Words: Martin Mork
With Milan 2-0 up against Perugia in January 1999, Hidetoshi Nakata pulled the Grifoni back in the game with a composed finish from the penalty spot, slotting the ball past Rossoneri goalkeeper Sebastiano Rossi.
Cristian Bucchi was eager to resume play in the dying minutes of the match and sprinted to pick the ball out of the net, but his desire and indeed face were blocked by the stopper, who swung his arm out like a professional wrestler and clotheslined the striker. Inevitable red card, five match ban and desperate hanging on to the final whistle with debutant goalkeeper Christian Abbiati.
Milan had dominated the first half and were up 2-0 at half-time through goals from Guly and Olivier Bierhoff, who had also been kicked in the face whilst on the ground in what was an intense battle for the points at San Siro.
It was going to get even more difficult for the home side as Perugia pushed the Rossoneri back, threatening to reduce their lead midway through the second half. The home side were on the brink of wiping out Lazio’s lead in Serie A with a win at San Siro, seemingly nervous trying to keep the visitors out, and Perugia came dangerously close on more than one occasion.
Milan had held on until stoppage time of the second period, when a through ball found Croatian forward Milan Rapaic, who didn’t get control with his first touch. The ball span in behind a bewildered and spinning Alessandro Costacurta, calling Rossi into action.
Rapaic forced himself past the centre-half and finished whilst sliding into the open net after contact with the Italy international. The Milan goalkeeper managed to get a foot to the finish and push the ball wide and off the target, but it wasn’t enough.
The goalkeeper was giving his teammates a telling off when he realised referee Stefano Braschi had pointed to the penalty spot, giving Nakata a chance of pulling one back for the visitors to further threaten the Diavolo’s lead.
The Japanese attacker made no mistakes when he sat Seba down in his own five-yard box and slotted the penalty neatly to the other side, but the goalkeeper immediately felt the penalty was not taken correctly. He shook his finger at Braschi and started running towards the referee when he spotted Bucchi on his way to the net.
The Perugia forward saw an opportunity to get back into the game and stormed towards goal to pick up the ball and make the most of the few minutes remaining, when Rossi lashed out his arm and with a proper wrestling move clotheslined the Italian forward on his way to collect the ball. It was textbook late 1990s WWE.
The goalkeeper picked up the ball with Bucchi flat out on the floor and was approached by angry Perugia teammates. Rossi thought he hadn’t done quite enough damage to Bucchi, so threw the ball to one side, stormed back and dragged the forward back up to his feet. That’ll add another match to the ban, then.
Rossi had already replaced Jens Lehmann between the sticks at Milan in 1999 and was handed a five-match ban for the sending off against Perugia, so the only option left for coach Alberto Zaccheroni was total unknown third choice Abbiati.
The stars really had aligned for Milan that season. The 21-year-old went on to prove a decisive figure in the comeback to snatch the Scudetto off Lazio, doing so well that even when Rossi completed his five-match ban, there was no question of who deserved the gloves. Rossi did not play again that season.
The title was clinched with a final round 2-1 victory in Perugia and – incredibly – the goals were again scored by Guly, Bierhoff and a Nakata penalty. However, the moment everyone remembers from that day is Abbiati flying to get his fingertips to a Bucchi half-volley from an impossible angle, CEO Adriano Galliani practically having an out of body experience in the stands.
There were celebrations all around at the final whistle, as results from elsewhere meant Perugia were safe and Milan had the Scudetto.
Rossi, ironically enough, moved to Perugia in July 2002, after having played 330 games for Milan. Bucchi had already left the Stadio Curi, which is probably just as well for both of them.