There is no doubt that Sacchi’s Milan were glorious to watch. Their peak was probably the 5-0 evisceration of a powerful Real Madrid famously led by Emilio “the Vulture” Butragueño. That squad of Madrid was better known as La Quinta Del Buitre. They were made up of 5 Real Madrid youth team members who would win 5 straight La Liga titles from 1985-86 to 1989-90. They also won back to back UEFA Cups in 1985 & 1986. They were famous for their remontadas (comebacks). It was famously described by Juanito as “90 minutes is a very long time at the Bernabeu.”
Some of those Madrid comebacks include at 2-0 defeat to Inter overturned by a 3-0 win at the Bernabeu. A 3-0 defeat to Anderlecht overcome by a 6-1 win and a 5-1 defeat to Borussia Monchengladbach conquered by a 4-0 in Madrid. The European cup was Madrid’s pet trophy. After being eliminated in the semi-finals for 2 seasons in a row, Madrid reached yet another semi-final to meet Milan for chance to win their first European cup since 1966. A 1-1 draw in the first leg was followed by total annihilation.
Milan outran, outfought and outplayed the Vulture squad to reach their 1st European cup final in 20 years. They would go on to win the trophy with a 4-0 destruction of the 1986 champions Steaua București. Poor Real Madrid’s barren run would have to endure another 9 years. This Madrid drought was (in)famously dissed by that feisty Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov as “Most of their European Cups are in black and white.” after Barcelona finally won the Ol’ Cup with Big Ears in Wembley.
Those two performances was as good as Sacchi’s Milan ever got. Even in that season, which culminated with 5-0 & 4-0 wins, Milan’s path to the semi-final was after grinding out results. After beating Levski Sofia 7-2 on aggregate in the 1st round, Milan beat Red Star Belgrade, who would win the trophy in 1991, on penalties after two 1-1 draws. The quarter-final vs Otto Rehhagel’s Werden Bremen was won just 1-0 on aggregate with a Van Basten penalty at the San Siro.
What is even more damning is how they got their ticket to the European cup in the first place. With 5 games left in the 1987-88 Italian season, defending champions, Maradona’s Napoli held a 5 point lead. This was still the 2 points for win era. After 4 clean sheets, Napoli drew 1 and lost 4 matches and Milan pipped them to the title to win it by 3 points. Had Napoli simply not lost each game (3 of those defeats were by just 1 goal), they would have been champions again and Milan would have had to play UEFA cup instead of the European cup.
The following season, armed with their Deutsch trio against Milan’s Dutch, Inter Milan romped to their first league title in 9 years. Sacchi’s Milan finished a whopping 12 points behind their co-tenants. Remember once more it was still 2 points per win and not 3. Milan were allowed to enter the European cup as defending champions instead of the more conventional route as national champion. In the last 2 years of Sacchi’s first stint as manager Milan finished runners-up (2 points behind Napoli in 1989-90 & 5 points behind Sampdoria) twice.
For all the free flowing attacking football espoused by Sacchi, Milan never topped goals scored once in those 4 years. They finished 12 goals behind toppers Napoli in 1987-88, 6 behind Inter in 1988-89, 1 behind Napoli again in 1989-90 and 11 goals behind Vialli & Mancini’s Sampdoria. Pretty damning that side renowned for free flowing attacking football could not manage to score even 2 goals a game even once in those 4 years.
Milan’s defense of their continental title was no better. After a comfortable 5-0 aggregate win over Finnish champions HJK Helsinki, they were drawn against Real Madrid once again. The Rossoneri won 2-0 in Milan and had to withstand a half of Madrid siege to go through after losing 0-1 at the Bernabeu. In the next round Milan would need extra time to beat Belgian champions KV Mechelen 2-0 on aggregate. They would again need extra time to scrape through against Bayern Munich to reach the final on away goals after it ended 2-2 on aggregate.
The final was in Sigmund Freud’s hometown, Vienna against Benfica. Poor Eusebio prayed to their legendary coach Bela Guttmann’s grave so that the Portuguese side could win. The Hungarian Guttmann had cursed Benfica that they wouldn’t win any European trophy for 100 years after they rejected a pay raise in 1962. Eusebio’s prayers fell on deaf years, as a Frank Rijkaard’s strike in the 68th minute was enough to give Milan their 4th European Cup to leave them tied with Liverpool and just two shy of Real Madrid’s then 6 European cups. AC Milan could not end their European conquest with a flourish like the previous year.
Milan again entered the European cup as defending champions, aiming to win the trophy 3 straight times since Bayern Munich last did so from 1974 to 1976. Unfortunately, their travails would end in the quarterfinals. After drawing 1-1 in Milan, they traveled to Marseille for the return leg. Trailing 0-1, after a 75th minute David Pleat strike, the floodlights failed with 2 minutes left before injury time. After lights were restored, Milan refused to take the field and UEFA awarded the match to Marseille and banned AC Milan from European competitions for 1 year. Thus, ended the Sacchi era with a whimper instead of a bang.
The 4 years of Sacchi was hardly ground breaking in terms of results. Just 1 league title and 2 European cups. What is more damning is what Sacchi’s successor achieved with the same core. After Sacchi left Milan to manage Italy, his assistant Fabio Capello was promoted as manager. With no European distractions, Milan won the league undefeated scoring 74 goals in the process. Sacchi’s Milan never managed more than 56. Capello’s Milan set a record of 58 undefeated matches in Serie A from 1991 to 1993. After losing their talented Dutch trio in 1993 (Rijkaard & Gullit left & Van Basten was injured after 1993), Capello doubled down on defence and won the league title scoring just 36 goals in 34 matches.
Capello would prove no slouch in Europe, reaching 3 finals in row from 1993 to 1995. Although he lost the 1st & 3rd finals by identical 1-0 margins, Milan’s 4-0 destruction of Johan Cruijff’s boastful Dream Team would be the greatest margin of victory in the newly renamed Champions league. Capello spent 5 years in Milan and won 4 leagues and 1 Champions league. Capello, arguably, had more success than Sacchi though his Milan sides lacked the romanticism of his predecessor.
A simplistic look at goals scored is never the proof of attacking football. The France-Brazil quarter-final ended 1-1 after extra time but it had some of the most breathtaking football played by two glorious teams. A simple number crunching shows that Sacchi’s Milan were not all that dominant. They won just 1 league title in 4 years with Baresi & Maldini in defence and the Dutch trio in attack. Even their continental conquests were built on typical Italian dourness heavily masked by two outliers against Real Madrid (5-0) & Steaua (4-0). Sacchi could also never replicate his success anywhere else. His philosophy of football rarely matched the actual results that AC Milan produced.
So here’s my question: Were Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan really that great a side or were they just plain overrated?