Football: Milan show Ferguson magnitude of his task

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ARE you watching, Manchester? In the unlikely event that Alex Ferguson was labouring under any illusions about the heights to which United must aspire if they are ever to relive Sir Matt Busby's dream of conquering a continent, Milan's 4-0 humbling of Barcelona in Athens will have dispelled them.

The European Cup final should be a showcase for the finest talents of the age, its winners epitomising all that is best in football. Those were the standards set by Real Madrid with their five consecutive victories from 1955, ideals which too few of their successors - with the glorious exception of Ajax - have striven to uphold.

Now, 34 years after Real's epoch-closing 7-3 mauling of Eintracht Frankfurt, another team in white have conjured a performance that will be remembered almost as fondly in Madrid as in Milan. After the negativity and cynicism which gained ground in the Sixties and have been manifested in modern finals by the Steaua Bucharests and Red Star Belgrades, Milan reasserted the values which gave the Champions' Cup its original allure.

Not quite the Beautiful Game, a pure form which these days exists only on Brazilian beaches or in the realm of nostalgia, but certainly Total Football of a kind. Johan Cruyff was, of course, the pivotal power in the Ajax and Netherlands sides who pioneered that concept, which made it all the more galling for the Barcelona coach as Milan demonstrated their renewed vitality at the favourites' expense.

The theory, to which Cruyff and his players evidently subscribed, was that the Italian champions were in a transitional trough under Fabio Capello. Sure, they had won Serie A again, but the swagger which Arrigo Sacchi's Dutch triumvirate had brought to their play seemed to have given way to functionalism, personified by the vice-like tackling of Marcel Desailly, and fitful displays of flair, the domain of Dejan Savicevic.

What become obvious on Wednesday was that there are actually two Milans - and not merely in the sense that Capello has a squad of two dozen 'first-team' players. On one hand, the relatively unconvincing team who mustered just 36 league goals; on the other, the thrillingly fluid attacking force who inflicted even worse damage on the new Spanish champions than they had on Monaco in the semi-final.

Fascinatingly, the platform for Milan's majesty remains an English-style 4-4-2 formation, though with little of the rigidity United are accustomed to encountering. The stand-in central defenders, Paolo Maldini and Filippo Galli, sensibly confined themselves to subduing Hristo Stoichkov and Romario. The contrast with Ronald Koeman, who seldom looks at ease when forced to defend, proved telling.

But the unsung left-back, Christian Panucci, typified Milan's flexibility. Signed as a right-back from Genoa last summer, he revealed a penchant for going forward which the Catalans dismally failed to cope with, and had already had a 'goal' unluckily disallowed before Savicevic took over.

After making the first goal for Daniele Massaro and joining in the build-up to another by the same player, Savicevic effectively killed the contest with a sumptuous solo effort after the interval. Desailly curled the fourth before the hour.

Some will argue that United need not be unduly concerned. After all, Arsenal took the Cup-Winners' Cup from a technically superior Parma, who have proved more than a match for Capello's men lately. However, one of the most daunting aspects about Milan, at least in big European games, is their willingness to graft like a British team.

Alex Ferguson, who described Milan's performance as both 'magnificent' and 'frightening', was already intent upon a summer of major expenditure to help his Double winners meet the challenge of the Champions' League. It is a fair bet that he will now be readjusting his sights to still bigger and bolder targets.