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Noughties Nines: Filippo Inzaghi and the glee of goals

Filippo Inzaghi just loved scoring goals. Perhaps for no other number nine has it been quite so apparent. No matter the style of goal or significance of the ball crossing the line, Inzaghi wheeled away with ecstasy etched across his face.

Inzaghi was arguably the last of a dying breed of forwards as the nineties became noughties. The birth of the multi-functional forward and near extinction of partnerships saw the pure poacher become an increasingly rare species of striker.

The Italian cared for little outside the 18-yard box. Even leaving the six-yard box was a stretch at times. See, Inzaghi knew his best chance of scoring goals was to be as close to it as possible. His game as built on an innate instinct of where a loose ball might fall, or at least a calculated guess at where it might.

 

Inzaghi’s goalscoring gift was first honed at hometown club Piacenza, where after productive loan spells at Leffe and Hellas Verona, he was granted a chance at the Serie B side. A return of 15 goals helped Piacenza to the second-tier title in his first season as a regular and earned Inzaghi a move to Parma.

The Crusaders were a top team in that era and a squad boasting Hristo Stoichkov and Gianfranco Zola meant minutes were minimal for Inzaghi. He scored just twice during his debut season and Parma were prepared, prematurely, to cut their losses.

Atalanta gambled on the striker and reaped the rewards of their punt. Inzaghi smashed home 24 goals – scoring against every side in the division – to finish as the league’s leading scorer and announce his arrival on the big stage. With the Serie A Young Player of the Year and Capocannoniere awards in his possession, Inzaghi was on the move again, swapping sides amid a mix of loans and transfers for the sixth straight season. The destination: Juventus.

In Turin, Inzaghi struck 89 goals in 165 games and lifted the first Scudetto of his career in 1997/98. That season, his chemistry with Alessandro Del Piero fired Juventus to the Champions League final, with Inzaghi hitting a hat-trick in the quarter-final win over Dynamo Kyiv. It was an attacking alliance in which contrasting styles aligned. There was an elegance to Del Piero’s game and an effectiveness to Inzaghi’s. Together, they scored 59 goals in all competitions.

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Their partnership, however, was not built to last. Rising tensions between the pair became apparent, with Del Piero critical of Inzaghi’s approach after a clash with Venezia. The latter had hit a hat-trick in the game, but his selfish streak had angered Del Piero who had been ignored when better positioned on several occasions. Del Piero’s untouchable status at the Delle Alpi meant the clash of characters only had one winner. With David Trezeguet signed to dovetail with Del Piero, Inzaghi was sold to AC Milan in 2001.

At the San Siro he found a cast of creative talents to find his runs and, in Andriy Shevchenko, a more accommodating partner with which to lead the line. Superpippo’s second season proved to be his best, with the first 30-goal campaign of his career. Inzaghi often saved his best for Europe and he was influential in Milan’s run to the 2003 UEFA Champions League final, where former club Juventus awaited in the final at Old Trafford.

Though neither side could final a goal in an authentically Italian decider, Milan triumphed via a shootout in Manchester to hand Inzaghi his first European crown. After several near misses in the competition at Juventus, it was a sweet moment.

Injury problems impacted Inzaghi over the next two seasons and he missed the 2005 Champions League final, as Milan capitulated to surrender a three-goal lead to Liverpool in Istanbul. He returned to form in 2005/06, to earn a place in the Italy squad for the World Cup. Though a frustrating tournament individually as he managed just one substitute appearance, marked with a customary goal against the Czech Republic, he returned from Germany as a world champion.

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The following season saw Milan reach another Champions League final, the club’s third in five seasons under Carlo Ancelotti. Awaiting in Athens were Liverpool and the chance to avenge their Istanbul implosion. Inzaghi had recorded just two goals in 24 league games in 2006/07, but was handed the nod to start the final over Alberto Gilardino. The decision was vindicated, as Inzaghi scored both goals to earn the Rossoneri redemption.

The first was quintessentially Inzaghi. In an area where something might happen, he deflected Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick past Pepe Reina on the brink of half-time.

“We had a joke that it was a free-kick routine, because I scored four goals like that in that season,” Inzaghi recalled to UEFA.

“But obviously it wasn’t a free-kick routine, and there was an element of fortune in it. I always tried to place myself in that position, as I knew Pirlo took free-kicks in that way.”

His second arrived eight minutes from time, rounding Reina to steer home. Dirk Kuyt pulled one back for Liverpool late on, but Milan held firm to be crowned European champions for a seventh time.


“That celebration was the climax, running like mad, on my knees, crying,” Inzaghi said of the second goal.

“It was a mixture of emotions. Probably my whole career was running through my mind, all the sacrifices I’d made. I thought about all the goals I’d scored, but in the final they’re worth everything you’ve built over time.

“I still get goosebumps thinking about those emotions now. Those emotions don’t come around again often.”

Inzaghi won a second league title with Milan in 2010/11 and brought an end to his career with the club having scored 126 goals in 300 appearances. He scored 46 goals in 81 games in the Champions League, a record which places among the competition’s greatest goalscorers.

Inzaghi’s achievements came from a relenting desire to score goals and maximise his talent. He was neither overly tall or quick, nor the most technically gifted. Such was his acceptance of this, he excluded himself from rondo drills during his latter career, unwilling to do the punishment that would inevitably come from losing possession.

His strengths lay between his ears and a tunnel-visioned approach to scoring goals. Inzaghi’s preference to live on the shoulder of the last defender saw former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson famously claim he ‘was born offside’, with the Italian often found lurking on the blindside of centre-backs.

From there he made movements to find space, chased lost causes, and had opposition defenders scrambling to find his whereabouts. There was nothing fancy about Inzaghi and that is perhaps why he failed to earn the universal claim of others of his generation.

The goal-hanger is derided in playgrounds and Inzaghi took that mantra to the pinnacle of the sport. It wasn’t popular, but he won’t care one bit. The only thing that mattered, was goals. Inzaghi recorded enough of those to satisfy even the most insatiable of appetites.

Read – Noughties Nines: The incomparable Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Read more – Noughties Nines: Luca Toni – Italy’s great late bloomer 

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