Manchester: Champions League finalists Juventus may be Italy’s most consistently successful club but Wednesday’s opponents, five times European champions AC Milan, can lay strong claim to be the most glamorous.
A major power in the Italian game since they were formed as Milan Cricket and Football Club in 1899, Milan revolutionised the game in the early 1990s with Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello’s teams winning three European Cups and dominating the transfer market as well as the trophies.
Businessman Silvio Berlusconi took over the club in 1986 at a time when their glory years in the 1950s and 1960s were a distant memory and the club was struggling with debts, delusion and disorganisation and had even suffered the humiliation of relegation to Serie B.
Berlusconi, now Italy’s Prime Minister, wanted a team that not only won trophies again but did so in style and the attacking approach of coach Sacchi and a heavily-financed spending spree on international talent ensured his ambition was realised.
It was a trio of Dutchmen — striker Marco van Basten, attacking midfielder Ruud Gullit and defensive midfielder Frank Rijkaard — that gave the extra touch of class to a team built on the traditional Italian qualities of defenders Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.
They won the European Cup in 1989 by beating Steaua Bucharest 4-0 but it was their 5-0 crushing of Real Madrid in the semi-final that really sent the football purists purring.
Another trophy followed in 1990 with a more modest 1-0 win over Benfica in Vienna and then with Capello in charge in 1994 and a new side featuring Croatian Zvonimir Boban and Montenegrin Dejan Savecevic, Milan turned on the style again to beat Barcelona 4-0 in Athens with two goals from Italian striker Daniele Massaro.
Milan have always had a strong eye on Europe and they were the first Italian team to win the continent’s premier club competition in 1963 when a pair of goals from Brazilian-born forward Jose Altafini beat Eusebio’s Benfica 2-1 at Wembley.
In the Milan side on that Wednesday afternoon of May 22, 1963 were two future coaches of Italy, captain Cesare Maldini and midfield workhorse Giovanni Trapattoni and alongside Altafini in attack was the club’s best loved Italian player Gianni Rivera.
Until Berlusconi’s revolution it was the post-war period between 1948 and 1966 when Milan won five titles and finished in the top three in Serie A for all bar one season, that was the clubs' golden era. Even then the success had an international foundation — the Swedish trio of Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordahl and Nils Liedholm, collectively known as Gre-No-Li, had helped lift Milan back to the top.
Another European Cup triumph came in 1969 when Pierino Prati scored a hattrick in a 4-1 defeat of Ajax in Madrid with Rivera now installed as captain but after a 1973 European Cup Winners’ Cup final win over Leeds it was to be 16 years before Milan returned to a European final.
The 1990s glory years ended with defeat to Ajax in the 1995 final but now Milan have a chance to enter another chapter in their illustrious history.