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Fiorentina’s first ever European play-off, let’s party like it’s 1999

A look at Fiorentina’s first ever play-off in Europe

Giovanni Trapattoni of Fiorentina

Fiorentina are about to set off for Enschede in the Netherlands to take on FC Twente in the second leg of the Europa Conference League play-off round. A 2-1 win from the home tie gives Vincenzo Italiano’s side a slight advantage, but with just a one goal lead and no away goal calculations to worry about, the job is far from finished. A place in the group stage is at stake, so let’s take a look at how Fiorentina got on the first time they were ever in this position.

The group stages in European competition are of course a modern football invention, where football federations, including UEFA, began to concern themselves more with the money to be made from television than with maintaining the prestige of their tournaments. For our younger readers, talking about something that happened in 1991 may seem more like ancient history, but that is when the last edition of the European Cup kicked off which was also the first to contain a group stage. From the following season the competition would be known as the Champions League, and football as we knew it would never be the same again.

In those early years, the competition was still open to just the league champions in each nation, but despite the tournament’s name, that too would soon change. The 1997/98 edition saw the runners-up of the top eight ranked leagues also qualify, and two seasons later the competition was extended even further, which gave Fiorentina the chance to enter the top European club tournament.

Italy at the time had the highest ranked league in the UEFA coefficient, which gave them four places in the Champions League. It may seem strange now, but at the time England were down in sixth place behind the Netherlands, so they were only entitled to enter three clubs, but gradually, Italy would slip down the rankings while the Premier League moved up to take the top spot.

Back to 1999, and Fiorentina under Giovanni Trapattoni had finished third in Serie A. This meant that when the 1999/2000 season began, they were now competing in the Champions League, but they would need to come through a preliminary round to reach the coveted group stage. This was Fiorentina’s first participation in the premier European competition in 30 years. While Milan and Lazio automatically qualified for the group stage, both Fiorentina and Parma entered the competition at the Third Qualifying round, and the winners would take part in one of the eight groups at the First Group stage.

The draw took place on July 23rd, before the second qualifying round had been played and Fiorentina were one of the sixteen seeded sides. This meant they would avoid the likes of Valencia, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, PSV, and Spartak Moscow. On the other side of the draw were two unseeded teams, Servette from Switzerland, and Czech club Teplice, along with the 14 winners of the second qualifying round. The teams to avoid there could be Dynamo Kyiv, Glasgow Rangers, Rapid Vienna, and Partizan Belgrade. Parma were drawn with the winners of Rangers and FC Haka of Finland, and as expected they would end up facing the Scottish side after their 7-1 aggregate win.

At the time of the draw Fiorentina were in New York taking part in the Gotham Cup. This was a four-team pre-season tournament played at the Giants Stadium, and along with the Viola, would include Ajax, Aston Villa, and Panathinaikos. On the same day as the Champions League draw Fiorentina defeated the Greek side 3-0 and would now face Aston Villa in the final two days later. Just like this season, after the draw Fiorentina still didn’t know exactly who they would face in the European tie, but they now knew that their opponents would come from the clash between Litex Lovech, the Bulgarian champions, and Widzew Łódź of Poland.

Fiorentina went on to win the Gotham Cup, easing to a 4-0 victory over the English side. New signing Predrag Mijatović opened the scoring in a game which also featured another new arrival Enrico Chiesa. Chiesa went off injured, but Gabriel Batistuta scored twice, and Manuel Rui Costa netted the last goal. Batistuta had beaten David James with his penalty having been fouled by Gareth Southgate, while Dion Dublin’s penalty effort for Villa was saved by Francesco Toldo. Fiorentina returned to Italy for the rest of their pre-season preparations, where the first competitive game of the season would be that first-leg game of their important Champions League clash. That first leg would be at home on August 11th, and two weeks later they would travel, destination as yet unknown, for the return leg. All this would take place before a ball had been kicked in Serie A, as their opening league game would not take place until August 29th, four days after the second leg game.

