AJAX Amsterdam’s victory over AC Milan in this year’s (1995) European Champions Cup final on May 24 owes much to the tremendous contribution of its Nigerian stars, Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu. The duo, already Dutch league champions with Ajax, made history on the day, becoming the first Nigerian players to wear the Champions’ Cup medal.
Two years ago (1993), Ghana’s Abedi Pele became the second African player to win the European Cup when he inspired French side Olympique Marseille to victory over the same opponents, AC Milan. Pele’s triumph was coming after Algerian Rabah Madjer’s historic first win with FC Porto of Portugal in 1987.
However, the double-act by George and Kanu has not only underlined the ever increasing influence of African footballers in Europe, but the depth of talent in Nigeria in particular. For it can said that of the leading 13 club footballers in the whole of Europe today (that’s including the victorious Ajax players in action against Milan), two of them are Nigerians!
Previews of the final had given George and Kanu an edge to excel considering their scintillating individual displays in the preliminary rounds as well as against Bayern Munich in the semi-finals. Finidi, however, had a handful as his Milan shadow Paolo Maldini reduced his usual forays down the flanks to the barest minimum.
Kanu on the other hand was more prominent although he came into the game with 40 minutes remaining. His entry changed Ajax’s midfield pretensions and increased the attacking tempo of the Dutch champions who sealed up the game in the last five minutes.
Technically speaking, this confrontation offered more than was expected and spectators at the packed Ernst Happel Stadium in Austria sat on the edge of their seats for the duration.
Dethroned kings, AC Milan had much going for them in the first half, taking the game on in a cautious manner and catching Ajax on the counter. With flank defender Paolo Maldini’s overlapping instincts largely curtailed by the threat of Finidi George, Milan relied mostly on fast breaks in an attempt to pry open the Ajax defence.
Their first real opportunity came in the 35th minute when right back Christian Panuci drove his shot narrowly off-target following a Roberto Donadoni pass. The move had begun with the mercurial Marco Simone, whose surging runs down the left flank often left young Ajax defender Michael Reizeger gasping for breath.
Ajax’s youthful but compact midfield, spiced with age and experience was anchored on former Milan star Frank Rijkaard who was playing his last game. They dominated midfield proceedings in this half but failed to detonate the bomb in the Milan defence line which had tested individuals like Panuci, Costacurta, Desailly and Maldini – on duty. Meanwhile veteran libero and captain Franco Baresi sat pretty and only had to contend with occasional stray balls.
Ajax’s only real chance in the first half came in the 20th minute when Jari Litmanen’s header from Finidi’s corner sailed narrowly over the bar.
For Ajax whose last victory in the Champions’ Cup was in 1973, this was a rare opportunity to reassert European domination. Clarence Seedorf, Marc Overmans and Finnish midfielder Jari Litmanen sometimes proved a handful for the Milan quartet of Demetrio Albertini, Roberto Donadoni, the Croat Zvonimir Boban and French international Marcel Desailly. The injury induced absence of Milan playmaker Dejan Savicevic was always going to be missed in the vital area as Marco Simone, the co-star of the semi-final victory over PSG of France, became a virtual loner.
Simone’s best opportunity to open the floodgates was lost in the 40thminute when Ajax goalkeeper, Edwin Van der Saar blocked his well-connected volley from a Donadoni pass, for a corner. That came soon after Desailly’s high lunge at Jari Litmanen at the far end had been overlooked by Romanian referee, lon Craceunescu. Coach Louis Van Gal’s side’s demonstration of the challenge looked comical but on a serious note, it reflected his anger at the referee’s apparent naivety.
In the second half, the jigsaw-puzzle began to fall into place. With only five minutes on, Van Gaal unleashed his first joker. Nigerian teenage international, Nwankwo Kanu came in for Clarence Seedorf – giving the Amsterdamers a badly needed shift from midfield to attack.
Kanu, whose 11 goals on the Dutch domestic scene put him on a high pedestal before this clash, was the ultimate weapon Ajax needed to give the Milan defence some hard nut to crack. Franco Baresi and Allesandro Costacurta suddenly became busy and in the next two minutes, Kanu’s swift interchange of passes with Finidi won a corner.
On the hour, Maldini brought Finidi down after the latter had tried to embark on a fast break down the right, but it was Daniele Massaro on the other end who was denied a celebration three minutes later as his great spun-around effort missed by inches.
Four minutes later, coach Van Gaal pulled his second and ultimately, decisive joker. Leading scorer Patrick Kluivert substituted the ineffective Jari Litmanen and the blitz on Milan’s stronghold continued. Yet it was Marco Simone who saw his shot from outside the box saved by Van Der Saar in the 76th minute.
Soon after, Kanu went clear but his left foot shot was only inches away from goal.
With Ajax getting more attacking options, the handwriting was on the wall. Marc Overmars, suddenly coming into the picture as the game approached 84 minutes, tore past Panucci and found an unmarked Rijkaard. The ex-Milan star’s quick pass to Kluivert on top of the Milan box saw the latter tucking the ball into Rossi’s net desspite the close attention of Baresi and Costacurta. Ajax 1, Milan 0.
Milan coach, Fabio Capello, restless for most part of the game, made two panicky substitutions in the following minutes, but Gianluigi Lentini’s entry for Boban was of no effect. Similarly, Massaro’s replacement, Stefano Eranio had no impact after coming in injury time. The San Siro giants made one last gasp effort in the closing seconds though, but Ajax defender Frank de Boer cleared off the line.
In injury time, Ajax captain Danny Blind’s shot off Kanu’s superb breakthrough pass was blocked by Milan goalie Sebastiano Rossi. Kanu had beaten Costacurta flat on the far side before squaring up to Blind.
Soon it was all over, a sweet victory for Ajax, Finidi and Kanu.
But more significantly, a victory for Africa. Congratulations, Finidi and Kanu.
40TH EUROPEAN CHAMPIONS’ CUP FINAL…VIENNA, AUSTRIA…MAY 24, 1995.
AJAX 1 (Patrick Kluivert 85.’), AC MILAN 0
Ht: 0-0 Att: 47.300 Ref: I. Craceunescu (Rom.)
AJAX: Saar—Reizeger. Blind (capt), F. de Boer. Davids—Rijkaard, Finidi. Seedorf (Kanu 50′), Overmars—R. de Boer, Litmanen (Kluivert 67′).
MILAN: S. Rossi—Panucci, Costacurta, F. Baresi (capt.), Maldini—Albertini, Donadoni, Desailly, Simone—Massaro (Eranio 90’) Boban (Lentini 86′).
•Booked: R. de Boer (Ajax) 15′ Overmars (Ajax) 32′.