“When an Italian tells me it’s pasta on the plate, I check under the sauce to make sure. They are the inventors of the smokescreen.”
“They come out with the ‘English are so strong, we’re terrible in the air, we can’t do this, we can’t do that’. Then they beat you 3-0.”
Thus spake Sir Alex Ferguson in his assessment of Italian football. It is a judgement based on experience of taking on Serie A sides numerous times during his reign at Old Trafford. They may appear, at first glance, to be a bit insulting. But if you push the sauce to one side – to pinch his own analogy – there is surely a Parmesan-like sprinkling of respect.
That’s because it took him some time to get a handle on how to beat sides from the peninsula. Now that his managerial career is drawing to a close, the statistics show he eventually got to grips with the challenge. But, at least at the outset, it was definitely a struggle.
It was Marcello Lippi’s Juventus who gave him his first harsh lessons in how Serie A sides operate. Between a cigar and a glass of red wine or two the silver-haired tactician from Viareggio beat the Red Devils home and away in the group stage of the 1996-97 Champions League. The following year the English side won 3-2 at Old Trafford against the Bianconeri but lost the group game in Italy thanks to that man who was “born offside”, Pippo Inzaghi.
It would be the 1998-99 edition which would really see the Scotsman graduate with honours in terms of seeing off Italian opponents. Inter were eliminated 3-1 on aggregate at the quarter final stage before his old adversary, La Vecchia Signora, stood on his path to the Final. That semi-final produced two matches which underlined the feeling – which proved to be true – that United’s name was on the cup.
A 1-1 draw in Manchester – courtesy of current Juve boss Antonio Conte and the eternal Ryan Giggs – gave the Bianconeri the advantage. When Inzaghi struck twice in the opening dozen minutes of the return match it should have been game over. Instead, Roy Keane, Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole turned the tie on its head. From that point on, any psychological advantage Serie A sides had previously enjoyed had been entirely banished.
Fiorentina enjoyed a famous win over the English side in 1999 thanks to Gabriel Batistuta and Abel Balbo, but were vanquished 3-1 at Old Trafford after a Batigol beauty had given the Viola the lead. But home and away wins over Juve in 2003 underlined just how much the club had progressed. At least until a new adversary emerged.
Another bon viveur, Carlo Ancelotti, proved a tough nut to crack with his Milan side. Hernan Crespo gave the Rossoneri home and away wins over Sir Alex’s side in the Champions League in 2005. Things were more expansive a couple of years later when the Milanese giants overturned a 3-2 deficit in the semi-final first leg with a 3-0 triumph at the San Siro courtesy of Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Alberto Gilardino. Prior to that game, however, the Manchester side had dished out their heaviest ever hammering to an Italian side with the 7-1 destruction of Roma.
As the fortunes of Serie A have slumped in Europe, Manchester United have stayed strong. They defeated and drew with Roma in the 2007-08 Champions League group games and then beat them home and away in the quarter-finals. A year later, Inter were their second round victims after a goalless draw in Milan and 2-0 home victory.
The last chapter in the Fergie versus the Italians story came three years ago and it emphasised how far he had come. Milan were defeated 3-2 on their own turf and then dismantled 4-0 at Old Trafford. If he had once had trouble getting at his pasta, he could now pretty much dine on the Italian delicacy whenever he pleased.