19th April 1997
Bologna 0-1 Juventus
Juventus’ 2-0 win at Bologna’s Stadio Renato Dall’Ara on Saturday night leaves them with the champagne virtually on ice – nine points clear, they are, like most of the table toppers in Europe’s major leagues, virtually home and hosed. When they visited the Rossoblu with seven games remaining in April 1997, however, their lead at the top was far less comfortable, and with Parma breathing down their necks as they chased a first-ever Scudetto, this weekend would prove a significant one in the title race.
In the summer of 1996, Juve, the reigning European champions, took a huge gamble in giving their squad a major overhaul as they sought to wrest back the Scudetto from Milan. Out went a number of the players who’d been pivotal in securing that second European crown, like Gianluca Vialli, Fabrizio Ravanelli, Paulo Sousa and 37-year-old Pietro Vierchowod.
In their place came Christian Vieri, Zinedine Zidane, Paolo Montero and, in a £5m deal from Lazio, Alen Boksic. The Bianconeri headed the table from an early stage of the season, despite some of the new arrivals taking time to adjust to coach Marcello Lippi’s 4-3-3 formation. When they clicked, they produced some absolutely scintillating football, most notably in the 6-1 destruction of the champions at the San Siro, and as Zidane’s influence grew over the course of the season, they got steadily better and better. Yet while they rarely lost, Juve were drawing too many games, and Carlo Ancelotti’s Parma put together a terrific run as they began to close in.
Lippi’s men went to Bologna just a week after Udinese had handed them their third defeat of the campaign, dishing out a shock 3-0 humbling at the Stadio delle Alpi. That weekend, Parma beat Roma in the Olimpico to cut the Old Lady’s lead to just three points. Juventus risked losing momentum at a crucial stage of the season, and the Rossoblu would be no pushovers. Renzo Ulivieri had guided them from Serie C1A to Serie A in just two years, and had assembled a talented squad in the process. Powered by the potent strike force of Kennet Andersson and Igor Kolyvanov, the eccentric Ulivieri (a former member of the Italian Communist Party) had established them as genuine contenders for a European place.
In the event, a cagey encounter was settled by a solitary goal – this week’s featured strike – from Boksic. The original ‘big man with a great touch’, the powerful Croatian picked up the ball around 40 yards out and accelerated towards goal, easing past two defenders as he moved into the area before casually slotting into the bottom corner to round off a solo goal of the highest quality. 24 hours later, Parma were beaten 2-0 at home by Juve’s conquerers the previous week, Udinese, and the Bianconeri’s six- point cushion at the top was restored.
The game that ultimately decided the title came with just three rounds left to play, as the top two met in Turin. It was not without controversy. At half-time, Parma led through a Zidane own goal and were set to close the gap once again. Then however, came a very dodgy penalty that Nicola Amoruso converted successfully. 1-1 was the final score, ensuring Juve’s lead at the top could not be overturned and essentially handing them the title by dint of their vastly superior goal difference (they’d go on to claim the Scudetto by two points). Parma’s French midfielder Daniel Bravo claimed last year that the two sides had agreed to play out a draw – although this has been refuted by both sides.
As for Boksic, his season at the Stadio delle Alpi was not, despite the title success, a particularly happy one. He spent much of the season either injured or suspended, and found his opportunities further limited by the abundance of striking talent the Old Lady possessed in the form of Vieri, Alessandro Del Piero and Amoruso, as well as surprise package Michele Padovano. He managed just three goals in 22 starts for Juve in the league, and though he was the team’s leading scorer in the Champions’ League as they again reached the final, there was heartbreak in store in Munich, as Paulo Sousa returned to haunt his old team, pulling the strings for Borussia Dortmund as they triumphed 3-1.
Juve would double their money on Boksic at the end of the season as the player returned to Lazio, where ‘the alien’ was a big favourite of President Sergio Cragnotti. Never as prolific in Italy as he’d been at Marseilles, where he’d effortlessly stepped into Jean Pierre-Papin’s boots, his combination of strength, technical finesse and creativity nevertheless made him the perfect foil for strike partners like Beppe Signori, and one of Serie A’s top attackers in his own right.
The Croatian star constantly battled injury throughout his second stint in Rome, even missing his country’s surprise run to the world cup semi-finals at France ’98, as well as the last-ever Cup Winners’ Cup final in 1999. He did though, manage to get his hands on another Scudetto in 2000, before making the surprise decision the next season to join Premier Leagues strugglers Middlesbrough, with a reported weekly wage of £63,000 (then a king’s ransom) surely playing a big part in his decision. Scoring twice on his debut against Coventry, Boksic made himself an instant hero on Teesside. He managed 12 goals in his first season, and was voted the club’s player of the year as Terry Venables arrived mid-season to haul the team out of the mire to safety.
Boksic’s Middlesbrough spell gave birth to some absolutely terrific rumours. Always a volatile character (James Richardson cited him as the most irksome guest he ever interviewed on Football Italia; the end of his first stint at Lazio was hastened when he substituted himself in a UEFA Cup game in Dortmund, simply walking off the pitch), he basically trained and played for Boro when he felt like it. Harry Pearson recalled in The Guardian that a friend of his who lived in the same street as the big Croatian always had the inside scoop as to whether he’d be playing that weekend or not, based purely on how early he put his bins out. If they were out more than three days early, he wouldn’t be playing – chiefly because he’d taken himself away on holiday. Then there’s the story of Boksic allegedly being so unimpressed at being stuck with Noel Whelan as a strike partner that he strode into the club’s HR department with his chequebook, demanding to pay up Whelan’s contract. Club captain Gareth Southgate was infuriated by the striker’s behaviour, describing him in his (excellent) co-autobiography with Andy Woodman as ‘tall, aloof, unconcerned’ and painting a picture of an inscrutable character who lived in a small village near Darlington, didn’t socialise with his team mates, and left the club without a word to anyone. ‘There were two sets of rules at Boro’ he claimed. ‘Rules for Alen and rules for the rest’. His lack of respect for some of his team mates was also a problem, as Southgate confirms: ‘there were lots of players he didn’t rate and when some of the lads had the ball, he wouldn’t bother making a run because he didn’t think they’d be able to make the pass. He was no chaser of lost causes.’
Yet he could still turn it on when he felt like it. It was as a Boro player that he finally made his world cup debut at the age of 32 in 2002. That same year, he hammered a significant nail into the coffin of Manchester United’s title challenge in a 3-1 Middlesbrough victory on Boxing Day. It would be his last goal for the club, as injuries finally caught up with him and he retired two months later in February 2003. This week’s goal of the week displays his greatest attributes – and why yacht crashing, Zeman-bashing, Southgate-annoying Alen Boksic was one of the greatest strikers of the 1990s.