Despite being handed the captains armband and the number ten shirt, Baggio’s impact on the team was not immediate as he struggled with initial injury problems. The team suffered as a consequence and they started the season in dismal form, failing to win until match day eight when they beat Reggina 3-0.
The second half of the season was to be fundamental to their success as they went undefeated in their last 12 games. The catalyst for this turnaround was twofold. Firstly, Baggio and his ponytail were back and fully fit and secondly, Andrea Pirlo returned to the Rondinelle, the club in which his fledgling career had begun.
Pirlo, at the time an Inter player, had seen little playing time for theNerazzurri and thus they decided to loan him back to his former club. It would turn out to be a shrewd piece of business for the Bresciani. Baggio went on to finish the season with ten goals and ten assist’s, with striker Dario Hubner the main beneficiary as he finished with seventeen goals.
Employing a 4-3-1-2 formation, Mazzone had Baggio playing behind two strikers in the ‘trequartista’ role. This allowed the Italian coach to utilise Pirlo as a ‘Regista’, a role we often see him occupy today. In essence, the graceful central midfielder was a deep-lying playmaker who sat just in front of the central defenders with two ball winning midfielders either side of him. It turned out to be an inspired decision and one that ultimately had a long term influence on Pirlo’s career. Pirlo went on to make ten appearances for the Biancoazzurri, contributing five assists, his most notable of which coming against Juventus. The playmaker did what he does best, picking the ball up in his own half and floating a perfectly weighted pass over the Juve defence for Baggio, who majestically controlled the ball, rounded Edwin Van Der Sar and rolled the ball into the empty net to give Brescia a late equaliser at the Stadio Delle Alpi.
Despite some obvious defensive frailties, Brescia turned into draw specialists and along with their bitter Lombardy rivals Atalanta, they managed fifteen draws that season, only three being goalless. Drawing home and away with both Juventus and AC Milan proved that, on their day, they were a match for anyone.
The Leonessa’s successful campaign was largely down to the ingenuity of the Pirlo-Baggio combination and the goals of Hubner. Despite some flaws, the side’s flair was balanced with a hard working ethos and they made the most of their strengths and played to them with great effect. Albanian striker, Igil Tare, was a perfect foil for both Hubner and Baggio and gave Brescia the option to play directly or favour a more patient build up. Despite being the eighth lowest scorers in the league, the ability to grind out a result held Brescia in good stead after a tricky start to the season. The industrious Filippini twins along with Andres Yllana made it possible for the ball players like Pirlo to have more freedom and create opportunities for the front three.
Games that stood out include the draw away to Juventus as well as a home win over Baggio’s previous club Inter, the ponytailed forward converting a penalty to give Bresica a 1-0 win at the Stadio Mario Rigamonti. After finishing eighth, it appeared they had narrowly missed out on Europe until their local rivals Atalanta, who had finished seventh by means of a superior goal difference, declined the invitation to play in the Intertoto Cup, leaving the place to Brescia. It capped a historic season for Mazzone’s men.
At the end of the season Andrea Pirlo returned to Inter only to be sold to city rivals AC Milan. Brescia quickly replaced Pirlo with Barcelona legend Josep (Pep) Guardiola while Dario Hubner moved to Piacenza and was replaced by Luca Toni. Despite enjoying a fruitful Intertoto cup campaign, losing in the final to French side PSG, Brescia struggled domestically and only escaped relegation by a solitary point.
Today, with Brescia battling it out in Serie B once more, the glory days of Pirlo, Baggio, Guardiola and European football have become a distant memory. But Brescia fans will always be able to reminisce about the memories of the early 2000’s, the most prosperous period in the clubs 104 year history.
By Mark Neale @neale_mark