Remembering the wonderful 1988 UEFA Cup Final

Real Madrid 7 Eintracht Frankfurt 3; Milan 4 Barcelona 0; Liverpool 3 Milan 3: one of the reasons that the European Cup and its modern day Champions League equivalent is considered such a seminal competition is the many memorable finals it’s produced; games that will be imprinted forever on the hearts and minds of football fans everywhere.

Any good competition needs a selection of great finals to define it in broader consciousness and this is one of the problems with the Europa League: since this compromised tournament was rebranded there just hasn’t been a memorable final to go some way towards compensating for the rest of the competition’s structural flaws.

The Bayer Leverkusen team line-up before the Final away leg in Spain
Source: martiperarnau.com

Perhaps Manchester United and Ajax can serve up just such an occasion when they meet in this year’s Stockholm Final; only then can this tournament regain some of the lustre missing from its much-loved predecessor, the UEFA Cup.

Now there was a competition that enjoyed a selection of memorable, era-defining finals. In its post-1997 showpiece final phase the world was thrilled by Liverpool 5 Alaves 4 from 2001 and Internazionale 3 Lazio 0 in 1998. In its two-legged days, Ipswich Town edging out AZ 67 5-4 on aggregate in 1981 is a standout, however the 1988 final was arguably the best of them all. Chaotic defending, a big second-leg turnaround and some of the best headed goals you’re likely to see.

Bayer Leverkusen skipper Wolfgang Rolff lifts the UEFA Cup, 1988
Source: bundesliga classic

Neither of the finalists, Español and Bayer Leverkusen, were experienced European campaigners – the Catalan club was appearing in its first European campaign for 11 seasons and Leverkusen just its second-ever – but both had earned their places in the final. Español had eliminated Milan, their Basque coach Javier Clemente cleverly minimising Ruud Gullit’s impact at the Sarria by reducing the width of the pitch to its legal minimum. For good measure Inter were knocked out later in their run too. Leverkusen’s scalps included Barcelona.

FINAL FIRST-LEG

The first-leg of the final was played in Spain and much of the first-half was dominated by the visiting German side, with Wolfgang Rolff dominant in midfield and Brazilian striker Tita causing problems with his movement up front. But first blood fell to the home side just before half-time when Losada was left badly unmarked to header home a cross from the left.

Inspired by that goal, Español raised their game in the second-half and added a second when Soler’s low shot beat Rudi Vollborn – though Losada was in an offside position and could have been penalised for interfering with play. Losada was at the centre of everything and he headed a magnificent third goal, while Gallart could have made it four with another header which hit the bar on 70 minutes.

“That’s still good enough for us to win the Cup”

The on-loan from Real Madrid first-leg star Sebastián Losada was content with the lead when speaking after the game.

FINAL SECOND-LEG

There was little sign during the first-half of the return at the Ulrich-Haberland Stadion of a turnaround. The home side did have a goal disallowed when Tita headed the ball out of the hands of Español’s ‘keeper Thomas N’Kono, but threatened little overall.

It was the livewire Brazilian forward who lifted belief when poking home from close range on 56 minutes after a terrible defensive mix up, then six minutes later Falko Götz powered home a spectacular header to narrow the deficit further. With nine minutes remaining the veteran South Korean forward Cha Bum-kun levelled the tie on aggregate.

Bayer Leverkusen skipper Wolfgang Rolff lifts the UEFA Cup, 1988
Source: bundesliga classic

No further goals arrived in extra-time and the match went to penalties. Falkenmayer missed the opening kick for Leverkusen, but three successive misses later from the Spaniards completed the comeback and handed the trophy – and a first major honour – to Bayer Leverkusen. The man who missed the decisive kick was Losada, the first-leg star who had made the mistake of speaking out too confidently and too soon.

Javier Clemente complained afterwards about the Grobelaar-like windmill arms from Leverkusen ‘keeper Vollborn during the shootout, but was left to reflect that what his Español team had done in the semi-final to Club Brugge – turning round a 2-0 away defeat at Club Brugge with a last-gasp 3-0 home win – had now been done to them, with interest.

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