After the first leg between Lovech and Widzew, it was looking extremely likely that Fiorentina would be facing the Bulgarian champions. In their home tie they defeated the Polish side 4-1, with Widzew’s only goal coming from the penalty spot two minutes from the end. A week later in Łódź a small crowd turned out to watch Widzew try to overcome the large deficit from the first game. They did see their side score an early goal to give them some hope, but then Lovech levelled the game after half an hour and went in 5-2 up on aggregate at the break, nobody expected much from the second half. There was still almost half an hour to play after Artur Wichniarek, the man who netted the penalty in the first leg, scored twice to pull Widzew to within one goal of the Bulgarians.

With just over 15 minutes left they found the goal they needed to pull off this shock comeback, and the game now went to extra-time. The home side then went down to ten men just six minutes into the extra period when Daniel Bogusz received a second booking. Despite the extra man, Litex Lovech were unable to take advantage and the tie would be decided with a penalty shoot-out.

It looked to be going all wrong for Widzew when they missed their first two penalties, Wichniarek who had been the hero so far was one of those to miss. The first effort had been taken by Radosław Michalski, the player who had scored the final goal which had forced this game to extra-time. Michalski, before beginning his football career with Legia Warsaw had worked in the shipyards of his home city of Gdańsk, alongside Lech Wałęsa, the leader of the Solidarity union movement and who then became President of Poland.

Litex had converted one of their opening two spot-kicks to give them a narrow lead, but Widzew had already shown they could come back from much bigger margins. The Polish side went on to convert their three remaining penalties while the Bulgarians missed their final two, and Widzew Łódź would now, against all the odds, be the team to stand in Fiorentina’s way of making the group stage in the Champions League.

Widzew had finished as runners-up in the Polish league the previous season and were only taking part in the Champions League because the Polish title winners were serving a ban from European football. Wisła Kraków had played against Parma in the UEFA Cup in October 1998. Their home tie ended 1-1, after Enrico Chiesa had give the Italians an early lead. The game was marred however by a knife thrown from the home fans which struck Dino Baggio on the head. The Polish club denied that the object thrown had been a knife and the Wisła players had hidden the evidence by throwing it back into the crowd. The second leg went ahead, and Parma came through and went on to win the trophy, while Wisła Kraków would receive a ban from European competition.

Wisła’s loss was Widew’s gain, and they were back in the Champions League after an absence of just one season. Their most recent experience had also seen them come up against Parma. Widzew had won two consecutive Polish league titles in 1995/96 and 96/97, and they had reached the Group stage in 1996/97. To do so they had beaten Danish champions Brøndby, before finishing third in a group behind Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, the German club went on to lift the trophy when they beat Juventus in the final. The following season Widew would need to come through two qualifying rounds to make the groups, and at the first hurdle they had no problems in seeing off Neftçi, with a 10-0 aggregate win over the Azerbaijan club.

They now faced the stiffer task of taking on the Serie A runners-up Parma. Widzew ended up on the wrong side of a 7-1 aggregate score, and they can’t have been eager to face Enrico Chiesa again with Fiorentina as the striker had scored a hat-trick for Parma in the first leg of that tie. The Polish league was already underway and Widzew had three league games under their belts, along with their European games, before they faced a Fiorentina side making their season debut. It hadn’t been a great start however, as Widzew had drawn their opening game and then suffered two defeats. A 4-1 hammering away to Ruch Chorzów had been followed by their most recent loss at home to Wisła Kraków. Wichniarek had scored twice, including a last-minute goal but it wasn’t enough as they went down 4-3.

Batistuta described the tie with Widzew as the most important games of his career after the World Cup. He knew what it meant for the club to reach the Champions League, and to miss out on the group stage now would be unimaginable. The team returned from their training camp at Reggello just a couple of days before the first leg, an evening kick-off on Wednesday August 11th, 1999. Bati was also determined to make sure of qualification in front of their home fans before facing the trip to Poland. Trapattoni agreed about the importance of the game “Florence has been waiting for this match for 30 years, passing the round can give us peace of mind. Everyone has to give everything they can, in certain games a manager has nothing to add”.

