So close but yet so far: Vicenza and the Cup Winners Cup

​It is the 29th of May, 1997, in Veneto Northeast Italy. The venue is the Stadio Romeo Menti – home of Vicenza Calcio. The event is the second leg of Italy’s domestic cup final, the Coppa Italia. Heading into the dying embers of the game, Vicenza and their opponents Napoli are tied 1-1. The possibility of penalty kicks loomed large until Vicenza were awarded a free-kick just outside Napoli’s penalty area with just two minutes’ remaining. A tired looking shot was fumbled by Napoli goalkeeper, Giuseppe Taglialatela, and there to pounce was Maurizio Rossi, a man who had only been on the pitch ten minutes. Vicenza had the lead and just seconds later, Alessandro Iannuzzi, (ironically another substitute) scored to give Vicenza their first trophy in their 95-year history and with it, the chance to play in Europe.

As reward for their historic victory, Vicenza earned entry into the Cup Winner’s Cup. This competition ran before the introduction of the Europa league and was a separate cup competition for European teams who had won their respective domestic cups. Each round was a straight forward two-legged knock out affair until the one off final. To take part in such a competition was a great achievement for a club who had only been back in the top flight of Italian football for two years.

Vicenza has a proud history and had a spell of twenty consecutive years in Serie A between 1955 and 1975. They have also produced some legendary names in Italian football history: most notably Ballon D’Or winners Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio. But it was during the mid-nineties, under the guidance of coach Francesco Guidolin, that the Biancorossi enjoyed a resurgent spell. Guidolin oversaw Vicenza’s promotion from Serie B during the 1994-95 campaign and the following season consolidated their position in Serie A with a ninth place finish. This campaign was improved upon in their second consecutive season in Serie A, culminating in the historic Coppa Italia triumph.

So on the 18th of September, 1997, 10,000 people packed into the Stadio Romeo Menti to watch Vicenza in a European cup match. The visitors were Polish side, Legia Warsaw, and the game could not have started better. After ten minutes, new signing Pasquale Luiso put the home side ahead and Gabriele Ambrosetti followed up to put Vicenza two goals to the good after 25 minutes. No further goals were scored and the Biancorossi travelled to Poland with a two goal lead, securing passage into the second round with a credible 1-1 draw.

A trip to Ukraine beckoned for the Veneti as they faced Shakhtar Donetsk. Again, Vicenza enjoyed an impeccable start as Luiso scored within the first minute and the Italians doubled their lead when Massimo Beghetto struck on 57 minutes. Donetsk pulled a goal back but with the game in stoppage time, Luiso struck again to secure a two goal lead but more crucially, three away goals. The return leg again saw Pasquale Luiso find the net as Vicenza secured a 2-1 win as their European run continued.

To arrive in any quarter-final of a European competition just three years after playing second tier football is a remarkable achievement. Undaunted by their achievements, Vicenza looked to progress into the semi-finals and faced Dutch side Roda JC. Passage was secured with consummate ease in what can only be described as an extremely one-sided affair. Luiso continued his fine form scoring twice in an emphatic 4-1 away win. This result effectively ended the tie and made the second leg a formality. Freed from the pressure of a nervy second leg, Vicenza’s superiority was confirmed with another dominant display in front of their own fans. Five goals were rattled in, this time by five different scorers. Guidolin’s men had completed an astounding 9-1 aggregate win.

Vicenza’s opponents in the semi-final were English Premier League outfit Chelsea, a team packed with internationals and a strong Italian connection. Their player-coach was none other than former Juventus captain, Gianluca Vialli, and he was joined by former Italian internationals Roberto Di Matteo and Gianfranco Zola. On paper these teams were a complete mismatch, but as the old footballing adage goes; games are not won on paper.

Just fewer than 19, 500 people packed into the Stadio Romeo Menti to watch the superstars of Chelsea take on their hero’s in Vicenza’s pursuit of history. Symptomatic of the Biancorossi’s campaign they got off to a flying start. Not overawed by their illustrious opponent, Vicenza attacked from the off and Chelsea’s Dutch goalkeeper, Ed De Goey, was forced into a brilliant save as Lamberto Zauli met a corner only for the Dutchman to somehow claw the ball away. Sixteen minutes into the game, however, the pressure told as Fabio Viviani chipped a ball into Zauli from the left. The attacking midfielder’s movement and control wrong-footed Michael Duberry, Franck Leboeuf and Eddie Newton, allowing him to roll a left- footed shot past De Goey. Unbelievably, the minnows from north-eastern Italy were leading in a European semi-final.

Vicenza were organised but not afraid to attack and frustration started to show amongst Chelsea’s players as both Frank Lebeouf and Roberto Di Matteo received yellow cards, meaning Di Matteo would miss the second leg. Fabio Viviani and Domenico Di Carlo could and should have increased the lead but some last ditch defending kept the lead down to a solitary goal. As the game went on, Chelsea had chances to equalise as they desperately pushed for that precious away goal. Zola hit the outside of the post, and Vialli rose to meet Zola’s corner only for Ambrosetti to scramble his header off the line.

Talking after the 1-0 defeat Vialli said “We made a few mistakes and paid heavily,” he continued “But I am not going to criticise my players because we all worked our socks off. They will now come to Stamford Bridge knowing they can counter-attack which is how they want to play against us.”

Two weeks later, Guidolin took his charges to Stamford Bridge knowing they were only 90 minutes away from a European final.  Just over 30 minutes into the game and Pasquale Luiso struck to make it 2-0 on aggregate, continuing a remarkable campaign which saw him net eight times in as many matches. Vicenza had a vital away goal and one which would surely be enough to send them through to the final. Luiso’s celebration demonstrated as much, as he pointed to all four stands with one hand whilst mimicking the “ssssh” sign with the other. This act had the opposite effect as the Chelsea fans reacted with a cacophony of noise. Spurred on by this, Uruguayan international, Gus Poyet, breathed life back into the tie after pouncing on a spilled Zola shot to give the Londoners hope.

Vicenza still held the advantage going into the second-half, with Chelsea needing to score two without reply to complete a sensational comeback. Two Italians combined to score the tie’s crucial next goal, unfortunately for Vicenza fans it was for Chelsea. Vialli supplied the cross for Zola to score a rare headed goal. Chelsea made changes to find that third elusive goal and former Manchester United and Barcelona striker, Mark Hughes, entered the pitch with twenty minutes’ left. Within six minutes he made a game winning contribution. Chelsea goalkeeper De Goey launched the ball up-field for Hughes who, in one fell swoop won the first header and then span to chase down his own flick. Letting the ball bounce once, Hughes then hit a sumptuous left-footed volley into the bottom corner and past the despairing dive of Pierluigi Brivio.

Now it was Vicenza’s turn to lose their composure as future AC Milan captain Massimo Ambrosini received a red card effectively sealing the fate of the Italian side. Chelsea went on to lift the Cup Winners Cup with a 1-0 victory over Stuttgart in the final. In stark contrast, Vicenza struggled during the remainder of the season and finished just one point above the Serie A relegation zone.

Things have not been the same for Vicenza since the halcyon days of the 1997-98 season. Relegation followed and more recently Lega Pro football coupled with financial struggles have tested the patience of fans. But those lucky enough to remember the Cup Winners Cup run will always have a special memory to look back on nostalgically.

Words by Mark Neale: @neale_mark