chequebook. Baldini revealed their plans for Batistuta and Sconcerti ran the story; the situation was mutually beneficial – Roma would get Batistuta, Corriere would get more readers wanting to find out about the story. Initially, Sensi became more popular, however with each day that went without Batistuta showing up in the capital, the pressure began to mount. Sensi gave in and signed the Argentinian for £23.5 million.
With his shiny new striker, things were looking rosy for Capello, but a fresh problem would soon arise. Everyone had expected fan favourite Montella to start alongside Batistuta, but it soon became clear that Capello planned to use Delvecchio in place of Montella. Both strikers were penalty box players and playing two of this kind of player together seems a bit stupid. Aside from the obvious defensive issues, it would also cause attacking problems too; with both Montella and Batistuta in front of him, talisman Francesco Totti – probably the most talented Italian player of his generation – had less space to work in with it being occupied by two players doing the same thing. If you have a player that all but guarentees a goal if you create a chance for him, is it worthwhile having another player that offers the same thing when you could have another player to help create these chances and defend?
With Delvecchio in the team, Vincent Candela and Cafu were under less pressure to provide width and defend, Totti had more space to work in and the team had a tall forntman to use as an outlet. Montella was understandably frustrated at all the time he spent on the bench despite his incredible form as a super-sub, claiming he was “bitter and angry”. Eventually, Montella’s feats became too much for him to be left on the bench and he was named ahead of Delvecchio, however it should be remembered that it was the unfashionable forward that made the system work.