Ten years on, Luca Cetta remembers the classic three-way Scudetto battle which culminated on May 5, 2002.
The iconic image of Ronaldo crying on the bench at the Stadio Olimpico was a powerful symbol on a day of incredible moments. As Marco Materazzi berated Lazio’s players, Antonio Conte and his teammates were rejoicing over 600 km’s away. When the final whistle sounded at both the Stadio Olimpico in Rome and Stadio Friuli in Udine, Juventus completed the near-impossible to win their 26th Scudetto.
Having trailed Inter by six points with just five matches remaining, Juve triumphed amidst a Nerazzurri collapse. It all occurred on that memorable May day as Inter, Juventus and Roma played out a gripping finale to an incredible season. Alessandro Del Piero summed up the feeling surrounding the day, “Fifthofmay has become one word, the almost historical date to be remembered by all Juventus supporters and by me as well.” For strike partner David Trezeguet, “It was a fantastic day; we needed to win that game and think of nothing else, and the day turned into something incredible.” Conversely, Javier Zanetti remains flabbergasted, stating in 2011 of his biggest Inter regret, “Lazio-Inter; May 5, 2002. Even today I don’t know what happened that day.”
Inter began the season in hope. President Massimo Moratti had spent millions since purchasing the club in 1995 and after going so close in 1997-98 this looked to be their year. His dream attacking partnership of Ronaldo and Christian Vieri only saw fleeting appearances following more injury concerns for Il Fenomeno. Mohamed Kallon started on fire, netting all nine of his season strikes before the half way point of the campaign. They were the early pace setters and new boss Hector Cuper looked to have a squad at his disposal capable of taking the extra step – including Francesco Toldo, Javier Zanetti, Sergio Conceicao and Alvaro Recoba.
Juventus sold Zinedine Zidane to Real Madrid (after director Luciano Moggi stated he would never do so) and Filippo Inzaghi to Milan. Arriving in Turin were Gianluigi Buffon – a record signing for a goalkeeper - Lilian Thuram and Pavel Nedved. Marcello Lippi made his return on the bench and it took a while to get moving. The Old Lady failed to win in six matches from September to early November - including losing a three-goal lead in the Turin Derby to draw 3-3 - but by the turn of the year gathered momentum.
Roma were reigning champions and Fabio Capello’s men added hugely talented youngster Antonio Cassano to the squad. They remained an ominous proposition and lost just twice all season. Roma highlighted their credentials early with a victory over Juve in Turin – with Gabriel Batistuta on fire – and a Derby win over Lazio. The Giallorossi were crowned winter champions, leading Inter and - incredibly - Luigi Delneri’s miracle men from Chievo. Juventus were four points off the pace.
Roma and Juventus scraped past Verona and Venezia in Round 18 thanks to late goals but other than Inter’s Round 22 loss at Bologna it was plain sailing for the top three, who traded the lead. Juve held on by the skin of their teeth versus Roma at the Stadio Olimpico after Mark Iuliano’s first half dismissal and when the Bianconeri salvaged a last-minute draw against neighbours Torino at the end of February, they trailed Inter and Roma by a point. On the same weekend Inter were rescuing a draw at home to Juve thanks to the second of Clarence Seedorf’s long-range crackers, a Vincenzo Montella-inspired Roma were busy dismantling Lazio. Montella was in career-best form as he scored four in the 5-1 Derby drubbing. Recoba and Vieri netted in a 3-1 win over the Giallorossi, whilst Juventus lost at Parma. Yet as Inter squeezed past relegation certainties Fiorentina, cracks started to appear. So too in Turin, with the Bianconeri dropping points at home to Lazio, falling six points behind the lead.
Cuper’s men were stunned by Atalanta 2-1 at the San Siro – a “cursed outing” dubbed the Corriere dello Sport - and were saved by a late Ronaldo brace versus Brescia. Federico Cossato scored a late equaliser for Chievo, after which the papers noted Inter were “running scared.” There was controversy in Roma’s late draw at Venezia in Round 30 as Montella scored a goal which may well have been disallowed. Pierluigi Collina was banned from taking charge of any of the title challengers remaining fixtures. The Giallorossi drew at Milan and thumped Chievo, whilst Juve won four straight - including a last-gasp Nedved winner at Piacenza (“a great feat” claimed Tuttosport) - bringing them back into the hunt. By the end of Round 33 Inter led with 69 points, Juve trailed on 68 and Roma sat a further point back.
And so to May 5th, All three contenders were on the road: Inter away to Lazio, Juventus at Udinese and Roma against Torino. Lazio could reach the UEFA Cup with a victory – which many fans did not want given Roma could claim the Scudetto, plus because of the strong relationship between Lazio and Inter fans – whilst Udinese and Torino were safe from relegation.
Inter supporters travelled in their droves, hoping the hurt and anguish since their last success in 1988-89 would be over. Juve also had a huge contingent in Udine but they - and especially Roma - were reliant on results going their way. Capello was adamant, “I know already how it will finish. All three will win and the table will not change.”
Juventus – who had suffered two consecutive final-day heartaches the previous two seasons – raced to a 2-0 lead inside 12 minutes thanks to Trezeguet and Del Piero. Inter went ahead through Vieri, but Karel Poborksy brought Lazio back on level terms. The Nerazzurri breathed a sigh of relief when Luigi Di Biagio netted a near-post flick, yet an awful Vlatislav Gresko error handed Poborksy his second.
Udinese 0-2 Juventus
Lazio 2-2 Inter
Torino 0-0 Roma
As Juve cruised in Udine the fans went into raptures ten minutes after the interval at the news Diego Simeone had given Lazio the lead. Cassano scored a delightful chip for Roma and moments later Inter “paid for their illusions” (as reported the following day) when Simone Inzaghi netted Lazio’s fourth.
Udinese 0-2 Juventus
Lazio 4-2 Inter
Torino 0-1 Roma
Moratti was stunned. Ronaldo sat on the bench crying when substituted – in what was to be his last game for Inter – as Materazzi shrieked to Lazio’s players “I helped you win a title” in reference to his stint at Perugia two seasons earlier when their victory over the Old Lady handed Lazio the Scudetto. Conte reminded everybody, “In Perugia you were laughing at us, today you are crying...I am so happy!” before being mobbed by jubilant teammates in the dressing room. Lippi had returned and delivered instant glory, whilst Cuper could not shake the tag of loser. Inter went from first to third in the space of 90 minutes and to make matters worse, were forced into the 2002-03 Champions League qualifiers.
Three clubs contested the most dramatic Scudetto showdown in recent history. The three-way battle – an “incredible sprint” as reported by La Gazzetta dello Sport - had Italy on the edge of its seat. Juventus would go on to retain its title the following season, whilst Roma would not reach such heights until later in the decade and Inter would not taste victory until Calciopoli. Juve’s website remarked in 2011: “Nine years ago, but as if it were yesterday. Sunday 5th May 2002 is still etched in the memory of all Juventus fans. How could such a day be forgotten?”
Follow Luca on Twitter @l_cetta.