Despite it being the middle of the main summer holiday season in Italy, the fans in Florence didn’t want to miss this game and a large crowd was guaranteed at the Franchi. The last training sessions for the Viola were behind closed doors, with the team also taking a look at a video of their opponents’ most recent game, courtesy of some amateur footage which arrived from Poland. Enrico Chiesa and Mijatović would make their competitive debuts for Fiorentina, as would another new signing, Daniele Adani. The defender had arrived from Serie B side Brescia and was now playing his first game in European competition. Rui Costa, despite not being at the peak of fitness as Trapattoni admitted, would also be in the starting eleven, playing behind the front three of Chiesa, Mijatović, and Batistuta.

The Fiorentina manager was convinced his team had what it takes to overcome the tie, but also warned against complacency, “we mustn’t overlook a formation like the Polish side which makes the collective and the team spirit its strength. They can also count on two quick strikers such as Marek Citko and Wichniarek”. The visitors would be without their suspended defender Daniel Bogusz after his red card in the previous round. Two years previously, after his side’s exit at the hands of Parma, they had dropped into the UEFA Cup where they faced another Italian side, Udinese. Bogusz scored the only goal of the first leg at home, but they lost 3-0 in Udine.

The game got off to a bad start for Trapattoni and the home fans as Batistuta only lasted six minutes before going down holding his knee. Forced into an unwanted early chance, Abel Balbo came on for his fellow Argentinian. The opening period saw the Polish side looking to defend as much as possible, happy to concede free kicks for the many fouls committed. In the first 20 minutes the English referee David Elleray showed four yellow cards to the visitors. In the 17th minute, after yet another foul, this time on Angelo Di Livio, gave Enrico Chiesa a free kick from out wide. Chiesa floated the ball into the box perfectly, his cross arriving at the penalty spot where Adani with a diving header gave Fiorentina the lead and settled those early nerves.

Losing Batistuta, Trapattoni had stuck to his three-man attack but neither Mijatović nor Balbo could find a way through the Polish side’s defence. Fiorentina took their 1-0 lead into the half time break, and 12 minutes after the interval they finally found a second goal. Again, it came from a dead ball situation, and again it was Chiesa who sent the ball into the box, this time from a corner. Sandro Cois headed home this time, but just as Fiorentina did against Twente last week, they managed to complicate things. With 16 minutes left to play, Marcin Zając, who had replaced Citko five minutes earlier, was left completely unmarked in the box for a throw-in. He got the better of Pasquale Padalino and managed to put in a cross in front of goal but before it found its way to Wichniarek it deflected off Adani and past Toldo.

An important away goal for Widzew, especially if the score remained unchanged. It took something special from Rui Costa to restore Fiorentina’s two goal lead before the trip to Poland. Three minutes into injury time and the Portuguese maestro picked the ball up wide on the left, he went past two opponents, and his slalom run took him into the box and his right footed shot found the gap between the dive of Sławomir Olszewski and the post. It was with relief more than anything that Rui and his teammates celebrated the goal, and the fans went home with more belief in their team’s chances for the second leg.

They would need to wait another two weeks before finding out if their side could come through the test in Poland. While Fiorentina would still be in pre-season training before the start of Serie A which would begin four days after the return leg, Widzew would play another two league games before welcoming the Viola to Łódź. Their poor start to the season continued, as the recorded a draw and another defeat to leave them without a win in their opening five league games. While Bogusz would return from suspension for the Fiorentina clash, their most recent game had seen their keeper replaced and Olszewski would now miss the second leg.

