Milan vs Fiorentina Throwback: The Jens Lehmann Horror Show

A good goalkeeper is worth half a team”, an old Italian football saying goes. Milan knew that very well as they went through an absolute identity crisis between the sticks towards the end of the last century. Ahead of the 1998/99 season, they believed they had solved their problem at the back by signing the German rising star, Jens Lehmann.

However, the future Arsenal stalwart’s experience in red-and-black ended up being short and unsuccessful. It was doomed by one unfortunate game where Lehmann was to blame in occasion of all three goals by which Fiorentina dismantled Milan at the San Siro. Perhaps it was too early and too little to bill him as unfit for the Serie A, but it is what it is.

Milan and Lehmann shook hands in the winter transfer market session and the German custodian came back home at Borussia Dortmund before finding much better fortunes in the Premier League.

But how did Lehmann land in the Belpaese, in an age when seeing a non-Italian goalkeeper minding the posts was as absolute rarity in the Serie A? For years, Milan’s undisputed king between the sticks had been the gigantic, hot-tempered Sebastiano Rossi. However, at 32 years of age, Rossi was starting to lose his edge.

The Rossoneri had tried to batten the hatches by signing U-21 prospect Angelo Pagotto from Sampdoria and then Massimo Taibi from Piacenza. Neither of them had managed to keep up with the pressure though, perhaps crushed by the larger-than-life presence of Rossi, and had ended up committing some trivial mistakes that resulted in Rossi regaining his starting spot between the posts.

As the 1998/99 campaign approached, Milan thus started to look outside of the Italian borders and set their sights on the stone-cold German. Lehmann had become known in Italy two years earlier as he had led his childhood club Schalke 04 to winning the UEFA Cup on penalties against the Rossoneri city rivals Inter.

His glacial personality and Teutonic composure seemed exactly what was needed to put up with Rossi’s intimidating presence while delivering the goods on the pitch at the same time. And yet, for some reason, the result ended up being the same as Lehmann lasted even less than Pagotto and Taibi.

On September 26, 1998, Milan welcomed Fiorentina at the San Siro in matchday 3. Both clubs had started the league with two wins. Lehmann had had some easy time against Bologna and Salernitana, so facing the Viola and their formidable striker Gabriel Batistuta was going to be his trial of fire. And so, it was.

A bad day can happen to anyone and, indeed, if Lehmann’s performance on that day was horrific, the same can be said about Alessandro Costacurta’s. (Whose career at Milan speaks for itself)

After just six minutes, the Rossoneri defender tried to serve his teammate Paolo Maldini with an all-too-obvious pass in his defensive third, something that you cannot do when Batistuta is around. Batigol ravenously pounced on the ball and fired a somewhat weak shot that caught Lehmann by surprise at the near post. Costacurta’s howler was evident, but the goalkeeper’s display was…meh.

It went even worse right after the restart, as Batistuta and Costacurta faced each other again. The Fiorentina forward won the one-on-one battle and freed himself for a shot from a narrow angle. Batistuta’s conclusion was not exactly a screamer, but Lehmann run into the most classic of goalkeeping blunders, letting the ball slide between his legs.

But the worst was yet to come. On 52 minutes, Costacurta was once again pressured in his own box by Rui Costa and thought to pass the ball back to his goalkeeper. Lehmann, now in a totally confused state, inexplicably grabbed it with his hands – something that you are supposed to learn not to do on your very first goalkeeping class. It resulted in an unusual free kick inside the box, which Batistuta had no problem in converting with a brutal shot from point-blank rage.   

Oliver Bierhoff reduced the gap for the Rossoneri from the penalty spot, setting the score at 1-3. Fiorentina, then coached by the veteran Giovanni Trapattoni, remained alone at the top of the table, and retained the first place until January 1999, winning the “Winter Champion” informal title.

And while Milan had the last laugh, as they eventually won the title, their setback to the Viola had a devastating impact on Jens Lehmann’s short stint in Milanello. After a 1-0 loss to Cagliari in matchday five, Sebastiano Rossi once again reclaimed his spot between the Rossoneri posts.

It took the meteoric rise of home-grown Christian Abbiati to finally see a change between the sticks at Milan a few months later, while Lehmann packed his bags and set sails for new adventures, perhaps wondering how things could go so wrong so fast for him in that hysterical, impatient league known as the Serie A. 



September 26, 1998 – Serie A 1998-99 Round 3

SCORERS: 6′ Batistuta (F), 46′ Batistuta (F), 52′ Batistuta (F), 70′ Bierhoff (M, pen.)

MILAN (4-3-3): Lehmann; Ngotty, Costacurta, Maldini, Helveg; Albertini, Ambrosini (56′ Boban), Ba (59′ Coco); Weah, Bierhoff, Ganz (68′ Leonardo) (Rossi, Ayala, Donadoni, Guglielminpietro) Coach: Zaccheroni

FIORENTINA (4-4-2): Toldo; Padalino, Falcone (63′ Tarozzi), Repka, Heinrich; Torricelli, Cois, Rui Costa, Amoroso (86′ Amor); Batistuta, Oliveira (Mareggini, Mirri, Esposito, Morfeo, Robbiati) Coach: Trapattoni

REFEREE: Mr. Braschi from Prato
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Weah, Boban, Leonardo (M); Toldo, Repka, Torricelli, Cois (F)