For fans, players and the staff of Juventus, the Champions League has become an obsession.
After reeling off five consecutive Serie A titles, the Bianconeri began to focus their attention on adding European silverware to their domestic haul – it’s why the club paid €90million to sign Gonzalo Higuaín from Napoli.
Such an outlay was completely unnecessary in order to remain dominant in the Italian top flight, but the arrival of the Argentinian, along with Miralem Pjanić and Douglas Costa, proves just how desperate the club is for continental success.
As well as validating their current side, Juve are well aware their team will be measured against those who have lifted UEFA’s most prestigious honour.
Max Allegri has won enough trophies to rank third behind Marcello Lippi and Giovanni Trapattoni in the list of most successful Juventus managers, but the latter two made the Turin giants champions of Europe.
The Old Lady’s last triumph came back in 1996 when they defeated Ajax after a penalty shoot-out at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Club president Andrea Agnelli is tired of waiting for another triumph.
“We want to win in Europe,” he said at the club’s Christmas dinner back in December. “This year we know that it is an objective, whereas in the past it was just a dream.
“It’s something we are working towards, aware that what we have done in Europe has given us a new dimension. What has made the difference these years, and must continue to make the difference, is hard work and sacrifice, and I say to everybody that maybe ‘the cup with the big ears’ is now a bit closer.”
Reaching two finals in the last three seasons – only to fall short and finish as runners up – has led many of a Juventus persuasion recalling their performances of twenty years ago. It was the last time they reached the latter stages with such regularity.
“When I think of Juventus it immediately brings back fond, but sobering, memories of my time at Manchester United during the mid-1990s when we were growing as a team and learning all about how to succeed in the Champions League,” Gary Neville wrote in a 2015 column for the Telegraph.
“Juventus were the benchmark, with Marcelo Lippi’s team reaching three consecutive finals during that period, and we came up against them eight times in the space of seven years.”
A key figure for the Old Trafford club as they dominated English football during that same period, the former England defender and now Sky Sports pundit is well-placed to make such analysis after facing the Bianconeri on several occasions.
The Italian side ruled those clashes, with United only toppling Juve when they overcame a vastly changed Old Lady side in their treble-winning campaign of 1998/99. Before that it was very much one way traffic.
Unquestionably the best of those teams Sir Alex Ferguson’s young players aspired to emulate was the 1995/96 vintage that went on to lift the trophy.
The entire squad was laden with depth, quality and, perhaps most importantly of all, intelligent players who grasped Lippi’s incredible tactical acumen and executed his plans perfectly.
In the previous campaign they ended AC Milan’s hegemony of the Serie A title, finishing ten points ahead of any other side while also winning the Coppa Italia and reaching the UEFA Cup final.
It was, as with many of Juve’s best teams, a side boasting an impenetrable defence. Angelo Peruzzi might not earn the recognition of a Gigi Buffon or Dino Zoff, but the stocky goalkeeper was every inch as vital, proving so with two saves in that aforementioned shoot-out with Ajax. He also conceded just 32 goals in 34 appearances in 1994/95.
Ahead of him was the backline comprised of rugged stopper Pietro Vierchowod, the vastly under appreciated Ciro Ferrara, plus hardworking full-backs Gianluca Pessotto and Moreno Torricelli.
The midfield, meanwhile, was a perfect combination of strength, quality, grit and guile, with current France coach Didier Deschamps partnering Chelsea boss Antonio Conte; their job was to protect playmaker Paulo Sousa.
Yet for all the star names in the side, it was the forward line which truly sang. Alessandro Del Piero replaced Roberto Baggio as the club’s No.10 the previous summer, with Lippi convinced the youngster could thrive in the role if the older man was sold on.
He did just that. ‘The Divine Ponytail’ was sent to Milan and Lippi handed the reins to his understudy, who responded with a string of unstoppable displays and six Champions League goals.
Feeding on Del Piero’s delightful creativity, Fabrizio Ravanelli and Gianluca Vialli struck six more times and played perfectly off one another.
The latter – who captained the side and scored no shortage of crucial goals for the Bianconeri – smashed home powerful volleys and pinpoint headers, drawing praise from the usually stoic club owner Gianni Agnelli.
“If Baggio is Raphael and Del Piero is Caravaggio, who is Vialli?” he once mused. “If I think for a moment I would say Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel… he is the sculptor who knows how to become a painter.”
Meanwhile, Ravanelli used his pace to stretch opposition defences and was never more effective than in that final in Rome. After he pounced on a Frank de Boer miscue, ‘The White Feather’ slotted home from an impossible angle to put Juve in front.
Ajax equalised through Jari Litmanen just before half time and many teams would crumble after such a setback, but not that Juve side. They pushed on – Vialli smashed the crossbar with the best chance of the second half – but were unable to find a second goal. The game was to be decided by penalties.
Peruzzi made an excellent stop to deny Edgar Davids’ opening spot kick, before Ferrara, Pessotto and Michele Padovano all converted. The goalkeeper pulled off another crucial save to keep out Sonny Silooy’s attempt.
Serbian midfielder Vladimir Jugović drilled the final effort low into the corner and the Bianconeri were European champions once again.
Vialli lifted the trophy high into the Rome night, but it would prove to be his final act for the club. He left for Chelsea that summer. Ravanelli also headed to England and joined Middlesborough. Massimo Carrera, Vierchowod and Sousa were sold too.
In their place came Davids, Zinedine Zidane, Alen Boksic and a young Christian Vieri, but even as they reached the final in each of the next two seasons, they could not secure another victory.
Now 22 years later, the Old Lady are still searching for that elusive victory. It’s why the 1995/96 version of Juventus is, as Gary Neville can attest, rightly revered.