Lecce-Udinese was an iconic battle in the 2004-2005 campaign. The Salentini and the Friuliani faced each other four times that season, twice in Campionato and twice in Coppa Italia. A combined 26 (TWENTY-SIX!) goals were scored in the 4 games, the obvious consequence of a matchup opposing Zdenek Zeman’s ultra-offensive football philosophy – which the Bohemian coach was preaching in Lecce – to a Bianconeri side brilliantly led by still relatively-unknown Luciano Spalletti.
The match of November 20th, 2004 in particular – a Coppa Italia Round of 16 first leg played at the Via del Mare Stadium in Lecce – lived up to the craziest show-time expectations, featuring 9 goals and, moreover, a dramatic last-minute penalty saved by Udinese’s David Di Michele.
Nothing extraordinary with that – saving a penalty during stoppage time is a recurring football trope, after all – if it wasn’t for the fact that Di Michele was…a striker. The Friuliani forward was called to substitute debutant Samir Handanovic between the sticks, as Spalletti had no more changes available when the Slovenian goalkeeper was sent off. Di Michele ironically ended up faring much better than his soon-to-be-famous teammate.
For the mid-week national cup games, it was (and it still is) common practice for Serie A coaches to mostly deploy their second lines in order to preserve their best forces for the more important league tests. That was even truer in that 2004-2005 season which saw the Italian top division enlarged from 18 to 20 teams for the first time after 48 years.
Zdenek Zeman maybe went a little bit too far as he decided to keep on the bench his best striker Mirko Vucinic. Spalletti was no less cautious however, as he renounced to such big names as the eternal Nestor Sensini, Marek Jankulovski, David Pizarro, and Vincenzo Iaquinta.
Udinese’s number one goalkeeper Morgan De Sanctis was also left to warm the bench, to give this 20-year-old Slovenian prospect everybody was talking about the chance to make his debut in the world of calcio. His entrance on the football stage wasn’t however what you would call a memorable one: After 30 minutes of play, Handanovic had already bent the knee three times, pierced by Cristian Ledesma, Samuele Dalla Bona, and Valeri Bojinov.
With Lecce ahead 3-0, the job seemed good and done for Zeman’s Salentini. A header by Brazilian defender Felipe – still playing today at SPAL – however, gave new hopes to the visiting Bianconeri, and just before the break David Di Michele furtherly reduced the gap with a sharp right-foot shot.
Five goals in forty-five minutes were quite a blast, but the best was yet to come.
Lecce came back to the pitch in full attack-mode and went close to make it 4-2 on multiple occasions. But – as it often happens when Zdenek Zeman sits on the bench – the home side’s offensive frenzy fatally opened some huge gaps in the defense, something that you cannot afford to concede when among your opposition strikers is Antonio Di Natale. In the 57th minute, the Serie A top scorer of the past decade with a combined 125 goals made the best of a suggestion by Mirko Pieri to level for the visiting Friulani with a beautiful left-foot volley.
Lecce, however, had Valeri Bojinov on their side: At 18, the Bulgarian starlet seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, and the goal by which he took the Giallorossi ahead again 10 minutes later only seemed to justify Chelsea’s rumored interest to buy him. It would end up differently, with Bojinov never able to repeat his Lecce exploits and going on to have a quite unremarkable career.
Giallorossi defender Massimo Paci gave a big hand to Udinese as he managed to collect 2 yellow cards in the space of 25 minutes, having substituted Lorenzo Stovini at half time, to leave his side with one man less. The numerical advantage galvanized Luciano Spalletti’s troops, which found another equalizer when David Di Michele pounced on a defective clearance by goalkeeper Luca Anania on a long-range shot by Sulley Muntari.
Totó Di Natale completed Udinese’s sensational comeback in the 88th minute, taking advantage of Mirko Cassetti’s defensive blunder to set the score at 4-5 for the visitors.
In a swirl of endless emotions, the final minutes were as exciting as the game itself: Mirko Vucinic – providentially sent in by coach Zeman a few minutes earlier – was knocked down in the box by still-immature Samir Handanovic, who thus enameled an already terrible performance with a red card and a penalty kick gift-wrapped to his opponents. Some players shine from the very moment they set foot on the pitch. Let’s just say that for the Slovenian goalkeeper – currently, among the best in the world in his role – it took a bit more time to build a reputation.
Luciano Spalletti had already made three substitutions. And so, it fell on David Di Michele to put the gloves on and act as a goalkeeper as Mirko Vucinic prepared to bury the spot. The Montenegrin, however, came up with a sloppy conversion, a weak shot which Udinese’s improvised goalie somehow managed to parry back, drawing the curtain on an unforgettable match.
He closed the day with two goals scored and one penalty saved, the hero for a day in a bizarre game which constituted the climax of his 23-year-long career. David Di Michele was a reliable and effective striker who scored loads of goals wherever he played – be it Udine, Palermo, or Torino among many others – and also put together six caps with the Azzurri between 2005 and 2006, as well as six Champions League appearances with Udine’s Bianconeri the following season.
For what concerns the Coppa Italia battle, the retour match played at the Friuli Stadium in January 2005 was no less entertaining: Lecce were leading 1-4 with just two minutes to go, before Vincenzo Iaquinta and Antonio Di Natale would reduce the gap with a sudden one-two during stoppage time, thus qualifying Udinese on away goals!
The Friulani went as far as climbing up to the third spot of the Serie A table behind Juventus and Milan that season, conquering an unprecedented Champions League qualification – an accomplishment that put Luciano Spalletti on many top club’s radars, ultimately winning him the first big contract of his career with Roma.
The Zemanland amusement park, on the other hand, lasted only one year in Lecce. Zdenek Zeman took the Salentini on a roller coaster of 66 goals scored and 73 conceded but managed to keep the traditionally relegation-battling Giallorossi in the Italian elite division for one more year.
November 20, 2004 – Coppa Italia 2004-05 Round of 16
SCORERS: 11’ Ledesma (L, pen.), 29’ Dalla Bona (L), 31’ Bojinov (L), 34’ Felipe (U), 45’ Di Michele (U), 57’ Di Natale (U), 67’ Bojinov (L), 78’ Di Michele (U), 88’ Di Natale (U)
|LECCE: Anania, Cassetti, Diamoutene, Stovini (46’ Paci), Abruzzese, Giacomazzi, Ledesma, Dalla Bona, Babù (74’ Silvestri), Bojinov, Pinardi (70’ Vucinic) Coach: Zeman|
|UDINESE: Handanovic, Belleri, Cribari, Felipe, Pinzi, Pazienza (85’ Mauri), Muntari, Pieri, Di Michele, Fava (79’ Iaquinta), Di Natale (90’ Sensini) Coach: Spalletti|
REFEREE: Mr. Cruciani from Pesaro
NOTES: Yellow Cards: Cribari (U); Red Cards: Paci (L), Handanovic (U)