The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
There was no heroic surge. We set a punishing pace from the outset, and we kept it up to the end. For a time it looked as though Inter would keep it up with us, but they’d faltered by midseason, and when we finally won the scudetto—in a 4-1 home win against Genoa, with goals by Fábio (2), Michele Proietti, and Riccardo Caprioli; all players under 23, the latter two in their teens—we did it without much drama. Not that our fans felt the lack: in Vercelli, all that seemed to matter was that we’d picked up another title, the club’s tenth overall, and equaled the club record of three straight league championships set from 1911 to 1913.
We played our last two games knowing the championship was settled, and won them with youth teams, 1-0 against Treviso and 2-0 against Lazio. We finished with 97 points, the most of any team since I started at Vercelli 12 years ago, and allowed only 19 goals all season. I would have liked to score more (I think we would have, had Teixeira not been hurt and out of sorts all year) but we won 31 games and took the league by 11 points; by any measure, it was a spectacular season.
All that was left was the Champions League final: Manchester United at the San Siro. I was nervous before the match, and not just because it had been a geologic epoch since we last won a game in Milan. We were playing to win our second straight European Cup, something no team had done in three decades. Man Utd had two of the best strikers in Europe in Steve Bony (24 goals in 29 games) and James Holmes (14 goals in 17 games), and the match was being billed as the immovable object of our defense versus the unstoppable force of their attack. On top of that, I was anxious about our own attackers: Kozlov had been playing well enough, but Teixeira had been absolutely awful since coming back from his latest injury, and I had no idea whether to play David (generally more trustworthy) or Linnane (in much better form recently) on the left. I picked Linnane, hoped Kozlov wouldn’t get hurt, and left the rest to fate.
Fate looked cruel in the 31st minute, when Man Utd’s Andrés Arévalo got on the end of a Steve Bony cross to put us in a 1-0 hole. But eight minutes later, Linnane dove head-first at a low ball from Paolo Martini and drove it into the back of the net. 1-1. Just before the half, Kozlov picked up a knock on a hard tackle from our former left back Arnaldo Mora. We went into halftime tied, and I had no choice but to send on Teixeira.
As the second half ground on, we gradually emerged with an advantage in possession and chances. Martini, playing in the holding midfield spot, was relentless in winning the ball, which freed up our attacking players to spread out wide and get forward, which in turn caused some disarray in Man Utd’s tight 3-5-2 formation. Martini found Kenji Mogi unmarked at the edge of the area in the 51st minute, and Mogi sailed in the 20-yard shot to give us a 2-1 lead. From that point, we were never really threatened, and when I sent on our second substitute, Rafael Avilán, for the exhausted Fábio in the 78th minute, he returned the favor by scoring from close range three minutes later to give us a 3-1 lead.
Arévalo scored again to make it 3-2 in the 88th, but we survived a few minutes of late tension to secure a deserved win. Final match stats: 55%-45% possession, 16-7 shots on goal, 76%-60% pass completion.
We’d won our second straight Champions League title, and wrapped up a season in which we won the UEFA Super Cup, the Club World Cup, the Coppa Italia, the Serie A title, and the European Cup. It was a total, across-the-board triumph, and it has to go down not only as the greatest season in the history of the club but as the greatest season in twenty-first century football.
Counting the Europa League win three seasons ago, this is our third straight year winning at least a league/European double. So we’re hardly strangers to success. But it’s only now that I can really say we’ve re-established the club on a footing worthy of the past, which was the goal all along. We’ve proved ourselves not only against our contemporary opponents but against our own history. Now the only thing left is to figure out how to top it.
by Brian Phillips · July 6, 2009