Football: European Cup Final: Milan feel the heat of Barcelona and Berlusconi: Spanish champions threaten to inflict another disappointment on Italy's premier club. Phil Shaw reports from Athens on a manager who may not be able to afford another failure

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The Independent Online
SILVIO BERLUSCONI regrets he will not be able to attend the Olympic stadium here tonight. As the recently elected Prime Minister of Italy, the president of Milan has an engagement even more pressing than a potentially memorable European Cup final against Barcelona: his first parliamentary vote of confidence.

So pervasive is Berlusconi's influence that yesterday, as temperatures soared into the 80s in the Greek capital, he still cast a sizeable shadow over proceedings. Why else would the Italian media harry Fabio Capello, the Milan coach, so persistently over whether he feared for his job in the event of defeat?

Capello was sanguine in the face of their inquisition, claiming that he did not believe 'one final won or lost' would decide his future. 'After all,' he added, 'we've just won the championship for the third year running.' But Berlusconi's ambitions, in football as in business, extend beyond the frontiers of Italy, and Capello's recent record does not entirely square with his employer's image as a winner.

In the past year Milan have contested three finals - in the Champions' Cup, the European Super Cup plus the World Club Championship - and lost the lot. Add the fact that such makeweights as Reggiana and Piacenza have damaged their domestic reputation of late, and it becomes clear that the meeting with Johan Cruyff's newly crowned Spanish champions may represent a watershed for the sporting arm of Berlusconi's empire.

Uniquely in Milan's modern history, Capello was anxious to claim the status of underdogs, believing it would offer his team 'a psychological advantage'. Almost like a British manager, he also argued for the need to counter Barcelona's skills with determination and aggression. While such statements usually have more to do with kidology than reality, the case for nominating Barcelona to win the Continent's premier prize for only the second time is indeed hard to resist.

Milan's Dutch dimension, which did so much to promote their hegemony under Arrigo Sacchi, is no more. That much they knew going into last month's semi-final with Monaco, though the suspensions suffered by the linchpins of Capello's back four, Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, as a result of incidents that night were the stuff of nightmares, following as they did the long-term injuries to Marco Van Basten and Stefano Eranio.

Milan are still left with a squad any coach would kill for, comprising virtually two complete first teams. Where there is the supremely gifted Paolo Maldini there is always hope, and the extent of their resources is underlined by the presence of Denmark's Brian Laudrup, no less, as cover for Zvonimir Boban should the Croatian fail to shrug off a thigh strain.

The resilience and brilliance they displayed in beating Monaco 3-0, despite being reduced to 10 men before half-time, also shows the folly of writing off Milan. However, when it comes to flair, one flash of which is generally enough to settle such cat-and- mouse contests, Barcelona appear to have a clear edge.

The leading marksmen in the Champions' League, they have scored two goals for every one Milan have managed this season (although they have also conceded twice as many). Ronald Koeman, who showed in the semi-final victory over Porto that he also scores long-distance goals from open play, is the competition's top scorer despite his defensive duties.

Yet it is to his front two that Cruyff will look for the magic to expose Milan's mortality. Since the Catalans first lifted the trophy two years ago, beating Sampdoria at Wembley in a Spanish-Italian affair of consummate quality, Cruyff has gone back to his native Netherlands to prise the Brazilian, Romario, away from PSV Eindhoven as partner to Bulgaria's Hristo Stoichkov. Romario, who took his haul of goals to 30 in Sunday's title-clinching win over Seville, has his coach's old ability to drop deep to lose defenders or play with his back to goal and link with players pouring out of the centre.

With both full-backs pushing up, it may look at times as if Barcelona are playing a 2-6-2 formation. For variation, they expect Josep Guardiola and Koeman to hit long passes exploiting their strikers' pace.

Barca's sense of adventure can leave them vulnerable to the occasional calamity. There was a Spanish Cup defeat by Betis, of the Second Division, as well as a 6-3 reverse at Zaragoza. So much will depend on whether they feel sufficiently unconstrained to play with their customary, almost dangerous disdain for defence; and on whether Milan, adhering to their tried and trusted 4-4-2 and a British-style pressing game, can create enough openings of their own.

A test, therefore, of Milan's strength in depth and Capello's capacity to outwit the enduring champion of Total Football. A test too, perhaps, for Signor Berlusconi's patience as he takes time off from political football and settles down to watch the real thing on television.

PATH TO THE FINAL

BARCELONA

1st rd: Dynamo Kiev 3 Barcelona 1; Barcelona 4 Dynamo Kiev 1 (agg: 5-4).

2nd rd: Barcelona 3 Austria Vienna 0; Austria Vienna 1 Barcelona 2 (5-1).

Group stage: 24 Nov Galatasaray 0 Barcelona 0. 8 Dec Barcelona 2 Monaco 0. 2 Mar Spartak Moscow 2 Barcelona 2. 16 Mar Barcelona 5 Spartak Moscow 1. 30 Mar Barcelona 3 Galatasaray 0. 13 April Monaco 0 Barcelona 1.

Semi-final Barcelona 3 Porto 0.

MILAN

1st rd: Aarau 0 Milan 1; Milan 0 Aarau 0 (agg: 1-0).

2nd rd: Copenhagen 0 Milan 6; Milan 1 Copenhagen 0 (7-0).

Group stage: 24 Nov Anderlecht 0 Milan 0. 1 Dec Milan 3 Porto 0. 2 Mar Milan 2 Werder Bremen 1. 16 Mar Werder Bremen 1 Milan 1. 30 Mar Milan 0 Anderlecht 0. 13 Apr: Porto 0 Milan 0.

Semi-final: Milan 3 Monaco 0.

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