Different types of footballers provoke different emotions. There is the raw, visceral force of the committed central defender, the mesmerising, almost balletic skills of the creative midfielder and the rush of blood and passion that goes with the speedy winger as he powers towards goal. Nothing though, comes close to the feeling of putting the ball in the back of the net, which means that those who possess the gift for doing so on a regular basis are prized above all others.
A natural goalscorer is considered by many to be a key ingredient to a successful team, and Italy hasn’t seen many better than Filippo Inzaghi, the journeyman striker from Piacenza who became a Milan legend.
The young Pippo showed glimpses of his potential straight away, but it didn’t always go smoothly for him. Coming through the ranks of his hometown club (then, as now, in Serie B) Inzaghi was loaned out to Serie C1 side Leffe as a raw 19-year-old in 1992, scoring 13 goals in 21 games, a record not considered good enough for Piacenza, who promptly shipped him out to Verona for the following season.
Thirteen goals there in 1993/94, this time in Serie B, finally earned him his chance with Piacenza, but Inzaghi was on the move again in 1995, joining Nevio Scala’s ambitious Parma side, who had just won the UEFA Cup. Competition for places was fierce though, with established stars like Gianfranco Zola and Faustino Asprilla blocking the way to a first team place, and Pippo would play just fifteen times in Serie A for the Gialloblu, scoring twice.
Now 23 and going nowhere at Parma, his fourth club in four years, Inzaghi knew that his next move would be vital. He needed to go somewhere where he’d be the first choice striker, thereby establishing himself in Serie A and with a view towards selection for the national team.
Luckily for Pippo, Emiliano Mondonico took a gamble and signed Inzaghi for Atalanta in the summer of 1996. Neither club nor player looked back with regret. Inzaghi scored a stunning 24 goals in 33 games in Bergamo as Atalanta finished 10th. He ended the campaign as Serie A’s Capocannoniere, winning the Young Player of the Year award and earning his first Italian cap in a friendly with Brazil at the end of the season, shortly before completing a transfer to reigning champions Juventus in July 1997. If his spell in Bergamo had finally shown the talent lurking within the striker, then it was his transfer to Turin that really established Inzaghi as a top class performer. Teaming up with Alessandro Del Piero and Zinedine Zidane in Marcello Lippi’s exciting team, Pippo quickly became a favourite with the Bianconeri fans, often providing the ruthless finishes to the slick moves started by the imperious duo of the Italian and the Frenchman.
Juventus won the title in 1997/98, the year of Mark Iuliano’s infamous ‘foul’ on Ronaldo, but there was to be disappointment in Europe as the Bianconeri lost their second consecutive Champions League final, this time to Predrag Mijatovic’s goal for Real Madrid in Amsterdam. Pippo scored his first goal for Italy during the same season, striking in a 2-2 friendly draw with Spain.
The following campaign was a disappointing one by comparison, as Juve finished sixth and lost to Manchester United in the Champions League, despite two goals from Inzaghi. Lippi exited, signalling the arrival of a man who would prove a pivotal figure in Pippo’s career, even though it didn’t seem like it at the time. Carlo Ancelotti breezed into the Delle Alpi, and into a storm on the final day of the season as Lazio, now featuring Pippo’s brother Simone in the squad, won the title whilst Juve were splashing around on a sodden pitch in Perugia, losing 1-0. That summer saw competition for places increase with the signing of David Trezeguet, the French striker who was fresh from breaking Italian hearts with the Euro 2000 winning golden goal in Rotterdam, and Pippo now found himself on the fringes of the first team.
After 57 goals in 120 Serie A appearances for Juve, he now needed a new challenge, and when Milan brought in Fatih Terim in 2001, he sanctioned the £17m purchase of the forward. Quite how Inzaghi would have felt five months later when Terim was replaced by Ancelotti, the manager who preferred Trezeguet to the Italian in his final season at Juventus, is an intruiging question, but after recovering from a knee injury, Inzaghi was the preferred partner for new golden boy Andriy Shevchenko, dislodging big money arrival Javi Moreno from the starting line-up. Ancelotti would guide Milan to fourth place and Champions League qualification, which would prove to be vital for the following campaign.
The 2002/03 European Cup, Milan’s sixth, was won on penalties in Manchester as Inzaghi played the entire 120 minutes in the goalless draw against his former employers Juve. Now established in both the Milan side and with the Azzurri, Pippo scored his first goals for the national team in two-and-a-half years with a hat-trick against Wales in a European Championships qualifier in September 2003, and he went on to provide goalscoring backup for Shevchenko as Milan romped away with the 2003/04 Serie A title, finishing a massive 11 points ahead of closest challengers Roma.
The following two years were decimated by injury for Inzaghi – he missed the run to the Champions League final and eventual disappointment at the hands of Liverpool, with the likes of Hernan Crespo and Jon Dahl Tomasson taking over from him and partnering Shevchenko. The 2005/06 season was one of gradual improvement for Inzaghi, who scored 12 times in 22 matches as he began to regain full fitness. If anything, this was when his natural goalscoring abilities shone brightest, as his body let him down it was his brain that frequently got him into goalscoring positions. Alex Ferguson’s well-publicised comment that the striker was ‘born in an offside position’ is obviously viewed as a criticism, but it highlights how Inzaghi is always alert and waiting for a chance on goal. If he is offside 9 times out of 10, the one time he isn’t offside will be the time that he punishes the defending team.
He was part of Lippi’s 2006 World Cup winning squad, playing one match in the group stages and, typically, scoring a goal, but the undoubted highlight of his career came on the night of May 23, 2007 in Athens. Amid the backdrop of the Calciopoli scandal, Milan had battled their way into the Champions League final, and their determination to win it was only intensified by their opponents, Liverpool, who so stunningly snatched the cup from their grasp two years previously. Pippo struck twice as Milan exacted their revenge, beating the Reds 2-1 to win their seventh European Cup. “When I think about all my goals,” he said recently, “I think the best ever was Athens, I can’t think of any other. It was the second goal in Athens, because it was a beautiful ball from Kaka and I managed to go around the goalkeeper (Pepe Reina). It was a difficult goal as it was a tight angle.”
That night in Athens confirmed Inzaghi as a Milan legend, if indeed it needed confirming, and the following years have brought even more goals for the forward. At the time of writing Inzaghi sits eighth in Milan’s all-time goalscoring list on 105 strikes, with the top five easily within his sights.
The natural born goalscorer is an odd phenomenon in world football. They might not add much to a team’s overall play, but once in front of goal these players come alive and can prove their importance to a team. In a glittering seventeen year professional career littered with trophies and great memories, Filippo Inzaghi has proved it more than most.
Past Lessons in Calcio