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Noughties Nines: Hernan Crespo – Serie A sharpshooter

In the final decade of the 20th century, Italian clubs broke the world transfer record six times. The nineties had belonged to Serie A, with six Ballon d’Or winners, 25 European finalists and 13 continental triumphs. Almost every world-class talent worth their salt spent time in division.

Serie A’s status was the envy of the European game and keen to continue that supremacy, big money continued to be spent. In the summer of 2000, Hernan Crespo became the most expensive footballer of all time.

Crespo’s record-breaking move from Parma to Lazio was the result of several seasons of striking prowess. In four seasons with The Crusaders he had established a reputation as one of Italy’s best imports, scoring copious goals for a side who punched above their weight both at home and in Europe.

 

The Argentine’s route to Rome had began in Florida, Buenos Aires. A promising prospect, he signed for the capital colossal, River Plate, as a teenager and first adorned the famous red sash of the club at senior level in 1993/94.

From the infancy of Crespo’s career there was a congenital composure when chances arrived, with 13 goals in 25 appearances leading Los Millonarios to the Apertura league title in his debut campaign. Two seasons later, he scored both goals as River beat América de Cali in the Copa Libertadores final and, after a prolific 1996 Olympic tournament for the national side, Europe beckoned.

The inexperienced Carlo Ancelotti had taken charge at Parma, with Crespo brought in as senior stars departed. The 21-year-old represented a new direction for Parma, as Gianfranco Zola, Faustino Asprilla and Hristo Stoichkov all took their leave.

In Crespo and Enrico Cheisa, Parma had a partnership which fired Gialloblu to the cusp of the title. An emerging team pushed Juventus close to record a runners-up finish, with Crespo scoring 12 times in an impressive adaptation to the division.

For Crespo, the goals continued to come. He scored 80 in 151 games for Parma in all competitions, cementing his status as one of Serie A’s sharpest shooters.

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In 1998/99, the club’s talented team delivered double success, lifting both the Coppa Italia and UEFA Cup, with Crespo scoring in each final. In the latter, the Argentine broke the deadlock in a one-sided contest against Marseille, reacting to a defensive mistake to open the scoring with a lobbed finish and send Parma on their way to a 3-0 win in Moscow.

Crespo had evolved into a complete marksman. Habitually, he was in the right areas, while he was comfortable connecting with crosses from any angle. Effective off both feet and a threat in the air, he was intuitive in the box. Those attributes, combined with a drive to disrupt defenders, was the recipe to reach the top.

Lazio, having banked their own world-record fee from selling Christian Vieri to Inter Milan a year earlier, stumped up a staggering sum to sign Crespo in 2000. Parma’s financial issues had seen stars in Juan Sebastien Veron and Chiesa depart, with Crespo next out of the exit door.

The deal, which was valued at 110 billion lire (£36m) and saw Matias Almeyda and Sergio Conceicao head to Parma in exchange, made Crespo the most expensive footballer in history.

His first season saw Crespo live up to that billing. He scored 26 goals to win the Capocannoniere award as the league’s leading scorer, though Lazio failed to defend the Scudetto won the previous season. Individually, Crespo was a phenomenon with 48 goals in 79 games for the capital club, but collectively Lazio were struggling to compete.

A turbulent period saw title-winning coach Sven-Göran Eriksson depart to take charge of England and his replacement, Dino Zoff, last just three games. Off the pitch, in echoes of his time at Parma, financial issues saw stars sold and a talented team torn apart.

Crespo signed for Inter Milan after returning from a disappointing World Cup with Argentina in 2002, but struggled with fitness issues in his bid to replace Ronaldo Nazario at the San Siro. After just one season the Nerazzurri were prepared to sell the South American and a new challenge presented itself, in the form of the Premier League.

“If the club have to sell Crespo I would prefer they sell me, it would be better if they sold me,” teammate Christian Vieri raged.

“What am I doing here, staying at Inter to finish another time in second or third or fourth place?

“What are we doing? Instead of reinforcing we are weakening. Inter sold Ronaldo and in his place bought Crespo and now they are selling him. It is better to sell me, really, once and for all. Certain [Inter] directors need to stay far away from me because if I lost it for five minutes I’d have them all nailed to a wall.”

A new dawn had been ushered in in English football, following Roman Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea. The west Londoners had been catapulted into the financial elite overnight, after the Russian oligarch had purchased the previously cash-strapped side. Chelsea splashed out more than £110m – a fortune at that time – on 13 new players, with Crespo part of a recruitment drive that saw Claude Makelele, Juan Sebastien Veron, Damien Duff and Joe Cole among the new arrivals.

Crespo’s time in English football was marred by injury issues and an inability to settle in London. A brilliant effort at Arsenal was a reminder of his class, but he soon returned to Italy to spend the 2004/05 campaign on loan with AC Milan.

Reunited with Carlo Ancelotti, the Rossoneri were a remarkable side, but fell short of the biggest prizes. Juventus beat Milan to the title, before Ancelotti’s side suffered a shock defeat in Europe.

Crespo and Kaka had been the protagonists of the most one-sided Champions League final in memory, with the former on the scoresheet twice as Milan raced into a three-goal half-time lead against Liverpool.

His second was pure poetry, as Kaka span away from Steven Gerrard in the centre circle to release Crespo in behind. An audacious outside-of-the-boot finish lifted the ball past Jerzy Dudek, as the Rossoneri ran riot at Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium. Though that goal, a fantastic finish to cap a mesmeric Milan move, would ultimately be rendered a footnote of the final.

What had looked set to be the crowning moment of Crespo’s career, unraveled. Liverpool staged a stunning second-half fightback, with Crespo watching on, withdrawn from the proceedings, as the Merseysiders triumphed via a shootout.

Despite a desire from all parties, a permanent move to Milan failed to materialise and Crespo returned to Chelsea. In his absence, the Blues had won a first top-flight title in 50 years and Crespo ensured their defence got off to the perfect start with a stunning winner against Wigan on the Premier League’s opening weekend.

Chelsea have a scattered history when it comes to strikers since the turn of the century, with even some great goalscorers having been devoid of their previous potency in a blue shirt. Crespo, somewhat unfairly, has often been placed among those names. While his spell at Stamford Bridge failed to live up to expectations, he was far from the flop often portrayed.

He scored 10 goals in 30 appearances as Chelsea were crowned champions again in 2005/06, before impressing at that summer’s World Cup with Argentina. La Albiceleste exited on penalties in the quarter-finals to host nation Germany, but Crespo’s three goals earned the forward a share of the Silver Boot and a place in the tournament’s All-Star team.

After the World Cup, Crespo returned to Italy to re-join Inter Milan on a two-year loan deal. Crespo’s 14 goals helped the Nerazzurri to title success, the first of three consecutive Scudetti as Inter became Serie A’s dominant force in the wake of the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal.

As the noughties concluded, Crespo’s powers were on the wane. A short spell at Genoa was followed by a romantic return to Parma, offering bookended balance to his time in Europe.

When his second spell with Parma concluded, he departed as the club’s all-time record goalscorer with 94 in 201 appearances.

It can be easy to categorise Crespo as a pure poacher, and he no doubt shared characteristics of forwards of that mould, but he was more than that. With a high volume of varied finishes, his peak saw him blitz Serie A defences, at a time when the division boasted the highest standard of centre-back.

Read – Noughties Nines: The incomparable Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Read more – Noughties Nines: Didier Drogba – Cup final King

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