Football: A Croatian ready to meet the might of Milan: Look out for Alen Boksic in this week's European Cup final. Jasper Rees reports

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The Independent Online
IN THE last fixture of the round-robin stage of the European Cup, PSV Eindhoven came to the San Siro and lost 2-0 to Milan, who had already qualified for the final and could afford to do without these 11 internationals in the starting line-up: Baresi, Rijkaard, Van Basten, Gullit, Papin, Lentini, Albertini, Serena, Eranio, Massaro, Tassotti. Can Bernard Tapie's Marseille, who will also attend the party at the Olympic Stadium in Munich on Wednesday, hope to be anything more than second best in Europe?

Line up the two likely teams man for man and you might as well hand over the trophy to the Italians before kick-off, except that not even Milan, blessed with such a surfeit of talent, know what their best team is. Marseille, meanwhile, have a settled side and, most important, a fearsomely in-form goalscorer who, according to informed opinion, bears comparison with the incomparable Marco van Basten.

Alen Boksic is a Croatian whom two years ago few outside the former Yugoslavia had heard of. He arrived from Hadjuk Split in July 1991 on the recommendation of Marseille's then coach, Tomislav Ivic. 'He was a strong player, very young,' says Trevor Steven, formerly of Marseille, now of Rangers. 'For six months we had him in training and you could see he had tremendous ability. They thought very highly of him but there was a limited number of foreigners who were allowed to play - myself, Waddle and Moser. He was unlucky not to be involved, but he knew that at the time.'

A short loan period to Cannes ran up against contractual difficulties and he ended the season having a hernia operation. But the departure of all three foreigners smoothed his path into the side. 'They had the idea to take advantage of the money they would receive for Papin, and he was seen as the replacement to come in somewhere down the road: he was only there for a year and then got his opportunity.'

Unlike the two prodigiously-talented Yugoslav exiles at Milan, Dejan Savicevic and Zvonomir Boban, Boksic has reaped the fruits of regular selection. The French summer recess being not much longer than the winter one, he started off slowly but hit his stride in the autumn, and in a championship which Marseille look like winning for the fifth successive year he has scored 20 goals. Doubts that he would keel over under the burden of filling Papin's golden boots have been eased by the arrival from Roma of Rudi Voller, with whom he gelled from the start. Any suggestion that he is benefiting from McCoist's Law, which decrees that a competent forward in the best side in a weak league will always end up with a hatful, is belied by his record in the European Cup. In seven games he has scored six times, all in the more demanding round-robin stage: two each against Rangers, Club Bruges, and CSKA Moscow.

'He's definitely got everything at his feet, so to speak, as far as ability's concerned,' says Steven. 'He's about 6ft 1n, great physique, he doesn't carry any weight. He's strong and he has good feet, and quick as well. He probably has everything that you could wish for. The only thing you could say he might be weak on would be his heading ability, but I think they'll probably work on that. He's very similar to Van Basten. Whether he'll pick up the deftness that Van Basten has remains to be seen: that's something that's gathered over the years. I would imagine he'll go to Italy before too long, and if he keeps it going the same way he'll do very well. I could envisage him going all the way to great things.'

In the meantime there is Wednesday's encounter with Papin's new club. As a Croatian who went as a squad player to the 1990 World Cup, this is as high a pinnacle as Boksic can expect to climb for the forseeable future. Will he be up to it?

'I think he could cause problems for anybody and Milan are as good a team as you're going to find,' Steven says. 'He'll find it difficult with Baresi controlling the back four but if he can break them down he can break anybody down. He's got the pace and the ability: I would be surprised if he's not a major influence on the game.'

(Photograph omitted)