Karl-Heinz Schnellinger, Romeo Benetti, Luciano Chiarugi, Gianni Rivera and the emerging AC Milan force they formed part of began the 1972/73 season with a firm statement of their Scudetto intentions. That 4-0 thumping of Palermo left Cesare Maldini’s side top of Serie A, and once they assumed outright leadership, they never looked like relinquishing it. Indeed a 4-1 win away to Sampdoria in Round 24 of 30 left Milan on a run of five successive victories, unbeaten in ten games, and three points clear of second-placed Lazio – in the two-points-for-a-win era, the title was I Rossoneri’s to lose.
Yet as Milan stuttered down the final straight, Luciano Re Cecconi, Giorgio Chinaglia and their Lazio team-mates managed to shave the gap and heading into the concluding matchday, 40 years ago to this Monday, were just one point off the pace. So, too, were Juventus, whose five-match winning sequence was indebted to Dino Zoff, Fabio Capello, Franco Causio, Gianpietro Marchetti, Pietro Anastasi and Roberto Bettega.
If two teams finished level on points, a play-off would determine the destination of the trophy, but few expected one to be required. Milan were, after all, visiting a relegation-threatened Verona side that had won just one of their 14 home matches that season: 1-0 over rock-bottom Ternana. Lazio and Juventus, for their parts, were away to mid-table Napoli and Roma respectively.
Up in Veneto, however, a header from defender Paolo Sirena and a Giuseppe Sabadini own-goal gave Verona a 2-0 lead, and though Livio Luppi made it 3-0 on the half-hour, Milan did at least simultaneously receive some good news from the capital. There, Juventus forward Helmut Haller’s back-pass was intercepted by Valerio Spadoni, who duly fired Roma into the lead.
All to play for
As the teams went in at half-time, the scores were Verona 3-1 Milan, Roma 1-0 Juventus and Napoli 0-0 Lazio. Had those results stood, Milan and Lazio would have finished on 44 points and Juventus on 43.
Juve coach Cestmír Vycpalek had 15 minutes to motivate his men into turning the tide – or so he thought. For as soon as they had entered the dressing room, in stormed the Czech’s former Bianconeri team-mate and now club president, Giampiero Boniperti. The 44-year-old, who had spent his entire 15-year club career at Juventus, gave a rousing speech, outlining Milan’s plight and urging his players not to let such an opportunity go begging.
Something else significant transpired during the break: Vycpalek advised that Haller would be replaced by Jose Altafini. At 34, the striker who helped Brazil win the 1958 FIFA World Cup Sweden™ and later represented Italy was past his best, but he had a reputation for scoring crucial goals. It took him just 16 minutes to net another – via a cute glancing header – and equalise for Juve. It made Altafini, who had previously represented Milan and Napoli, only the fourth player in history to reach 200 goals in Serie A, after Giuseppe Meazza, Silvio Piola and Gunnar Nordahl.
On 70 minutes over at the Stadio Marc'Antonio Bentegodi, Verona extended their lead, with Luppi somehow winning a ball he had no right to win inside the Milan area, someone holding on to it amid pressure from two opponents, and beating goalkeeper Villiam Vecchi from an acute angle. Swiftly, defender Maurizio Turone inadvertently deflected the ball into his own net to make it 5-1.
Sabadini did pull a goal back for Nereo Rocco’s Rossoneri, but with five minutes remaining the scores were Verona 5-2 Milan, Roma 1-1 Juventus and Napoli 0-0 Lazio. That would have resulted in a three-way play-off settling the Scudetto scrap, but the drama wasn’t over.
On 87 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico, Juve went in front from an unlikely source. Antonello Cuccureddu hadn’t scored in over two years, but when the ball fell to the defender just inside a crowded Roma box, he employed exquisite technique to thunder the ball into the roof of the net.
La Vecchia Signora were on the cusp of defending their title and making it 15 Scudetti – Inter Milan had the next highest on 11 – and that became all but certain when, on the stroke on 90 minutes, Oscar Damiani gave Napoli the lead against Lazio.
There was still time for Albertino Bigon to reduce Verona’s lead to 5-3, but that would be the final goal of a riveting title race which finished with Juventus one point ahead of Milan and two above Lazio.
“We weren’t in control of our own destiny, but we were determined to do our part and [Boniperti’s] words really fired us up,” said Cuccureddu afterwards. “I had mixed emotions when I scored because we weren’t sure what was happening with Lazio. But the news was filtering through to us gradually and when we got confirmation, it was an incredible feeling.”