European Football Stories: The Surprise Loss That Began Juve’s Drought

Their recent struggles notwithstanding, Juventus remains the most successful club (domestically) in Italian football by quite some distance. It is also the only club in Italy, and among an elite five, to have won the three main original club competitions organized by the UEFA – the European Cup (now Champions League), the UEFA Cup (revamped as the Europa League) and the now defunct European Cup Winners’ Cup.

But when it comes to drawing a list of Italian clubs that have been the most successful in European competitions, the Turin-based side finds itself behind both the Milano based sides. Milan, with their seven Champions League trophies (and 14 UEFA titles overall), are the clear pacesetters.

Inter, on the other hand, have actually won fewer titles in Europe (six) as compared to Juve (eight). That being said, the Nerazzurri’s three Champions League trophies—a competition that matters the most—put them ahead of the Bianconeri in terms of tangible continental credentials.

It is a fact that Juve have made it to the Champions League final on no less than nine occasions. That being said, they have been at the receiving end of seven of them. No other club has lost as many finals on Europe’s premier club competition.

Five of those final disappointments have happened on the trot. In fact, along with Portuguese club Benfica, the Turin-based side share the unenviable record most consecutive finals lost in Europe’s flagship tournament. While each reverse in a final is nothing but huge disappointment, in the case of Juve, it is the first of those five final defeats that happened to be the most surprising, if not shocking. It is sheer coincidence that the result kick-started the club’s title drought in Europe.

The Old Lady Came Late to the Party… but Enjoyed a Multitude of Successes

Taking solely the consistency in terms of results into consideration, it can be said that La Vecchia Signora (The Old Lady) were comparatively latecomers. While Milan, Inter and even Fiorentina made an early splash in European competition in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was not until the 1970s that Juve strung together some memorable results at the continental stage.

A European Cup final defeat (to Ajax) in 1973 was followed by another semi-final showing (losing to Club Brugge) in 1978. Two forays to the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup (1972 and 1975) preceded the club’s first major continental trophy, in the same competition in 1977. It’s sheer irony that the manager who guided the Turin club to their maiden success in Europe was a former player at Milan.

Giovanni Trapattoni not only helped Juventus dominate in the domestic competitions but also made them a formidable force at the European stage. His two stints in Turin were littered with a series of successes.

In his first stint in charge of Juve (from 1976 to 1986) Trapattoni won a whopping 13 pieces of silverware, and that was inclusive of a European clean sweep. The legend, fondly referred to as Trap, returned to add another major silverware during his second spell (1991-94) in Turin. Marcello Lippi added to the work done by his veteran counterpart, and Juve became a dominant force, more so in the European competitions.

Beginning in the early 1980s and right up till the late 1990s, Juve displayed amazing consistency when it came to continental silverware. After winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1984, the Italian giants went a step further in the following season, and secured a maiden European Cup title in their third attempt, thereby achieving a hat-trick of European trophies. Two more UEFA Cup titles (1990 and 1993) and a second Champions League title (1996) followed.

Ready to Make Another Title Charge

Following that win (on penalties) over defending champions Ajax, Juve bolstered their squad considerably in the close season. High profile names like Alen Bokšić, Christian Vieri, Mark Iuliano, Nicola Amoruso, Paolo Montero and, most importantly, Zinedine Zidane were added to the roster. The highly rated Frenchman was acquired from Bordeaux, whom he had led to the UEFA Cup final in the 1995-96 season.

There were departures, of course. Paulo Sousa left. Gianluca Vialli, who captained the side in that Champions League triumph, ended his four-year association with the club and joined Chelsea on a free transfer. Another Premier League side, Middlesbrough, came calling for Fabrizio Ravanelli, the forward that had scored the opener in that final at the Stadio Olimpico. However, the arrivals outweighed the departures, thereby considerably strengthening the team.

The impact was on the expected lines. Besides adding to their cabinet a couple of trophies that are offered as complimentary with continental success – the UEFA Super Cup and the Intercontinental Cup (now Club World Cup), Juventus also made the title charge in the new season and ended up winning the Serie A for a 24th time. Then, their Champions League defense seemed well on track.

The Bianconeri comfortably won their group, winning five of their six games—doing the home-away double over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. While Norwegian side Rosenberg managed to hold on to a 1-1 draw in the first leg of their quarter-final in Trondheim, the result in Turin (2-0) was very much on expected lines.

Ajax was accounted for again, in the semi-finals, and a lot more comfortably on this occasion – Juve winning both the legs and 6-2 on aggregate. Lippi and company were heading to Munich to defend their title and as the firm favorites. They had remained unbeaten in 10 matches in that campaign.

