The 1996 Champions League final between Ajax and Juventus was a tie to capture the imagination. Louis van Gaal and Marcello Lippi were two of the game's best managers, leading two of Europe's most captivating sides.
The Dutch were the reigning European champions. Their run of 19 games unbeaten came to an end in the semi-final, but with a squad full of talent—Edwin van der Sar, Danny Blind, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars and Patrick Kluivert to name but a few.
Their opponents were no slouches, either. Ciro Ferrara, Didier Deschamps, Antonio Conte and Gianluca Vialli were all at the height of their powers, and a young Alessandro Del Piero was very much in the ascendancy.
The Bianconeri were the dominant force in Italian football at the time, but went to Rome's Stadio Olimpico as slight underdogs.
In particular, Jari Litmanen was on fire, with nine goals in the competition. The Finnish forward never managed to rekindle his best form at Barcelona or Liverpool later in his career, but for the Amsterdammers he was irresistible.
History suggested the Old Lady would struggle to win, too, as no club had won the competition on home soil since Kenny Dalglish fired Liverpool to a 1-0 win over Club Brugge at Wembley back in 1978, and the Dutch looked unstoppable.
Lippi was unconcerned. Players have always spoken effusively about the coach's great ability to provide focus and encouragement in the dressing room and all of the World Cup-winning manager's success has come from building well-organised and tight-knit units rather than relying on one or two individual talents. Antonio Conte in particular has credited Lippi as being his major inspiration, as per UEFA's official website.
That spring in Rome was to prove one of his greatest achievements. Juve had lost the league to AC Milan by eight points, having suffered some disappointing defeats throughout the campaign—including a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Lazio in the capital.
But the Champions League was the bigger prize, and it was a chance for Juve to finally have a European success worth celebrating. The Heysel Stadium disaster had meant that their first victory 11 years previous was a hollow success, but a win in Europe's biggest competition on Italian soil would finally give the Turin side a continental title to cherish.
After 12 minutes it looked like their dreams would come true. Ajax started the game nervously, uncharacteristically showing their youthfulness and lack of experience. The holders were not normally so easily shaken, but Juve's pressure had unsettled them and then Fabrizio Ravanelli undid them.
It was the goal that would define his career. Frank de Boer made a clumsy header and failed to deal with an opportunistic Juve ball into the box. Van der Sar scrambled out to clear it, but before he could do anything the silver-haired Italian slipped in between the Dutch keeper and his defender to rob the ball and then slot home from a seemingly impossible angle. Those precious few seconds still resonate with Juve fans almost two decades later.
Ajax weren't so easily dismissed, however, and the reigning champions came back into the game quickly, having a couple of good chances repelled by Angelo Peruzzi before Litmanen poked home a rebound after 41 minutes.
The game continued in deadlock into and beyond extra time. By that stage, the tide seemed to be turning in Juve's favour. Bad luck limited Peruzzi's international career, but he was a much better keeper than his 31 caps suggest. With Juve, the current assistant coach at Sampdoria won every conceivable honour—and it was no less than he deserved.
Peruzzi was short and stocky, but he read the game like few keepers can and his positioning was second to none. The Italians must have been sure he'd save one, but he did more than that. He saved two.
First Davids tried to send him the wrong way, and failed. The Dutch legend sent it right down the middle and into the chest of the waiting Italian. Litmanen wouldn't be so easily denied, and his successful strike was followed by another from Arnold Scholten.
Ferrara, Gianluca Pessotto and Michele Padovano all converted for Juventus before Sonny Silooy faced Peruzzi. A brilliant dive to the left kept the defender's powerful strike out, firmly giving Juventus the upper hand.
All that was left was for Vladimir Jugovic to score. The Serbian duly delivered, placing a perfect shot directly in the bottom right-hand corner, just beyond the reach of the outstretched Van der Sar. Juventus were the champions of Europe.
It was the zenith of a golden age at Juve. The 1996 final was to be the first of three successive UEFA Champions League final appearances, and though they failed to match the success of that night in Rome, their domestic dominance provided some consolation.
The next season saw the arrival of two very special Juventini, Christian Vieri and Zinedine Zidane. Van der Sar and Davids would both be in Turin before long, too.
Lippi presided over a dominance rarely seen before or since in football. The subsequent Calciopoli scandal and subsequent relegation undid much of that work, but it's fitting that now in 2013 it's one of his most attentive pupils who continues his work at the Old Lady.
Conte has a mountain to climb if he wants to replicate his former manager's success in Europe, but if anyone can lead Juve to another continental triumph, you'd have to fancy it would be someone who remembers that fateful night in Rome.
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