Football: Italian hitmen set for Wembley reunion

Marco Branca used to play alongside Vialli, but is planning to ruin his big day. Simon Turnbull on the new Boro hero
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The Independent Online
MIDDLESBROUGH never has been the best of places for the football sons of Italy. It was at the late Ayresome Park that North Korea inflicted the defeat which sent the World Cup Azzurri of 1966 home to a bombardment by tomatoes at Genoa airport. Then, of course, there was la penna bianca.

Teesside was tickled at first by the White Feather. Thrice on his debut day against Liverpool at the start of last season Fabrizio Ravanelli performed his trademark goal celebration. But the man from Perugia could not pull the wool - or the synthetic fibres - over the eyes of the Riverside crowd for long.

He might have been rather fond of throwing the arrows on the oche of his local, the King's Head in Hutton Rudby, but it became clear through the course of last season that Ravanelli simply wanted to take his Middlesbrough money and run.

He wrote his name in the club history books with the goal that would have beaten Leicester City in the Coca Cola Cup final a year ago, had Emile Heskey, "Bruno" to the Filbert Street faithful, not delivered an equalising punchline deep into extra time.

Ravanelli remains the one and only player to have scored a goal for Middlesbrough at Wembley. He is, though, remembered at the Riverside more for the dressing- room unrest he caused as Boro strove in vain to preserve their Premiership status and then returned to the Twin Towers as FA Cup final fodder for Chelsea.

Middlesbrough are back at Wembley tomorrow, to face Chelsea in this season's Coca- Cola Cup final, and once again they have an Italian in their vanguard.

Marco Branca has been a Boro boy for just five weeks, a pounds 1.3m signing from Internazionale. Already, though, he seems more settled on Teesside than his attacking predecessor ever was. Conducting a conference in passable if halting English at Middlesbrough's press day on Thursday afternoon, Branca certainly cut a strikingly different figure to Ravanelli, who never even bothered to grasp the rudiments of the language.

He formed a bright double act with the Italian who has been the most conspicuous success of Bryan Robson's overseas recruitment drive to date. Gianluca Festa, a stable influence in Middlesbrough's defence and in the dressing- room, was a team-mate of Branca before his own move from Milan in January last year.

"I think he give us a hand for winning the cup," Festa said, answering the inevitable question about Paul Gascoigne's arrival. "Speak in English," Robson quipped from the aisle.

The Italians laughed along with the audience and their departing "gaffer". Communication, clearly, is not the problem it once was at Middlesbrough. Robson is running an altogether happier ship down at the Riverside.

"I am here because I want to play in the Premiership," Branca said. "I was determined to come to England. I wanted a new experience, a different atmosphere."

He got that on his debut night at the Riverside, the return leg of the Coca-Cola Cup semi-final against Liverpool. And he responded with the fourth-minute goal, a right-foot shot through the legs of David James, that booked Middlesbrough's third trip to Wembley in 12 months.

Branca has scored five times in his eight games for Boro, including a bicycle kick against Swindon reminiscent of Dennis Tueart's League Cup final winner for Manchester City in 1976. He has, morever, looked every bit as graceful as his nickname suggests: la cigna, the swan.

"Marco has everything," Festa said. "He is fast. He has good feet. He's good in the air. He's good in the box. He also has good experience."

Branca, 32, was indeed a much travelled player in his homeland. From Grosetto, some 90 miles north of Rome on Italy's Mediterranean coastline, he played for Cagliari, Udinese (in three separate spells), Sampdoria, Fiorentina, Parma and Roma before joining Inter in 1996.

En route, he became closely acquainted with two notable members of the Chelsea set. Branca was Gianluca Vialli's attacking partner in the Sampdoria team that won the Serie A scudetto in 1991. He also played alongside Gianfranco Zola at Parma.

"I have kept in contact with them both," he said. "I spoke with Gianluca after the Liverpool semi-final but not before this match. He is very busy in his double job at Chelsea and I am busy in my new job here.

"But he told me it is very prestigious to be playing at Wembley. I believe him. I played there for Inter in the Makita tournament. It is also very prestigious for our fans. It is something very beautiful for them. I will be doing everything to make sure we win."

And that will add a new dimension as Boro bid for their first major trophy: an Italian striker fully committed to the cause.