All Set… but Upset

The Turin-based club was facing a side whose credentials in Europe’s premier club competition were anything but impressive. The 1996-97 season happened to be only Borussia Dortmund’s fifth in the tournament. In fact, the previous season (1995-96) had marked the first time in 31 years that Die Schwarzgelben played in the European Cup, and palpably their maiden participation in its Champions League avatar.

In fact, back then Dortmund were used to playing in Europe’s secondary (European Cup Winners’ Cup) and tertiary (UEFA Cup) competitions more. Juve had comprehensively outplayed them 6-1 (on aggregate) in the final to win the UEFA Cup in 1993, and again in the semi-finals (4-3 on aggregate) of the same competition in the following year. Besides, en route to their Champions League triumph in the year before, the Bianconeri had topped a group that included Dortmund. While the latter had managed a surprise win in Turin, it did little to stop Lippi’s team from comfortably topping the group.

That apart, in terms of personnel, and especially following the reinforcements, Juve were a lot stronger. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s squad was solid alright, but it didn’t boast of big names like Lippi’s did. As such, had it been just another match, the Bianconeri may well have been forgiven for being a tad complacent. Unfortunately for them, it was a major final.

Complacency comes at a cost. Underestimating an opponent can be perilous. It can result in an upset. Despite of not having big names in their roster, Dortmund could always rely on the quintessential German efficiency. Juve were guilty of turning a blind eye to the ingenuity of their opponents. It did not take long for them to understand that they had erred in doing so.

The ever-dependable Karl-Heinz Riedle scored twice in the space of five minutes to put the German side in a comfortable position. With Scotsman Paul Lambert doing a commendable job in marking Zidane, and the Frenchman struggling to assert himself, creating chances was becoming increasingly difficult.

At the start of the second half, Lippi substituted a right-back (Sergio Porrini) with a forward (Alessandro Del Piero). The strategy worked, with Del Piero reducing the deficit in less than 20 minutes of coming onto the field. However, the joy was short-lived, as Hitzfeld’s substitution made an even quicker impact.

The Dortmund boss replaced his Swiss forward Stéphane Chapuisat with local lad Lars Ricken, and the latter scored with his first touch to make it 3-1, and that’s what the final scoreline read.

Then Began a Long Wait…

It wasn’t that Juve had succumbed to German opposition for the first time in a major final. Like Dortmund in 1997, Hamburger SV (HSV) had also got the better of them in the final of the European Cup in 1983. That being said, unlike Dortmund, which were going through a revival of sorts in European competition, Hamburg were at their absolute peak back then.

Besides winning the European Cup Winners’ Cup in 1977, HSV had also made it to the European Cup final in 1980—losing to Nottingham Forest by a solitary goal, and ended up as runner-up in the UEFA Cup final in 1982—losing in both legs to Sven-Göran Eriksson’s IFK Göteborg’s side. As such, the 1983 final in Athens was an evenly matched contest, with the end result not exactly a surprise.

However, the result of the 1997 final was shocking in more ways than one. Among the five straight Champions League finals that Juve have been at the receiving end since their title win in 1996, this was by far the most winnable. Losing to Real Madrid (1998 and 2017), Milan (2003) and Barcelona (2015) is anything but shocking, especially considering the fact that these clubs arguably have better pedigree – and definitely a better history when it comes to European competitions compared to the Turin giants. Regarding the Bundesliga side, suffice to say Juventus are yet to lose an away game against Dortmund. Such is their stranglehold.

As such, Juve’s best chance was in 1997. They should have defended their title. Instead, they suffered an ignominious defeat, an ignominy that refuses to subside despite of the club’s many efforts.

Borussia Dortmund has been Champions League regulars in recent years. Current Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp helped them reach another final in 2013. However, a second title has remained elusive.

Juve’s case has been no different. It’s been 27 years now that the Turin-based club has won Europe’s premier club competition, or any European trophy for that matter. In fact, it can be considered as even worse, not only owing to the number of finals they have lost in this period but also related to the many investments made. In their pursuit of that elusive third title, the Bianconeri spent millions in acquiring the likes of Gonzalo Higuaín, Leonardo Bonucci, Mario Mandžukić, Pavel Nedvěd and most importantly Cristiano Ronaldo. It will suffice to say nothing has worked so far.

The 2022-23 season has ensured more disappointment. The Italian giants lost five of their six group games and failed to progress to the knockout stages of the Champions League. They managed to pip Maccabi Haifa, on goal difference, and make it to the knockout rounds of the Europa League, where they are expected to face Sevilla in the semi finals.

In the meantime, the wait for another Champions League trophy has got yet another extension.