Football: Job for the boy Paolo

Simon O'Hagan assesses a peerless performer who still has a point to prove
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The Independent Online
He Is routinely described as the best defender in the world. Among his contemporaries, his admirers say, there is no competition. Only figures of the stature of Beckenbauer or Moore are worthy of comparison. Yet Paolo Maldini goes into this week's World Cup qualifier against England with something to prove.

For everyone involved in the Italian national team, a new phase of evolution is under way, but of nobody is this more true than Italy's captain and greatest ever left-back now that his father Cesare has taken over as coach from Arrigo Sacchi. The nepotism question simply doesn't arise. Paolo's right to be in the side is not in doubt. But it's also the case that Maldini's form - by his own impeccable standards - has been in a trough since before the start of the season, and that if Italy are to reclaim their place among football's aristocracy then they need Maldini back to his princely best.

Part of the problem is that Maldini, still only 28, has been at the top for so long. He made his league debut for Milan at the age of 16, his international debut, against Yugoslavia in Split in 1989, when he was 19. He has never missed more than eight games in any of his 12 seasons.

With Milan, Maldini has won five Italian championships and three European Cups. He has played 75 times for Italy - through an era which saw a young team come to prominence in the 1988 European Championship, fail gloriously as hosts in the 1990 World Cup, and lose on penalties to Brazil in the 1994 World Cup final, a match generally reckoned to have been among Maldini's finest couple of hours.

Then came Euro 96, when Sacchi's midguidedness in changing a winning team led to elimination at the group stage. Unsettled by Sacchi's rejection of the native ways of caution and counter-attack in favour of an alien, pressing game, the Italians performed far below their best. Notable among them was Maldini, who began the tournament by being given a torrid time by Andrei Kanchelskis in the 2-1 win over Russia at Anfield, and never recovered.

Decline at club level was to follow. Under Fabio Capello, Milan had dominated European football, setting new standards of sophisticated achievement, and Maldini's command of his role as a supreme footballer who just happened to play on the left side of the defence was an integral part. But last summer Capello left for Real Madrid, and the years have suddenly caught up with a Milan team who failed to qualify for the knock-out stage of the Champions' Cup and are mid-table in the Italian League. The return of Sacchi to Milan, where he was coach in Maldini's early years, has not gone down well with some senior players, and Maldini has been troubled by a fractured cheekbone.

Of course, when it comes to Maldini, all things are relative. "Even two- thirds of Maldini is still better than anyone else because you don't just lose a talent like his," says Giancarlo Galavotti, the London correspondent of La Gazetta dello Sport. "It's more a question of how much he wants to do well."

Ray Wilkins, who overlapped with a young Maldini during his three years at Milan in the late 1980s, believes he still has everything, but that the appointment of Maldini snr "will be just the spur he needs" to bring his son back to his best form. "It's come at a perfect time in his career," Wilkins said. "Players do stagnate at times." But Maldini's greatness, according to Wilkins, is still undeniable. "He's got everything," he said. "Two great feet, strength in the air, pace. He defends wonderfully well on both sides, and can score goals. It's difficult to say how you should play against him because he really has no weaknesses. You just have to try to make his life as uncomfortable as possible."

Even at the low-point of Milan's season - the 2-1 defeat at home to the Norwegians from Rosenborg in the Champions' League - Maldini still stood out. Stefan Iversen, now at Tottenham Hotspur, was in the Rosenborg side that night and remembers that Maldini was Milan's best player. "He's very tough," Iversen said. "The best defender I've played against."

So why has Maldini spent his career playing in one of the least conspicuous areas on the pitch? "When you're growing up in Italy you're given a position and they make sure you learn it," Wilkins said. And as the son of a model Italian footballer - Cesare captained Italy and was a member of the Milan team that won four championships and one European Cup in the late 1950s and early 1960s - Maldini has been a model professional himself, adored by Italians for his unusual combination of glamour and moral probity. Last week photographs of him and his wife Adriana with their baby Christian, taken at the boy's christening, were all over the front covers.

"It was always obvious that Paolo had been given a very good upbringing," Wilkins said. "He's a super chap, just like his father." And if Paolo wants to do well for anybody, he'll want to do it for him.

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