News Live Scores
African All Stars

Remembering Finidi and Kanu at Ajax

01:46 GMT+4 10/04/2019
Nwankwo Kanu & Finidi George lift UCL in 1995
The 1996 Uefa Champions League final marked the final appearance for the Dutch giants of two of Nigeria's biggest footballing stars

May 22, 1996 marked a special occasion in more ways than one.

The final of the Uefa Champions League is a showpiece on par with almost any other sporting event on the planet. However, that date was significant beyond even that: it also marked the final time that Finidi George and Nwankwo Kanu played together at Ajax Amsterdam.

It brought to an end a quite rewarding association of both players with the Dutch giants, one which had seen Louis Van Gaal’s side lift the previous year’s trophy, before mounting an impressive bid to retain.

Ahead of Ajax's UCL clash against Juventus on Wednesday, Goal look back at that final meeting between the two giants 23 years ago, and the role played by two Super Eagles superstars.

Drawn in the group stage alongside Real Madrid, as well as Swiss and Hungarian champions Grasshopper and Ferencvaros, the Dutch side were near perfect. They dropped only two points en route to topping the group, doing the double over Real Madrid in the process.

Away at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in particular, the Dutch champions had been masterful, with wing maestro Finidi in brilliant form. A delightful reverse ball set up Jari Litmanen to open the scoring, and he was again involved in the move for the second goal.

The Finn would finish the season as the competition’s top scorer, and his spectacular link-up with the Nigeria international had a lot to do with it: he set him up again in the 4-0 thumping of Ferencvaros at home, after a powerful run in-behind and a teasing cross to the near post.

Often the provider, the winger also got his scoring boots wet, getting on the score sheet against Grasshopper, further underlining his influence within the side.

For his part, Kanu began the campaign as starting striker, and seemed entirely in tune with what was required by the system, but was unable to find the back of the net in the first two games. Although Van Gaal frequently insisted that the job of scoring goals was to be shared across the side, Patrick Kluivert’s impact off the bench effectively forced his hand. Kanu would not get another start until the quarter-final meeting with Borussia Dortmund, and that only due to a suspension to Litmanen.

As such, the decision to start Kanu over Kluivert in the final against Juventus was peak Van Gaal, prizing the fluency and tactical integrity of his side above all else. It was also a risk, as he had not scored in the competition at all.

Conversely, Finidi’s place was cast in stone, for all intents and purposes, and he was expected to impose himself in much the same way he had in the win at the Bernabeu, a performance that left Quique Sanchez Flores, then a rampaging left-back, positively shaken.

It did not quite go to plan, however.

On the night, Juventus ran over their opponents, physically dominant and full of energetic running. Finidi would describe their intensity as “not normal [for a game] at the end of the season”, and he felt the brunt of it particularly acutely, enduring a thoroughly frustrating evening.

Left-back Gianluca Pessotto stuck to him like a limpet mine, denying him space to either turn or even breathe, and provoking him into a rash challenge which led to a booking.

Often forced back and denied a chance on the outside, Finidi was at his least effective up to that point in the competition.

In the centre, Kanu had a battle of his own going against wily 37-year-old stopper Pietro Vierchowod, one of the finest defenders of his generation and a player whom Diego Maradona famously described as “an animal” to play against.

Yet, it did not matter to the Nigerian, who adapted as the game wore on and, after initially seeming overmatched, began to exert his influence by his one-touch play and underrated strength. It was he who won the free-kick that led to Ajax’s leveller just before half-time in Rome.

The dream to unify would ultimately fall short, as Juventus won on penalties, and that great Juventus side would be broken up: Finidi narrowly missed out on a move to Real Madrid, before joining Real Betis, while Kanu moved to Inter Milan.

That night, sombre as the outcome turned out to be, also created another piece of unintended history: it was the last time a Champions League final featured two Nigeria internationals.