Close-up: Gianluca Vialli: Revivalist at Bridgehead

Juve's pied piper is primed for a swansong in the European Cup final. Ian Ridley studies an Italian with English designs

The latest bulletin from Stamford Bridge, which probably differs from last week's and may do from tomorrow's, suggests that the money is in place for Ruud Gullit to make Gianluca Vialli his first signing. Perhaps Chelsea are seeking another player-coach to go with Gullit.

Vialli, whose swansong for Juventus is expected to be this Wednesday's European Cup final against Ajax in Rome, is in the Gullit mould of player: intelligent man, unimpressed by authority - notably that of the Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi - if he deems it at odds with his own ideas on football and the world. Stand by for yet more views from the Bridge.

Chelsea supporters will deserve some excitement to go with the intrigue should Gullit get his man. Season ticket prices are rising by 21 per cent with the pounds 654 for the best seats the highest in the Premiership. The money will help pay Vialli, a beneficiary of the Bosman ruling, a reported pounds 1m signing-on fee and an annual salary of at least that much to match his present remuneration. This for a player, at 32 in six weeks, with no resale value.

Any deal for Vialli would illustrate the current financial quandary of the English game. It may save money on fees, which circulate, but it is in danger of wasting on wages its new-found wealth gleaned from television money and increasing ticket prices before it wakes up to the Bosman implications.

All of which will probably be seen as subsidiary if Chelsea receive some return on the field during Vialli's proposed two-year contract. He will have to prove himself more than a Serie A reject out for a couple of enjoyable twilight years in the lavish dumping ground of London but, as a good start, he is understood to want to avoid such an image of him developing.

Vialli is apparently concerned that Chelsea may not be good enough to compete for honours and is seeking assurances about their buying plans. He would probably prefer to sign for Arsenal, as recent telephone conversations with David Platt might indicate, though Bruce Rioch is thought to be sceptical, given Vialli's age.

The best offer, to which he will give his answer by next Friday, is from Rangers: pounds 1.8m a year, after tax, for three years. London, though, is his preferred home after Turin, where he would ideally like to remain but considers Juventus's offer of a one-year deal without a pay rise as unworthy. A goal on Wednesday may alter the thinking.

The evidence of the last two years suggests that Vialli still has much to contribute, as he insists he does. Finally Juve, the grand "Old Lady" of Italian football, have broken the dominance of the starlet Milan and at the centre of the revival, giving the team its heartbeat, has been Vialli.

Vialli joined Juventus from Sampdoria in the summer of 1992 for a fee of pounds 12m, which was a world record for a few weeks until Milan paid Torino pounds 13m for Gianluigi Lentini. A broken bone in his foot restricted Vialli's appearances over the next two seasons, however, and he spent more time receiving treatment than the adulation of the Stadio delle Alpi.

At the start of last season, fully fit at last, he acknowledged he owed the club. He was to pay in full, being voted World Player of the Year in the process. In tandem with Roberto Baggio and with Fabrizio Ravanelli developing into more than the clumsy striker he at first appeared, Juve were a potent attacking force and the Scudetto was secured for a record 23rd time, the club's first for nine years. In also winning the cup, they became only the fourth club to do the double.

Vialli was the most potent, his 17 league goals only two short of his best-ever return - 19, the best in the league - as Sampdoria became champions in 1990-91. A muscular presence, honed by a devotion to weight training, was now allied to clever movement off the ball - as seen in enabling Paulo Sousa to score the clinching goal against Nantes in the semi-final - and a subtle touch as he showed himself a perceptive, all-round player. "He is," says the Juventus owner, Gianni Agnelli, "the Michelangelo of the Sistine Chapel. A sculptor who can transform himself into a painter."

This season, Juventus's form domestically has been patchy but the European Cup has always been the aim and though much attention has been focused on the rising young prodigy Alessandro del Piero, scorer of six European goals, Vialli has again been the talisman, easing the strain on the 21- year-old.

Vialli will surely recognise the burden on Del Piero, who will have to shoulder many of the high Italian hopes for Euro 96. He himself was exposed at a young age to the professional game. At 16 he made his debut for his home town team, Cremonese and at 20 was transferred to Sampdoria for pounds 1.8m.

All curly hair and instinctive goal-scoring talent, he was an important figure in the 1986 Italian team who beat England to reach the final of the European Under-21 tournament, in which they lost to Spain on penalties. Vialli was among the number the manager Azeglio Vicini took with him to the European Championship finals of 1988 and, though the Italians flattered to deceive, Vialli produced a memorable moment to score the goal which gave senior revenge over Spain in Frankfurt.

Vicini persevered with him at Italia '90, bringing him back after injury for the semi-final against Argentina in place of Baggio. It was a mistake and brought much criticism as Italy were beaten. Vicini's successor Arrigo Sacchi never felt constrained to show the same loyalty and a mutual mistrust greater even than Venables's for Le Tissier, Aime Jacquet's for Cantona, developed. Gullit, in self-imposed exile from the Dutch team, will recognise the syndrome.

It seemed the feud might end last year when Sacchi announced that his players deemed a recall in order for Vialli, who won the last of the 59 caps that yielded 16 goals - 11th in the Italian all-time list - in December 1992. Vialli's response was that surely it was for the coach, not the players, to decide. Neither did criticism of a national team performance endear him, and Italy will come to Euro 96 without him.

His absence there will give Wednesday's appearance on the European stage more meaning, its importance fuelled by defeat in his last match for Sampdoria after eight glorious years, when they were beaten by Barcelona in the 1992 Champions' Cup final at Wembley.

Its significance is huge, too, for Juventus, who previously won the trophy in 1985 amid the tragedy of Heysel and have considered it an empty victory. In the full, mature figure of Vialli, they may have an antidote to Ajax.

How the European Cup finalists compare

Ajax

Possible team (3-5-2): Van der Sar; Silooy, Blind, Bogarde; George, F De Boer, R. De Boer, Davids, Wooter; Kanu, Litmanen.

How they got there: Group matches: beat Real Madrid 1-0 (h), 2-0 (a); bt Ferencvaros 4-0 (h), 5-1 (a); bt Grasshopper Zurich 3-0 (h), drew 0- 0 (a). Quarter- finals: bt Borussia Dortmund 3-0 on agg (2-0 h, 1-0 a). Semi-finals: bt Panathinaikos 3-1 on agg (0-1 h, 3-0 a).

Strengths: Enthusiasm and energy of youth. Teamwork, splendid technique, tactically innovative.

Weaknesses: Can look ponderous at times and without an outstanding dribbler to change the game, if their passing game is shut down, they can be ineffective. Kluivert likely to be on bench.

Juventus

Possible team (4-4-2): Peruzzi; Ferrara, Vierchowod, Carrera, Pessotto; Di Livio, Paulo Sousa, Deschamps, Del Piero; Vialli, Ravanelli.

How they got there: Group matches: bt Borussia Dortmund 3-1 (a), lost 1-2 (h); beat Rangers 4-1 (h), 4-0 (a); bt Steaua Bucharest 3-0 (h), drew 0-0 (a). Quarter-finals: bt Real Madrid 2-1 on agg (lost 1-0 a, won 2-0 h). Semi-finals: bt Nantes 4-3 on agg (won 2-0 h, lost 3-2 a).

Strengths: Physically powerful with high work-rate allied to a mixed game of close passing and direct thrust. Unpredictable talents of Alessandro del Piero also give them a different dimension.

Weaknesses: Their defence is more porous than normally associated with Italian sides.

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