Some of football’s greatest sides are built on some form of partnership or triumvirate. Manchester United had Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke in the 1990s', Milan had their Dutch trio of Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, as well as Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi. But not all partnerships get the credit they deserve.
During the late 90s’, Marcelo Lippi’s Juventus side were blessed with three attacking players who could win a game at any moment, and together they had the potential to be unstoppable. With Zinedine Zidane as an attacking midfielder playing just behind Alessandro Del Piero and Pippo Inzaghi, Juventus had what could have been one of Calcio’s greatest groups.
Most are aware of the strained relationship that existed between “Super Pippo” and Del Piero, and how much this relationship influenced their individual games. It’s a feature of both of their careers, and in Inzaghi’s case, it is something for which he is occasionally blamed. Some say that his style of play caused the rift between the pair.
When Pippo joined the Bianconeri in 1997, Del Piero was already the star of the biggest club in the country and he was about to be paired with the previous season’s Capocannoniere. On paper, Juve’s attack had it all. They had the creative genius of Zidane, a pure finisher and poacher in Inzaghi, and a mix of the two in Del Piero; it was a coaches dream.
Inzaghi’s form at his previous club Atalanta had made others take notice. In an era of Baggio, Mancini and Totti, this unfashionable youngster still managed to steal the headlines from them all, establishing himself as the deadliest and trickiest striker in Italy.
But, whilst Inzaghi was winning the Young Player of the Year award at Atalanta, Del Piero was slowly usurping Roberto Baggio’s crown at the Old Lady. The fantasista was one of the best players in the world in the mid-90s’, with his fourth place finish in the Balon D’or in 1996 proving as much. And whilst he may not have been scoring the amount of goals that Inzaghi was scoring, he was putting in some unbelievable performances.
Del Piero and Inzaghi had all the makings of a deadly Serie A duo. Del Piero would lay the ball on a plate for Inzaghi, who would score his trademark poaches goal and on occasion, the roles would reverse. The two had a great chemistry and were on the same wavelength in almost every game.
In their first season together in 1997/98, the pair were simply sensational, managing a combined total of 39 goals in Serie A. In particular, Inzaghi’s life in black and white started very well, as he scored a brace and set up Antonio Conte in the Supercoppa Italiana against Vicenza. He kept us his goal-scoring spree into the first few weeks of the season, showing the Juve faithful his usual passionate celebration and loud screams of joy. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for Pippo and Alex to claim their first silverware together, helping Juve win the Scudetto and reach the UEFA Champions League final.
In all competitions, the pair scored 59 goals and were vital to every facet of Juve’s game. They set the tempo from the front, benefiting enormously from Zidane’s ingenuity, and the solidity of Lippi’s midfielders behind them, which included the likes of Edgar Davids, Didier Deschamps, Antonio Conte and Angelo Di Livio. Juve had the foundations to go on and dominate Italian football, and Inzaghi and Del Piero would lead the charge.
However, it didn’t quite work out like that, as Juventus suffered a huge blow. Del Piero missed the majority of the following season through an awful knee injury and without their influential playmaker, the Old Lady could only finish a dismal seventh. To call the season a disappointment would be an understatement, and even though Inzaghi scored 20 goals in all competitions, it marked the beginning of the end for his career in Turin.
During the season, Carlo Ancelotti replaced Marcello Lippi at the helm and though the future Milan boss managed to win the 1999 Intertoto Cup (the cup every coach dreams of winning), things did not improve domestically.
Del Piero had recovered from his knee injury, but was struggling to score from open play, with the majority of his goals coming from the penalty spot. His lack of goals wasn’t helped by the fact that Inzaghi was in good form, scoring a total of 19 goals from 40 games. One player’s struggle was the other’s success, and this was where tension between the two began to simmer.
On 20 February, 2000, in a league game at Venezia, a few incidents highlighted the unhealthy competition and discord that had began to develop between the two. Juve were already leading the game 1-0 thanks to a penalty from Del Piero himself, but in the final 10 minutes, Inzaghi decided it was his time to shine.
Pippo was running through on goal and had Del Piero in support, but he decided to go it alone and round the ‘keeper to make it 2-0. No problem there; if you are a striker like Inzaghi, it is natural to want to get yourself on the score sheet. Before Juve’s second goal, however, Inzaghi had found himself in a similar situation and rather than passing to his strike partner, he blasted the ball wide, perhaps a conscious decision after Del Piero had virtually stolen a shot from Inzaghi’s feet earlier in the half.
The personal duel continued after Juve’s second. Once again, some slack Venezia defending allowed Inzaghi to break free, with Del Piero in a very good position. Luckily for Inzaghi, he once again found the net after latching on to a fortuitous rebound. But this time, Juve’s No.10 was not happy, not one bit. And it wasn’t over yet, after Inzaghi practically stole the ball off Del Piero’s foot to score a tap-in and complete his hat-trick.
This proved the last straw for Del Piero, who having struggled for goals after his return from injury, was not the least bit impressed by his strike partner’s greed in front of goal. Indeed, if you watch the game’s highlights, Inzaghi’s theatrical celebrations after each goal, even at 4-0, only accentuate matters.
In the post match interviews, Del Piero stated that Inzaghi was “lucky to score” and decided against passing to the striker “unless the moment was right”. The seeds were sown, and what was once a brilliant partnership was on the verge of turning toxic.
From that moment on, all was not right between Inzaghi and Del Piero. As Juve missed out on the Scudetto by one point to Sven Goran-Eriksson’s Lazio, you felt that Inzaghi’s time in Turin was coming to an end.
He managed to last another season, despite the arrival of Frenchman David Trezeguet, and Inzaghi actually finished top-scorer again. But all the personal accolades were irrelevant come the end of the season, as Juve once again narrowly missed out on the title, this time to a Roma side led by Francesco Totti and Gabriel Batistuta.
Inzaghi and Del Piero finally parted sides at the beginning of the 2001/02 season, as Ancelotti bought his former stooge to Milan for roughly £25m. Despite Pippo’s impressive tally of 89 goals in 165 appearances for Juve, his time in Turin is not remembered very fondly.
In fact, most remember the acrimonious fallout between Inzaghi and Del Piero, with Del Piero’s quotes after the Venezia game serving as a real turning point. Nevertheless, let’s not forget the role these two played in helping Juve win multiple Scudetti. When they weren’t bickering, they were almost unstoppable. And though Inzaghi may be known as a Milan legend, his time with Juventus cannot be forgotten.
Indeed, the strained relationship between the pair helped shape the rest of their careers. Inzaghi never changed; always that same poacher with an insatiable hunger for goals. Del Piero, on the other hand, took responsibility and became the undisputed talisman at Juve once his partner in crime had departed.
Individually, the two performed their respective roles brilliantly and together, they were extremely hard to handle, both for the opposition and for their teammates. However, it is hard not to think what might have been had they not fallen out during that third season together.
Words by Tom Scholes: @TomScholes316