European art to be shown at its best

Ian Ridley on the enthralling prospect of a Champions' Cup final revealing the essence of the Continental game
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The international bright young things from the Dutch capital and the revered "Old Lady" of Italian football. Tonight's European Cup final between Ajax and Juventus in Rome's Olympic Stadium is so pregnant with contrast and intrigue that an outstanding outcome would seem to be guaranteed.

What we should see is excellence rather than inflated excitement. This is a match to satiate tastes rather than just for satellite ones. One, too, that should offer the English game some insight into the task awaiting Manchester United next season and their ability to respond to it. For it is a confrontation which showcases the tactical and technical state of the art in Europe to aid Alex Ferguson as he ponders systems, formations and approaches.

Ajax have become the innovators of the game, much admired by the England coach, Terry Venables, for their ability to interchange positions, the team work, movement and passing. Though it remains true to its roots, it is not quite the "total football" of the mid-seventies even if tonight's encounter does recall the 1-0 triumph of Johan Cruyff et al over Juve in the 1973 final.

Its aim is to unsettle, to pull opposition out of position and consequently create space in which to pounce. The centreback Danny Blind is the lieutenant as he dictates the pace of the game from the back, Frank De Boer - expected to recover from an ankle injury - his batman, fetching and carrying from defence to midfield. There, the striker-from-deep Jari Litmanen, eight goals so far in the competition this season, feeds from a totem attacker.

At the Roma training ground yesterday, the Dutch were insisting that the role would be taken by the Nigerian Nwankwo Kanu, with the 19-year- old Patrick Kluivert a substitute, as whom he struck to score the winning goal against Milan last year.

Kluivert may indeed be familiar with the bench, having recently been sentenced to 240 hours of community service for his part in a road accident death, but one sensed again the capacity for a surprise, that he may yet start. "I feel fine," Kluivert, dismissing worries about his mental state, said. "A footballer wants to play 90 minutes."

After next season, the gifted Kluivert, powerful but with touch, will join Milan to where his fellow tiros Michael Reiziger, suspended tonight, and Edgar Davids are bound after the final. The theory of the Ajax system, appropriately for the venue, is that of the Roman military: when one soldier falls another takes his place.

The Ajax coach, Louis van Gaal, for whom Bobby Robson is thought to be keeping the seat warm at Barcelona, insists there is no frustration at constantly losing players. "It is a recognition of our players and the technical staff," he said. "It makes me proud. It means we are on a podium and everybody looks up to us."

Before Italian football seeks to take the Dutch from the trophy, for tonight it tries to take the trophy from the Dutch. Juventus will seek to counter the flexibility of Ajax with an organised back four and disciplined midfield, allied to a front line, at once physical and subtle.

Which is where Alessandro del Piero comes in. The 21-year-old, as Rangers have found to the considerable cost this season, is snake-like in his ability to glide into dangerous positions and strike in the open areas created by the intelligent running of Gianluca Vialli, whose swan-song for the Turin club this may be as he ponders a move to Glasgow or London, with Chelsea.

Vialli was saying nothing yesterday at the Juventus training camp across the city from Ajax, except what seemed to be his one word of English when asked about the prospect for the match: "Fifty-fifty".

The Portuguese Paulo Sousa is, too, a fast-breaking foil for Fabrizio Ravanelli.

The Juventus coach, Marcello Lippi, considers his team the underdogs, though their desire to win the trophy is fierce, given the hollowness of their previous victory, over Liverpool in the Heysel in 1985. This may not be the team of Michel Platini or from that era, but it is a shrewd and solid one, with a capacity for the inspired; certainly one not overawed by Ajax's glowing notices and novelties. "It is not important whether you play with four defenders and four midfield players, but it is important how they play and that we play our own game," Lippi said.

"If we can score an early goal, everything can happen," Van Gaal said. "If Juventus score, you can say they shut the door but Ajax every time will play an attacking, attractive style."

Perhaps, and impressive wins away to Real Madrid and Panathinaikos bear him out. But his charges also have the ability to tough out matches, too, as last year's final showed. This one, similarly, may not be thrilling, with Juventus also prepared to dig in for victory, but it should not fall short of enthralling.

AJAX (probable): Van der Sar; Blind, F De Boer, Silooy, Bogarde, R De Boer, Davids, George, Litmanen, Kanu, Musampa.

JUVENTUS (probable): Peruzzi; Torricelli, Pessotto, Vierchowod, Ferrara, Sousa, Deschamps, Conte, Del Piero, Ravanelli, Vialli.