Football: Salas exposes the game's defensive frailties

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A PHOTOGRAPH on the front page of yesterday's International Herald Tribune and several other publications showed Marcelo Salas climbing above Fabio Cannavaro to head Chile into the lead against Italy in Bordeaux.

At the time of its execution, 10 minutes into the second half, Salas's second goal prompted not only thoughts about the impact he looks likely to make in Europe following a move from River Plate to Lazio (worth pounds 12m to him personally) but how far defensive standards appear to have fallen.

None of the coaches whose teams have already turned out in these finals will be happy with the work done in their own trenches. Certainly not the Italian coach, Cesare Maldini. A doleful figure at the best of times, he grew increasingly agitated at the Parc Lescure on Thursday with basic errors of application and judgement.

No matter how much the game of football evolves strategically, the fundamentals will always remain the same. Teams who can't cope with simple aerial attacks aren't going anywhere.

This may be Italy's fate at France 98 unless Maldini can coax a more purposeful response from the guardians of Italy's goal area. To see them caught out of position and continually second best when attempting to out-jump Salas and Ivan Zamorano must have made Maldini feel older than his 66 years.

After the struggle to qualify that put his position in jeopardy, Maldini reverted to the old defensive catenaccio he helped to perfect as a leading player. This despite the knowledge that the best available choice as sweeper, Alessandro Costacurta of Milan, is not always alert to the responsibility.

However, it was not so much Costacurta's fallible reactions (leading perhaps to a redeployment of Maldini's son, Paolo, who was again outstanding at left-back) that will have worried Maldini as much as the woeful marking. Even allowing for Salas's courage and a spring reminiscent of Denis Law, defenders with a big advantage in height should at least have been on equal terms with him.

There was an early warning for Italy, and a thought provoking moment for Maldini, when Salas got behind Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta to head just over. A problem or just a lapse in concentration? A problem it was, one that would cause an outbreak of paranoia in Italy's defence.

With the first half running into three minutes of injury time, Cesare Maldini had to think again about the advice he was about to impart in Italy's dressing-room when Zamorano again got the better of Nesta, heading down for Salas to bring Chile level.

Maldini could be imagined stressing the importance of attacking the ball from Chile's centres and maintaining defensive cover. Coaches can never be certain that their words have actually sunk in and, within five minutes of the re-start, Maldini must have been wondering about the ability of his central defenders to absorb simple tactical information.

Joining in an attack that developed in midfield, Pedro Reyes came forward to fire in a centre that Salas converted with his head after again getting in position to rise above the leaden-footed Cannavaro. On the touchline, Maldini held his head in despair and began to prime his substitutes.

So uncharacteristic of Italian football, the malaise is widespread, a manifestation perhaps of the nervousness caused in defenders by Fifa's ill-judged decision to load the dice in favour of attackers. Then again, it could be (a view supported by a number of coaches I have recently conversed with) that the fashion for more fluid systems of play is having a detrimental affect on the development of young defenders.

When the Leeds United manager, George Graham, referred last season to a general decline in defensive play, he wasn't thinking only about the Premiership. "I see it wherever I travel in the game," he said. "Unless there is a strong midfield screen in front of the defenders very few of them today look really comfortable. They have grown so used to being protected that a crisis comes as a complete shock to them."

Earlier this week, Scotland opted for putting plenty of bodies between the ball and their goal, an understandable policy in view of Brazil's clear technical superiority. A problem with this is that attackers are prone to aberration when given defensive responsibility. The own goal that brought Brazil victory resulted from Gordon Durie's positional error when drawn back to provide his defence with much needed assistance. Lured to Denilson's cross from the left, he lost sight of the danger developing behind him.

These are early days but nobody should get carried away by the notion that risk-taking will become a feature of these finals. The game is played at both ends and there isn't a coach here who doesn't know it.