Andrei Shevchenko quickly plucks a memory that he has been storing for 16 years when asked about his thoughts on Liverpool. The Milan striker's mind goes back to a tournament in north Wales. He was just 12 and arrived as part of a Dynamo Kiev youth team after being spotted playing football in his home village of Dvirkivshchyna, not far from Chernobyl (he and his family were deeply affected by the evacuation that followed the nuclear disaster).
The game did not mean so much to Shevchenko then. He describes himself as an uninterested schoolboy at times and had already been passed up by a specialist sports school for failing a dribbling test, while his father envisaged his son following him into the military. But meeting a certain Ian Rush may have helped tip the balance.
"At that time, when I was a young child, many games played by Liverpool were shown on television and we all watched English football and idolised the best players," Shevchenko said. "Also we saw Arsenal and Manchester United but Liverpool were a big team at that time and, as a striker, I admired Rush very much for the way he always kept cool when he was given the chance to score."
It is a shared trait. Indeed, Shevchenko starred in that competition and another in Aberdeen, despite being a year younger than the other children. He was named player of the tournament, his team won both titles, and Shevchenko was presented with a pair of football boots by Rush. Unfortunately they were too small. "Sheva" - as the Ukrainian is known - wore them, and "treasured" them just the same. "I knew a lot about him after that," he said of Rush who vied with Oleg Blokhin, Igor Belanov and Alexander Zavarov as one of Shevchenko's "heroes".
Liverpool fans also know a lot about Shevchenko. Rafael Benitez may, publicly, say "it would be a mistake to think about only Shevchenko" because Milan have too many "key players" but along with Kaka he is surely the one most preoccupying the Liverpool manager's thoughts before tomorrow's Champions' League final in Istanbul.
He should be. For not only has Shevchenko a scoring record that nudges towards one in every two games, a record he has sustained in all but one of his six years in Serie A, but, more importantly, he is adored by the rossoneri because he scores at crucial times. The big stage is often seized as it was two years ago when Milan won the European Cup in Manchester. He scored the decisive penalty in the shoot-out, becoming the first Ukrainian to win the competition and asked Milan if he could parade the trophy back in Kiev.
That match also represented a landmark in the 28-year-old's career. It gave him his first title since arriving from Dynamo for £16m in 1999 and helped him rediscover his goalscoring form. Indeed, 2002-3 was the only season it has ever wavered, when he scored just five goals. Unsurprisingly, Shevchenko says there is less "pressure" this time round because the team has "come a long way" since that victory.
Shevchenko is also unusual in that the goals he scores come in a variety of forms (and he works hard to get them with Blokhin, now Ukraine's coach, calling him the team's "locomotive"). Of Shevchenko's first 100 goals in Italy - 36 were struck with his right foot, 17 with his left, 26 with his head, two from free-kicks and 19 from the penalty spot. Statistics for Jamie Carragher and Sami Hyypia to ponder. Which way should they show him? It really doesn't matter.
Little wonder then that the tifosi quickly noted his South American style of finishing - adopting the nickname of "White Ronaldo" (first given to him by Valery Lobanovsky) and "Shevagol" (an adaptation of the "Batigol" tag earned by Argentina's Gabriel Batistuta). And they sang. "He may not be Brazilian but he scores like one in a million!" rang out and Shevchenko scored 24 times to become the first non-Italian to win the capocanoniere (top scorer) in his first season. This season he has 23 goals, including six in Europe, a superb return given he had 46 days out with a broken cheekbone.
But speaking at the Milanello, Milan's vast, secluded training camp in the hills towards the Swiss border, Shev-chenko is unstintingly respectful. "I don't fear defenders but all our team has to be careful about Liverpool," he maintained despite Milan's overwhelming status as favourites to win the cup for a seventh time. " It is not a battle between the forwards, between Shevchenko and Liverpool's defenders. It is a battle of all the senses. It is one team against the other. It is one coach against the other and so all the players count as much as each other."
Shevchenko is also, he said, not surprised to see Liverpool in the final. "Despite Liverpool not playing in the final for 20 years, if they have reached it now it is because they deserve to," he said. "So we must be very careful against this way of playing football. In the Champions' League Liverpool have always performed in a good way so obviously they are a good team."
The "way of playing football" he alludes to is part of the Milanese theme that Liverpool - like other English teams such as Chelsea, they claim - are overly defensive. The attacking impetus, the Italians feel, will have to be provided by them but they also know that Liverpool overcame Juventus who have just beaten Milan to the Scudetto.
There is one exception to the defensive theme. Steven Gerrard. "I love the way he plays," Shevchenko said. "The way he approaches the game - I like the fact that he plays direct. He gets the ball forward and wants to put the opposition under pressure."
Both could have been team-mates at Chelsea, the club that Liverpool defeated to reach the final and deny Shevchenko a meeting with Roman Abramovich, the man who so covets him. The Russian even turned up at the ceremony last December at which Shevchenko was named European Footballer of the Year - only the third Ukrainian to receive the honour after Blokhin and Belanov - and has made no secret of his desire to bring him to Stamford Bridge.
It is not likely to happen despite the fact that Shevchenko often calls Abramovich and is equally admiring. But Silvio Berlusconi has made clear he would rather "cut off my arms and legs" than sell and the day after Abramovich flew to Milan to attempt to buy the player last summer, Shevchenko was awarded a dizzying pay rise and a contract that takes him up to 2009.
Still Shevchenko remains a fan of English football. "When I am at Milanello with the team we usually watch the English Premier League," he said. The final, therefore, is "a great opportunity for me to play against an English team at the highest level".
He was injured when Milan knocked out Manchester United earlier in the competition which makes him all the more determined to play against Liverpool. Does that mean he would like to contest matches with the Merseyside club on a regular basis? "I can't say whether I will play in England one day," is Shevchenko's response. It is an answer which may prick up the ears of Abramovich. Tomorrow night viewers will see why he remains so interested.Reuse content