It’s an unlikely rivalry, that between PSV and AC Milan. It’s born of neither geography, with the seats of Eindhoven and Milan situated nearly six-hundred miles apart, nor of over-familiarity, with the clubs competing on just five occasions all-time. However, when the two stalwarts of European football met last week, it was clear to see that this is no ordinary fixture. In actuality, it was the latest renewal of a footballing epic.
The roots of this contemporary feud can be traced to the Spring of 2005. In a lucrative Champions League semi-final, the two clubs, enjoying relative glory periods, would meet. The first leg, played at a packed San Siro, saw PSV control vast portions of the play but succumb to incisive Rossoneri breaks in the dying embers of each half. A goal from Andriy Shevchenko on the stroke of half-time, and a late strike from Jon-Dahl Tomasson left Guus Hiddink and his side starring up at an undeserved mountain.
In a throbbing second leg encounter, they began to climb. The Phillips Stadion, bedecked with colour and ferocious with noise, experienced a night quite unlike any other in its considerable history. After ten minutes, Ji-Sung Park ran on to a loose ball and opportunistically thumped it high into the net. Liftoff!
When Phillip Cocu, former midfield maestro and current PSV manager, rose to nod home a Lee-Young Pyo cross in the second half, Eindhoven rejoiced. It was a moment, an achievement, which encapsulated an entire era of PSV glory; this team of heroes fighting back to earn parity with one of European football’s defining powerhouses. In a surreal, dreamlike state, PSV had Milan on the ropes.
A cruel, 89th minute twist was the seminal moment in this heartfelt rivalry. As PSV looked for the knockout punch, a crowning moment to cap a performance of raw ambition, it came at the other end. A sluggish Milan kept the ball so as to insure extra-time. However, when Mauro Ambrosini ghosted in to flick a hopeful cross past the despairing dive of Heurelho Gomes, PSV hearts were broken. The pivotal away goal earned Milan a date with Liverpool in Istanbul, and rendered Phillip Cocu’s late acrobatic half-volley a mere consolation. In the gloom of crushing defeat, Eindhoven had a new nemesis.
I remember only select vignettes from that fateful night; it came in the embryonic stages of my PSV fandom. For instance, I vividly recall Cocu’s towering leap to plunge home the equaliser. I also remember Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink flicking a Van Bommel free-kick against the bar. These memories have become bittersweet in recent years. The frenzied atmosphere and the exceptional display from Hiddink’s team are still sources of pride, but the images of Ambrosini collapsed in celebration provide a chilling reminder of the end result. In whatever manner you look at that fixture, it pulls on the heartstrings.
Even though the two clubs would meet again in the 2005/06 group stages, where a sweet 1-0 victory for PSV in Eindhoven was coupled with a credible 0-0 draw in Italy, last Tuesday saw the most meaningful renewal in the conflict. A place in the Champions League Group Stages lay as the reward. In Eindhoven, talk of “revenge” was fresh in the air; fans taking great confidence in this young team and its sensational start to the season. Whilst PSV were seen by many as the “underdogs,” an undercurrent of belief manifested itself in a fantastic atmosphere for the first leg. Eindhoven was ready for another big European night.
The performance of PSV was admirable. In the glare of a large television audience right across the continent, the youngsters represented the club with true pride; a display of explosive excitement rekindling all those memories from eight years ago. A rip-roaring start saw Adam Maher, Georginio Wijnaldum, and Jetro Willems test the reflexes of Milan ‘keeper Abbiati. Cocu’s men were playing lively, attacking football with intricate passing combinations and raw pace. They were dominating.
In these games, it seems obligatory for a brutal twist of fate. Just as you begin to rise from your seat with greater regularity, expecting wave-after-wave of PSV pressure to result in a goal, Milan punch you in the gut. A shrewd breakaway, one of Milan’s very first of the tie, saw full-back Ignazio Abate exploit the defensive naivety of Memphis Depay before crossing for Stephan El Shaarawy to nod home into the far corner. Another Milan away goal in front of the Phillips Stadion Oost Staan.
If anybody thought that this team of energetic youngsters was about to lie down and give-up, they were sorely mistaken. Even after Mario Balotelli crashed a shot against the bar, PSV regained a measure of composure and began pressing for an equaliser. Adam Maher, ubiquitous in a play-making role, again worked Abbiati, before crunching his own shot off the woodwork. In a breathless and thoroughly-entertaining first-half, Cocu’s men did everything except score.
After so much exquisite football, unpicking the Milan defence with deft passing and movement, PSV’s eventual equaliser was drenched in irony. As Milan became more compact in midfield, space was at a premium. Thus, when found open some forty yards from goal, Jeffrey Bruma decided to just thumpn the ball. It swerved in the air, causing Abbiati to fumble. Tim Matavz arrived to prod home a richly-deserved equaliser, sending the PSV masses into delirium. The game trickled to a fairly calm end, with the tie balanced precariously at 1-1 heading to Italy.
At this stage of the season, we continue to learn a lot about this new-look PSV. In matching, and even dominating, Milan for periods during the first leg, a major milestone in the Cocu Revolution was achieved. The manager was using this tie to measure the progress of his developing squad, stating that “it give us a chance to compare ourselves to a great team.” The players came-of-age, a rock-solid bond between Bruma and Karim Rekik emblematic of a maturing PSV rising to a daunting challenge. On PSV’s biggest European night for five years, a sense of pride was restored.
The experts are wrong to dismiss PSV’s chances in the second leg. This is a tie which can change entirely with just one goal, and PSV have scored in thirty-four consecutive games. Furthermore, the Dutch giants dominated the first leg in periods, showcasing football which had Milan hanging by a thread. Nobody should underestimate the potential of this PSV side.
As the excitement builds ahead of Wednesday’s clash, PSV fans are in buoyant mood; they believe in another European fairytale. After all, anything can happen when rivals meet.
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