Football: European Cup Final: Desailly a formidable first line of defence: Henry Winter on the French international who holds the key to an Italian fortress

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The Independent Online
FEW national institutions have been as indebted to flamboyant foreigners as Milan.

Founded by white-flannelled English ex-pats as stumps were drawn on the last century and propelled through the fabulous Fifties by a Swedish triumvirate, Milan were raised to almost Alpine heights by another outstanding trio, this time from the Netherlands, as they swept to consecutive European Cups in 1989 and 1990. Yet tonight in Athens, understrength and facing the Continent's most prodigious attack, Milan turn for reassurance to an unsung import, who rarely ventures far over the half-way line.

Marcel Desailly, born in Ghana 25 years ago but now possessing six French caps, is probably surprised to be a pounds 400,000-a-year employee in the glamorous footballing arm of Silvio Berlusconi's multi-tentacled empire. The Accra anchorman, versatile enough to bolster France's defence and Milan's midfield, began the season at Marseille, whom he helped to a Champions' Cup victory over his present colleagues in Munich last May. Marseille, their finances in disarray, had to hawk the family silver, so Desailly found himself at the San Siro in November.

In normal times, the Rossoneri, restricted by Italy's three-foreigner rule, would not have recruited such a defensive-minded non-national, but Desailly's strong performance in Munich, allied to the links between Berlusconi and Bernard Tapie, Marseille's president, eased the deal through.

Despite initial scepticism that the transfer arose simply from a hard-up Tapie calling in a favour, Desailly's signing proved opportune as Milan's foreign legion, traditionally so influential, had become a dishevelled force.

Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit had departed while the one Dutchman to remain, Marco van Basten, strayed no further than the treatment table. Brian Laudrup and Florin Raducioiu, the two newcomers, have been used sparingly, a disappointing Jean-Pierre Papin is leaving while Dejan Savicevic and Zvonimir Boban have only recently convinced Fabio Capello, Milan's coach of their commitment and capabilities.

His attack and creative sources emasculated by departures, injuries and loss of form, Capello was forced to rely on defensive parsimony to ensure success domestically and in Europe. Helped by Desailly, a tactic of prevention before invention worked: only 15 goals were conceded en route to a third successive championship, and just two on the road to Athens.

Milan's back line are grateful to Desailly for his industry and tackling. Stationed just in front of central defence, the new No 4 protects the ageing Franco Baresi, whose fading pace can leave him vulnerable to quick attackers. Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta are suspended tonight, but Desailly will continue his high-class bouncer role for Filippo Galli and Paolo Maldini.

With a boxer's torso attached to telescopic legs, Desailly is built for winning possession. His distribution skills have improved but are not yet in the class of Frank Rijkaard, his predecessor in the holding role. Capello now prizes his ever-willing colossus so much he wants to extend the contract of a man he calls a 'real star' beyond 1997 - to Desailly's delight.

'He's fitted in very quietly and confidently,' Joe Jordan, a Milan player in the early Eighties, said yesterday. 'He's avoided all the confetti that goes with a big foreign signing, and acclimatised very well. Milan go out and find the best players for certain positions, which they have done with him.'

Although favouring his midfield assignment, Desailly entered the professional ranks as a defender, first at Nantes, whom he joined aged 12, then at Marseille. At the Stade Velodrome, the tall, athletic Desailly matured into an international defender. When Milan beckoned, Desailly moved forward - but not far. Reverting to defence last week, Desailly appeared ill at ease, especially in judging offsides - a tactic likely to be vital against Barcelona.

Desailly's task will be to strangle Catalan incursions at source. Corners entice him forward, his heading, as he showed in the semi-final victory over Monaco, a powerful weapon in Milan's varied armoury.

Barca have been warned: the forehead of Basile Boli, another West African-born French international defender with Marseille connections, settled last year's final.