It may have gone unnoticed to some, but 1st September 2011 will go down as the end of an era for anyone who has followed the staggering career of AC Milan’s Filippo Inzaghi.
The man affectionately known as ‘Mr Champions League’ by many people, was left out of Milan’s 25-man squad for the group stage of this season’s tournament.
Head Coach Massimiliano Allegri called it a “tough choice” after deciding to pick four forwards and going for Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Antonio Cassano, Robinho and Pato – citing a calf injury as the main reason for Inzaghi’s omission.
Inzaghi, who’s now 38, was described as “understandably disappointed” by his manager – and I’m sure that will have been magnified by the fact that Gennaro Gattuso has been included in the squad, despite being suspended for the first four matches.
Although I have to say that mentioning the snarling midfielder – banned for an ‘assault’ on Tottenham’s first-team coach Joe Jordan – in the same sentence as Filippo Inzaghi, doesn’t feel quite right under the circumstances.
Inzaghi is a player who deserves huge respect, not the sort of man to court controversy, he’s almost always let his feet do the talking, forging a reputation as one of football’s great goal-poachers – in the right place at the right time so often, you have to wonder whether he can see into the future, or at least a few seconds ahead.
So many times, on Tuesday and Wednesday nights across Europe, we’ve seen Inzaghi wheel away, his face contorted with fevered passion, as he celebrates yet another goal in the UEFA Champions League.
He’s scored 70 European goals in total, 3 less than Raul, the man he’s always battled with for top-spot in the European competition goal-chart.
Raul also boasts 1 more UEFA Champions League medal – winning the competition three times with Real Madrid – but who can forget Inzaghi’s amazing contribution to Milan’s success against Liverpool in 2006/07 Final?
Two goals that encapsulate so much about the Italian – his first, a perfect example of being in the right place at the right time, as a Pirlo free-kick cannoned off his side/shoulder and wrong-footed Pepe Reina – his second goal, the result of a perfectly timed run to receive a defence splitting pass from Kaka, before calmly slipping the ball past the onrushing Liverpool goalkeeper.
Contributions like that have seen Inzaghi amass a stunning array of medals that includes – 2 UEFA Champions League titles, 2 UEFA Super Cups, 3 Serie A titles, 1 Coppa Italia, 1 FIFA Club World Cup, 2 Supercoppa Italiana – not to mention the FIFA World Cup with Italy in 2006.
Inzaghi is also Italy’s and Milan’s all time top goal scorer in European club competition – and, of the many tributes I’ve seen paid to Inzaghi in the last few hours, one which compared him to a British fighter pilot resentated most.
“Pippo Inzaghi, the Douglas Bader of football,” declared Neil Isaacs, the person behind a Twitter account called @SurrealFootball.
Bader, for those who don’t know, served his country with utter distinction during the Second World War, and was as prolific in the skies as Inzaghi is in front of goal – credited with 20 aerial victories, 4 shared victories, 6 probables, 1 shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged.
Of course there are those who’d say if Bader had been caught offside as many times as Inzaghi, the famous fighter pilot wouldn’t have lived to the age of 72.
Sir Alex Ferguson famously once quipped that Inzaghi must have been “born offside” – and I’m sure there are more than a few Assistant Referees in this season’s UEFA Champions League who’ll breath a sigh of relief that Inzaghi won’t be involved in the group stage – few players in history have spent so much time playing on the shoulder of the last defender.
Some fortunate offside decisions over the years have contributed to the belief, held by many, that Inzaghi is a very lucky player, with far less ability than many team-mates – but can you really ‘get lucky’ that often? As any coach of strikers will tell you, being in the position to score a goal is more than half the battle.
It’s been Inzaghi’s trademark since 1992, when he scored his first hit the back of the net for Leffe – right throughout his career Inzaghi has almost always guaranteed goals, even if fitness has sometimes been a problem.
Often described as your archetypal ‘1 in 2’ man – he actually averages slightly under that, with 287 goals in 614 matches – but even last season, when he struggled badly with a knee injury, Inzaghi still managed 4 goals in 9 appearances.
Whether he’ll ever add to his UEFA Champions League tally remains to be seen, but just like any good soap-opera exit, the door has been left slightly ajar, with Massimiliano Allegri saying he’ll assess Inzaghi’s fitness again in January and could yet bring him back into the UEFA Champions League squad then, presuming Milan qualify for the knockout phase.
We’re always told football is a ruthless business now, with no room for sentiment – but I can’t help feeling ‘Pippo’ deserves one last chance to knock Raul off his perch.
Although, if we have seen the last of Inzaghi in the world’s premier club competition, it is fitting that his final goals were in a thrilling 2-2 draw against Real Madrid.