The biggest worry for Fiorentina fans was the danger of not getting to see the game. It was looking more and more likely that the match would not be transmitted by RAI, after some confusion over who owned the rights to the game. The Italian state TV had already made an agreement with a company owned by Zbigniew Boniek, but Widzew claimed that the former Juventus and Roma player had no permission to make the deal. The day before the game there seemed to be no possibility of watching Fiorentina’s adventure in Poland, as Widzew raised the price to six hundred thousand dollars, a figure RAI were unwilling to pay. In the end, just a couple of hours before the game and with the intervention of Fiorentina, an agreement was reached, and back in Italy fans could sit back and watch their side in Europe.

Giovanni Trapattoni was no stranger to Widzew Łódź, and of course he was very familiar with Boniek. Trap was Juventus manager when they signed Boniek, and the Polish star arrived after the 1982 World Cup from, Widzew Łódź. The Juventus boss had already had the chance to see Boniek up close with his old club, when Juventus met Widzew in the UEFA Cup in 1980. Trap’s side suffered a 3-1 defeat in Poland, and although they came back and won 3-1 in Turin, they would lose out in a penalty shoot-out. Liam Brady was the only Juventus player to convert his spot kick, while Boniek scored the decisive one for Widzew. The Polish side had already knocked out Manchester United in the previous round, but they lost to eventual cup winners Ipswich in the next.

Widzew went on to win the Polish league title at the end of that 1980/81 season, the first in their history. Not bad for a club who just a decade earlier had been playing in the third tier. They retained their title the following season, and this, the most successful Widzew Łódź team would then reach the European Cup semi-final in 1983. They had now well and truly come out of the shadows of their neighbours and rivals ŁKS Łódź.

The first-round draw of that European Cup was kind to the Polish club, pitting them against the Maltese champions Hibernians. Widzew won both ties for a 7-2 aggregate win and would now face Rapid Vienna. The Austrian title holders won their home leg 2-1 but the return game in Poland was a goal filled thriller. Widzew raced into a 3-0 lead in the first half hour, putting them 4-2 up on aggregate. Rapid then came back with two goals, 3-2 on the night, 4-4 on aggregate, with the Austrians having the away goal advantage now. The first of those Rapid Vienna goals came from the penalty spot, converted by the legendary Antonin Panenka.

Widzew added another two goals to take a 6-4 aggregate advantage, before an own goal close to the end pulled Rapid to within one goal of knocking the Polish club out, but the 5-3 win on the night was enough for the home club. They were now into the quarter-final draw, where two English clubs were among their possible opponents. Aston Villa were trying to retain the trophy, as English clubs had dominated the European Cup in that period, winning all six previous tournaments. Widzew were drawn to face the English league champions and a team which had won three of the last six European Cups, the mighty Liverpool.

Widzew pulled off a shock 2-0 win in the home leg, but then again, the Finnish champions HJK Helsinki had also beaten Liverpool 1-0 in the previous round before suffering a 5-0 hammering at Anfield. In March 1983, Widzew arrived at Anfield, and fell behind to an early penalty, but to their credit there was no collapse. They then scored a penalty of their own before taking the lead early in the second half. With the away goal advantage, Livepool now needed to score four to progress. They did manage two, Ian Rush one of the scorers, but a 3-2 win wasn’t enough as Widzew eliminated the Reds 4-3 on aggregate.

That same night, their former player Boniek was in Trapattoni’s Juventus side which finished off the job of knocking out Aston Villa. The semi-final draw, which also contained the Spanish champions Real Sociedad and German title holders Hamburg, brought a chance of revenge for Trap against the Polish side. A 2-0 home win gave Trap’s team a decent advantage going to Poland and a Paolo Rossi first half goal surely ended the tie. Widzew were not a side to give up without a fight and they did take a 2-1 lead on the night. Juventus were now just 3-2 ahead on aggregate, but their away goal did mean the Polish side would still need to score two more goals. In the end it was a penalty converted by Michel Platini which finished off Widzew and Trap’s side were now in the European Cup final, which they lost to Hamburg.

