Sir Alex Ferguson once famously said Filippo Inzaghi was born in an offside position, a closer inspection of his birth certificate will tell you he was born in Piacenza on August 9, 1973. Yesterday, the King of Athens celebrated his 43rd birthday as manager of Venezia, a side he no doubt terrorized (among others) during his prime in the mid nineties and into the 21st century.
Inzaghi was like a fine wine. The older he got the better he got. A player devoid of the skill of players like Alessandro Del Piero and Francesco Totti, Inzaghi relied on other skills to score over 300 goals in all competitions. Born with intelligence, an intense drive and attention to detail, Inzaghi had to work hard to get to where he was. Many would call him a poacher, to do so is disrespectful to the work Inzaghi put into honing his trade. To poach something is to take something illegally, what Inzaghi did was not illegal. In his genius he found a loophole. The man had an instinct many would die for. Able to read bounces off defenders shins and to be in the exact position awaiting the perfect cross from a teammate, Inzaghi was deadly in the box. It’s a trait you can’t coach, you either have it or you don’t. To those who demean him, as Sir Alex no doubt meant to do with his comments, you don’t score over 300 goals by accident. Many of the goals he scored were against the top sides in Europe and when the Serie A was unquestionably the best league in the world. Pippo Inzaghi was probably the best clutch finisher of his generation.
I am reminded of the Champions League quarter final in 2006 against Olympique Lyonnais. Milan were going out of the competition as the score was tied 1-1 with the French Champions ahead on away goals. With time winding down Paolo Maldini sent a long hopeless ball up the park in desperation. The ball landed to Andriy Shevchenko who hammered a low hard drive across the Lyon goalkeeper Coupet whose fingers could only parry the ball off the post. The ball defied all logic bouncing across the white chalk line goading anyone to take a touch. With both Lyon defenders going the wrong way, the ball bounced off the other post too and onto the feet of, you guessed it, Inzaghi. It was a goal only Inzaghi could have scored and it put Milan into the semi-finals for the third time in four years under Carlo Ancelotti. They would later be cruelly eliminated by Barcelona after a goal was wrongly disallowed for a foul by Shevchenko, but I digress. Inzaghi was all instinct, in the right place at the right time over and over again in his career. That cannot be an accident. Inzaghi’s career at Milan had almost come full circle at that very moment.
One year before his heroics at the San Siro, Superpippo was not so super. He was going through one of the hardest times in his career. The 2004/05 season was one to forget for Inzaghi and eventually one full of disappointment for anyone associated with the Rossoneri. A reoccurring knee injury kept him out for most of the campaign. His replacement Hernan Crespo did quite well for himself, including two goals in the Champions League final in Istanbul against Liverpool. It was a match that will haunt anyone associated with Milan forever as we all know how it ended.
Inzaghi watched on helplessly from the stands unable to lift a finger to turn things right. For a man full of passion and fire, “grinta” as the Italians call it, watching on must have been unbearable. If you don’t think Inzaghi had grinta, watch his goal celebrations. Arms flailing uncontrollably, aggression bursting out of his face. It was unchanged from his first goal to his very last against Novara on May 13, 2012.
One moment in particular from that final in Istanbul will stick with me forever. The 118th minute, the double save by Jerzy Dudek on Shevchenko. It was a goal made for Inzaghi. There is no doubt in my mind had it been Inzaghi in that same position, he would have buried it. I know it’s difficult to think he would have done better than Shevchenko in that position, but how many of those goals had Inzaghi scored before? It would take a full two years for Inzaghi, and anyone else to put Istanbul at least somewhat behind them. It was to be Inzaghi’s coronation as the “King of Athens.”
2007 was different than previous seasons for the Rossoneri. Calciopoli had changed the Serie A landscape. Juventus were in Serie B and their eternal rivals Internazionale were peerless at the summit of Italian football. Ancelotti’s men did what they did best: win in cup football. Guided to the finals by the amazing exploits of Kaká, it was a dream final with Liverpool, a chance for everyone to exorcise their demons. A chance for Inzaghi to make up for missing the final two years earlier. And make up for it he did.
Inzaghi scored a double in the final, the first seemed rather fortuitous. Moments before the stroke of halftime, a free kick was won deep in the Liverpool half by Kaká. Milan’s free kick guru Pirlo stepped up to take, Inzaghi took up a position near the opposition wall. At the whistle, Inzaghi made a run towards the Liverpool goal, a well aimed ball ricocheted off his chest sending Pepe Reina the wrong way, the ball ended up in the back of the net. Athens exploded. Inzaghi exploded, jumping the advertising board and running to celebrate with the supporters. It looked accidental. Dare I say, lucky. Inzaghi would later reveal it was anything but. He had scored almost the carbon copy goal earlier in the season against Empoli.
The second goal was a clinical finish from a clinical finisher. Sent in on a break by a lovely pass from Kaká, Inzaghi calmly slid the ball under Reina, I can still see the ball rolling slowly into the net. It was his greatest moment in football and one Rossoneri supporters will never forget.
As a player, Inzaghi gave his all for the Rossoneri. His devotion and commitment to the colours is second to none. I don’t like using war analogies to describe football or footballers, but if I had to, Inzaghi would be one of the first ones over the top and into no man’s land. His stint as Milan coach should not at all diminish our memories of him as a player nor tarnish his remarkable time with Milan. If anything it was his never say die attitude and undying love for Milan that made him take the reins at a club that was in such disarray as Milan have been in the last few years and possibly above his abilities as a coach this early in his career. I pray that his exoneration and replacement by Sinisa Mihajlovic is not the last time we see this great player represent the colors he wore so proudly for more than 10 years.
Inzaghi will live on forever in the hearts of Rossoneri supporters and for this we wish him a very happy birthday. If only we could repay him for all the gifts he bestowed upon us. It is a debt that may never be repaid.