The memory can play tricks, so perhaps it was not so. But, in my mind at least, it was probably the finest football Italy ever produced under Arrigo Sacchi. For about 45 minutes, everything clicked and all the teachings he had tried to translate from Milan to La Nazionale fell into place. The victims were Bulgaria, the setting a World Cup semi-final.
It wouldn’t last, of course. This was a tournament which, from an Italian perspective, had more squeaky bum moments than a man in shorts squirming on a leather chair. The Azzurri did not do anything in a straightforward fashion at USA ‘94.
Remember Ray Houghton’s belter that looped over Gianluca Pagliuca? Roberto Baggio threading the eye of the needle to help pull off the improbable elimination of Nigeria? Mauro Tassotti’s brutal elbow on Luis Enrique to fend off Spain? It was a competition with more terrifying moments than a dinner date with Walter Samuel.
Yet, for a moment at least, we glimpsed the Elysian fields. A blessed place where a top club coach could successfully impose his methods on a national team. The impact of the day-to-day indoctrination of the league manager finally achieved via the more sporadic interventions allowed in the international game.
I have overthought this a little haven’t I? Or, at least, charged it with a little more significance than it actually possessed at the time. Nonetheless, at a distance of nearly 20 years, I do recall it as some of the best football Arrigo’s Azzurri ever played.
Looking back on the match now, I was not far wrong - at least for a golden spell midway through the first half. Italy swept forward and it was, of course, the irresistible Baggio who put the Bulgarians to the sword. Who knows what he might have done if he had reached the final fully fit?
His first was a perfect examplar of balance and poise. From a Donadoni throw-in on the left wing, he turned one defender and skipped past another before spinning a pinpoint shot into the bottom right corner of the net. Like all great champions, he had made the desperately difficult look laughably easy.
After that it was the Azzurri show. Demetrio Albertini, Milan’s midfield metronome, had two chances to extend the lead - hitting the woodwork and provoking a fine save - before he turned provider for Baggio’s second. He sliced the opposition apart like a salami salesman at the local supermercato.
It was an exquisite chip through the Bulgarian defence which sat up invitingly for The Divine Ponytail to strike. And, when he was in such form, Roby needed no second invitation to thump home a perfect finish. “It is a great, great Italia. We are playing a great game,” enthused Bruno Pizzul in the commentary box.
But the wheels would come loose - and in danger of falling off - before half time. Hristo Stoichkov converted a penalty and the old doubts and nerves started to creep in. The free-flowing football of a the golden spell in the first half was replaced by an increasingly disjointed display.
In my eyes, at the time at least, the Azzurri clung on for a win they deserved for their early efforts but not everyone sees it that way. From a Bulgarian standpoint, the match is remembered as something of a robbery. Certainly, they could easily have had a second penalty when Billy Costacurta handled inside his own box. And that was definitely a fine Bulgarian side.
It was Italy, however, who went on to that famous final lost to Brazil on penalty kicks. Sacchi carried on after that, taking the Blues to Euro ‘96 in England where his bizarre tinkering with a winning team cost them group qualification. It was to be the last act of a spell which rarely saw him replicate the thrilling football with the national team he had made his trademark in Milan. The exception, perhaps, was that glorious half hour or so in the Giants Stadium in July.