Widzew continued to finish high in the league the next few seasons, to keep on playing in Europe. They also won their first and only Polish Cup in 1985, but by the end of the decade they were relegated after their 15-season stint in the top tier came to an end. They did come straight back up, and then won those two league titles, but this season 1999/2000, would turn out to be their last European experience.

Without Batistuta, Trapattoni gave up on his 4-3-3 for now. Mijatović and Chiesa remained the front pair, and Christian Amoroso slotted into midfield. The only other change made from the first leg was Alessandro Pierini coming in for Adani. Widzew, as well as their keeper, would also be without their injured captain Tomasz Łapiński. Trap knew that his opposing manager, the legendary Grzegorz Lato, would send his side out to be even more aggressive than the first leg, as they looked to close down the danger of Chiesa and Rui Costa in particular. Lato had taken over with the season already underway when Marek Dziuba paid the price for his side’s poor start.

Fiorentina arrived in Łódź the day before the game, with both Chiesa and Rui Costa happy to talk to the waiting journalists at the Łódź-Lublinek airport. It was a short drive from the airport situated just outside the city to the Grand Hotel. The team’s accommodation was just a 15-minute drive to Widzew’s home ground. Trapattoni and his squad went there at 6pm that evening for a run-out and training session at the stadium.

There were complaints from Fiorentina about the state of the pitch and the safety of the stadium which was undergoing some redevelopment work at the time. A German company had been brought in to quickly install an extra three thousand seats and had also repainted the clubhouse, but it wasn’t enough to dispel the doubts of Fiorentina. Rui Costa was not a happy man when he saw the Stadion Miejski, “this stadium looks like a cemetery, how did UEFA give authorization? There’s no security here, it’s dangerous, from the stands they can throw anything. A massacre could happen”. In the end the game passed off without any incident off the field.

Fiorentina scored the opening goal six minutes before the break. Di Livio sent a long ball forward, Mijatović won the battle for possession with Widzew’s captain Michalski and sent an inviting ball into the box in front of Chiesa. The striker’s first touch with his left looked to have been too strong, but it helped take it away from the keeper and Chiesa stretched to reach it with his right foot and send it past the dive of Matuszek. A 1-0 lead at the break gave Fiorentina a comfortable 4-1 aggregate advantage, and although Widzew were no strangers to incredible comebacks, they rarely threatened in this game.

With 25 minutes left to play Fiorentina well and truly finished off the tie. Chiesa’s corner was headed clear, but it arrived out to Di Livio who sent the ball back out wide to Chiesa who had time to send in a pin-point cross and Cois rose highest to make it 2-0. The game ended without any further goals, and Fiorentina were through to the Champions League group stage after a 5-1 aggregate win.

Widzew were then relegated to the UEFA Cup, where after beating Latvian side Skonto Riga they were eliminated by a Monaco side containing David Trezeguet. In a season which saw them drop to seventh in the league, with four different managers in charge and in the winter a number of players left the club including Łapiński and Citko. The first decade this century saw them bounce between the top two divisions and in 2015 after financial trouble they began again from the fifth tier of the Polish league. After four promotions in eight seasons, they are now back in the Polish top flight, the Ekstraklasa.

As for Fiorentina, after getting past Widzew they were placed in a group alongside Barcelona, Arsenal, and AIK of Sweden. Batistuta scored that famous goal at Wembley to beat Arsenal away, and on the last day Fiorentina drew 3-3 in Florence with Barcelona which gave them the runners-up spot ahead of Arsenal. They now went into the second group stage, this time with two group winners Manchester United and Valencia, as well as Bordeaux. Despite beating both United and the Spaniards at home, they finished in third place and out of the competition.

Since then, Fiorentina have had four more play-off ties to make the group stages in Europe. They have knocked out Groningen, Slavia Prague, Sporting Lisbon, and Grasshoppers. Unbeaten in European play-off games, and with a win in the first leg, here’s hoping our perfect record continues against FC Twente!