Football: Shevchenko awaits San Siro judgement

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AN EMBRACE with Massimo Ambrosini, an exchange of good-luck kisses with Demetrio Albertini, and within seconds Andriy Shevchenko had commenced one of the most seductive but daunting tests any footballer can face: a home league debut wearing the red-and-black striped shirt of Milan, in front of an audience anticipating a season filled with glory, their dreams intact.

"I don't think of myself as a star," Shevchenko says, and while his new public might accept such modesty in the 22-year-old Ukrainian's words, they expect his deeds to express a different attitude. In this year's Champions' League campaign, which begins at Stamford Bridge tonight, Milan's supporters will expect to see the form that brought him 17 goals from 26 appearances in the competition in the colours of Dynamo Kiev.

On Sunday, when Milan entertained humble Perugia in front of 50,000 spectators at San Siro on an afternoon more suited to the beach at Portofino, Shevchenko had his first touch within a minute, beating his marker with an elegant sway of the hips before transferring the ball neatly to George Weah. A minute later, from a more dangerous position, he served the Liberian striker with an opening that should have brought a goal. After five minutes his first shot, a firm strike from 20 yards, was deflected for a corner.

Signs of anxiety appeared in his game as early as the 12th minute, when he turned and chased after giving the ball away, won it back and played a one-two with Weah to put himself through inside the area, in yards of space with the Perugia defence spreadeagled. Unwilling to take a chance on his weaker left foot, he tried to shape himself for a shot with the outside of his right boot but could only send the ball straight at the goalkeeper as the defenders closed in to take advantage of his awkward readjustment.

On the quarter-hour, a misreading of Oliver Bierhoff's simple dummy made him look naive, and 10 minutes later he wasted a marvellous chance created by Weah, who ran down the left on to Albertini's pass and waited unselfishly until the Ukrainian was in a perfect position just inside the area before releasing the ball into Shevchenko's stride. Once again he hesitated, and was closed down.

Now the crowd were growing restive. Was this the man who scored 18 goals in Dynamo Kiev's league matches last season, and whose skills had made all Europe's top coaches drool, or the one whose missed chances perhaps cost his club the opportunity to meet Manchester United in Barcelona last May?

Shevchenko cost Milan pounds 18m from Kiev, with whom he did the domestic double and reached the semi-finals of the European Cup last year. His goal-scoring exploits during that campaign - notably his three goals against Real Madrid in the quarter-finals - won him Uefa's award for the striker of the season, although Milan had sealed the deal long before he collected his prize. He is also an established Ukrainian international, with 24 caps and six goals in a context which permits him to maintain his celebrated Kiev partnership with Sergei Rebrov.

For all that, his presence tends to bring out the maternal instinct in spectators. Pale and slender, loitering out on Milan's right wing as part of Alberto Zaccheroni's three-pronged attack, he has something of the abandoned-schoolboy look associated with Nigel Clough.

Early in the second half on Sunday, with the score at 1-1, Leonardo started warming up on the touchline. There was little doubt about whom the experienced Brazilian was going to replace. Shevchenko seemed to have got the message when he embarked on a long slalom from left to right across the face of the area, sliding past four opponents but eventually running out of space, turning back and playing a loose ball that provided Perugia with a rare opportunity for a fast counter-attack.

After 58 minutes, with Leonardo about to come on, Shevchenko scored with a crisp header to a cross by the Brazilian wing-back Serginho, Milan's other big summer signing. The relief could be felt around the stadium, but it was most evident in the scorer's face. Two minutes later he was trotting off, embracing Leonardo as he went, knowing that with a single strike he had ensured that the next morning's Gazzetta dello Sport would award him an approving six out of 10. "Bravo Shevchenko," Milan's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, told reporters after the final whistle. The newcomer had passed his first test.

In the magnificent setting of San Siro, a great footballer in his prime is offered a chance to join the immortals. Marco Van Basten, for instance, is the subject of the first in a series of video cassettes released this week to commemorate the club's centenary celebrations - in particular the four breathtaking goals he scored without reply against Gothenburg in the European Cup in November 1992. Along with his fellow Ajax graduate, Frank Rijkaard, and PSV's Ruud Gullit, Van Basten formed the Dutch heart of that great Milan side.

But the red-and-black shirt can also break hearts. When Berlusconi went back to Ajax in 1996 to buy four of the players who had helped put Milan out of that year's European Cup, not one of the quartet - Edgar Davids, Patrick Kluivert, Winston Bogarde and Michael Reisger - managed to establish himself. Eventually Marcello Lippi snapped up Davids and turned him back into a world-beater at Juventus, while the other three were reunited with their old coach, Louis Van Gaal, at Barcelona, where they won the Spanish League together and are now once again challenging for the European Cup. Christian Ziege, another recent San Siro reject, is now happily ensconced at Middlesbrough and restored to his national team, for whom he scored a hat-trick last week from wing-back.

But the pressure is hardest on the strikers, whose inspiration can win matches and whose anxiety can lose them. For every hero of Milan's historic triumphs - the Altafinis, Sormanis, Van Bastens and Weahs - there is a Luther Blissett, a Gianluigi Lentini, a Jean-Pierre Papin, a Kluivert, who failed to measure up to the expectations of an unforgiving club. Sometimes the reasons were technical; but sometimes they were more mysterious, to do with mental fortitude.

The latest man to face the test was born in the town of Yahotine, 70 miles from Kiev, the son of an army NCO. Four years later the family moved to Obolon, a new suburb of the Ukrainian capital. At 10, Andriy joined Dynamo's junior training scheme; later that year, 1986, he was evacuated to the Black Sea to avoid contamination from the Chernobyl disaster.

At 16 he joined the first-team squad, and a year later he made his debut in the European Cup, scoring in a 4-1 defeat at the hands of Bayern Munich. During his time at Dynamo, the club won five league championships and three cup finals. The first of his 24 caps came at 18, and he has so far scored six goals in Ukraine's shirt. His record makes him the natural heir to Oleg Blokhin and Igor Belanov, the great Kiev and Soviet Union forwards of the Seventies and Eighties respectively. It was Blokhin, in fact, who presented him with the Uefa award in Monaco last month.

So Shevchenko has more to live up to than a pounds 40,000 a week salary, 10 times what Kiev could pay him, and he is starting from a difficult position. Players from the countries of the former Soviet Union have found it difficult to express their talents in the leagues of the West. And, at the moment, the newest export has to communicate with his team-mates by means of gestures.

"My philosophy is to think in terms of the team," he says. "I score goals not for myself but for the team. And I'm always examining my performance to see in which areas I can improve." But there are other forwards in the squad waiting for their chance, from the veteran Maurizio Ganz down to the 16-year-old Nigerian prodigy, Mohammed Aliyu, and if Shevchenko fails he will be cast aside, five-year contract or not.

Naturally, the management is making reassuring noises. "I believe that Shevchenko is a player who is used to taking part in big games between great teams on the international stage," Adriano Galliani, Milan's vice- president, said last week. "So we're not expecting him to have problems adjusting to the new lifestyle."

His successes, however, have all been achieved with his close friend Rebrov by his side, which prompted many observers to wonder why no club came in and bought them as a pair. Now they wonder whether Shevchenko can prosper without the sympathetic tactical intelligence of the older man by his side, and in the more demanding environment of a club hoping to celebrate its centenary with its sixth European Cup victory. In London tonight, a brilliant young footballer may begin to give us the answer.