Often a player can embark on a breakthrough season. We’ve all seen it before; the youngster who finally fulfills their early potential, the player of modest ability who suddenly raises his level several notches, the late bloomer for whom it suddenly all clicks into place. There are countless players who fit into these categories, too many to name.
Alessandro Del Piero was a little different, however, in December 1994, just a month after turning 20, the Conegliano native was about to instigate a breakthrough seven days that would forever change the trajectory of his career and radically alter the direction of another. It would be a week that would cement his status as the new golden boy of Italian football.
In the summer of 1994 Del Piero watched from afar as Italy reached the final of USA ’94, cruelly losing on penalties to Brazil. One of the players who stood in his way of first team opportunities at Juventus, Roberto Baggio, was inspirational in the tournament. The Divine Ponytail carrying an exceptionally drab Italian side to the final. Further proof, if ever needed, that he was the greatest player in the world.
While Roberto would feature heavily in Del Piero’s present and future, his namesake, Dino, would also do likewise. The tall midfielder had been approached during the tournament with an offer from Parma. The younger and lesser known Baggio was one of the few bright sparks during those early group stage games as Arrigo Sacchi’s Azzurri huffed and puffed through Ireland, Mexico and Norway in a compact Group E. Juventus had accepted the Gialloblu’s offer but Dino wasn’t convinced. Not looking to wreck the deal entirely, Juventus offered Del Piero instead.
Knowing opportunities would be limited with not just Baggio but Gianluca Vialli and Fabrizio Ravanelli in front of him, Del Piero resigned himself of going to play at the Stadio Ennio Tardini. The deal went as far as both teams sending the necessary documents to the league, but then Dino had a change of heart after having talks with new Juventus manager Marcello Lippi, who couldn’t guarantee first team football. Dino Baggio signed for Parma, and Del Piero stayed.
The final in Pasadena also marked the downturn in the fortunes of Del Piero’s teammate. Baggio, who had played through the final with an injured hamstring and in all truth shouldn’t have stepped on to the pitch, let alone played, for 120 minutes in the suffocating American heat, had aggravated his injury. He would miss three out of the opening four games of the 1994/95 season.
Further complicating matters, the player admitted to being affected by the torrent of abuse he endured from the media following his missed penalty. “They wanted a lamb to slaughter and they chose me,” he would say.
Marcello Lippi took over Juventus in the summer, vowing to make them less ‘Baggio-dependent’. The new boss validly argued that, when Baggio was nullified, Juventus had no plan B under previous boss Giovanni Trapattoni. Lippi wanted to change that.
Juventus had not won a Serie A title since 1986 and had been helpless as Fabio Capello’s mechanical but almost unbeatable Milan side blitzed through the league for the previous three years, losing only five games.
However, by late November Juventus were in the thick of a title race alongside Parma, Fiorentina and Lazio. In a league match against Padova, Baggio injured his knee in the process of scoring a textbook free-kick in a 2-1 win and would be out until the New Year. Del Piero was about to seize his opportunity.
The following game, at home to Fiorentina, produced one of the all-time classic Serie A encounters. La Viola raced into a two-goal lead before Vialli scored twice to level the game. Three minutes remained on the clock when Del Piero latched onto a rather hopeful long ball from left-back Alessandro Orlando and with the outside of his right boot hit a first time volley that beautifully arced over Francesco Toldo into the net. Juve had turned the game around inside fifteen minutes. “It all went quite quickly,” Del Piero reflected on it years later, “I didn’t think too much about it and maybe that was for the best”.
A week later Del Piero showed his match-winning wonder strike was no accident, and that he was now the next big thing in the Italian game.
Juve travelled south to the capital to do battle with Lazio full of confidence following the Fiorentina result, however they were also shorn of Vialli, who sat the game out with a suspension.
The game was seventy-seven minutes old with Juve leading 2-1. Del Piero had scored late in the first half to level the game following Roberto Rambaudi’s opener. Midfielder Giancarlo Marocchi then gave the visitors the lead several minutes after the second half began. Then Del Piero scored his second.
Receiving a fizzed ball from Paulo Sousa deep in the Lazio half, the striker kills it instantly with one touch before gliding past Paolo Negro down the left hand channel towards the corner flag. Now cutting back onto his right foot and faced with not only Negro but Josè Chamot, who attempts an interception, Del Piero takes several strides forward, seemingly going nowhere, then he spurts past Chamot before sharply using his left foot to cut inside Negro.
Upon entering the penalty box and with the hapless Negro desperately trying to catch him, the number 10 pulls back his right foot and bends a sumptuous strike over Luca Marchegiani into the opposite corner of the net. It was a moment of sublime skill and execution and, for a few years at least, the start of a chain of goals Del Piero would score in a similar fashion.
‘Zona Del Piero’ entered the football lexicon at the beginning of the following season, when he scored almost identical goals against Rangers, Borussia Dortmund and Steaua Bucharest using the same method, cutting in from the left-hand side and sending the ball into the opposite top corner. It was the mid-1990s’ equivalent of the Arjen Robben ‘cut inside and bend it into the top corner’ that everyone can envisage but nobody can stop. Yet the one against Lazio was the first and undoubtedly the most life-changing of such goals.
When Baggio was out of the side Lippi deployed a 4-3-3 formation, to make the most of Del Piero’s dynamism and to give the team a tactical flexibility they had formerly lacked. He was situated on the left of the attacking three, with Ravanelli on the opposite flank and Vialli through the middle. Del Piero’s ‘zone’ would fade into memory through a combination of Lippi changing systems to accommodate one Zinedine Zidane, and his knee injury robbing him of the electric burst of pace.
Juventus scored a fourth before Lazio pulled back two goals of their own through Pierluigi Casiraghi and Diego Fuser. This was the first season of Zdenêk Zeman at the helm of the Biancocelesti and being the bastion of attacking football that is Zemanlandia, his team was scoring goals by the barrel load. They had already put five past both Napoli and Padova and later in the season would conjure up outlandish score lines, winning against Fiorentina (8-2), Foggia (7-1), Milan and Genoa (4-0), and Inter (4-1). In the return fixture Juventus got comprehensively beaten 3 – 0 by Zeman’s men, who would enjoy a stellar season and finish joint second with Parma.
Juventus won their 23rd Scudetto, and their first since the Michel Platini/Giovanni Trapattoni era, in May following a 4-0 win against Parma. And they would do a rare domestic double by beating Parma in the final of the Coppa Italia.
Baggio had made the difference towards the end of the campaign, but Del Piero’s performances that week in December were enough to convince Lippi that he could supersede Baggio as the creative hub of the team. His athleticism and tactical versatility allowed Lippi to implement the system he felt would make his side win further trophies.
Seven months following the goal against Lazio, the world’s best player departed Turin after refusing to take a pay cut, an idol fallen. The master had left the building and now his one-time student was the future of La Vecchia Signora. Neither player nor club ever looked back.
Words by Emmet Gates @E_I_M_G
Emmet is a freelance football writer based in Italy. He has written for FourFourTwo, These Football Times and InBedWithMaradona.