Football: The simple mastery of Deschamps

Alex Hayes studies the ruling class of Juve's `Little Big Boss'
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The Independent Online
IT IS NOT often that Juventus's entire season rests on the outcome of just one match. Accustomed to chasing domestic and European honours throughout the Nineties, the Turin giants are this year out of the race for the Scudetto and the Italian Cup, leaving them with no option but to win the Champions' League if they are to salvage anything from a poor campaign.

Part one of the rescue mission takes place on Wednesday night when Juve face Manchester United at Old Trafford, in the first leg of an enthralling semi-final. If their last two encounters are anything to go by - in the group stages in 1997, United won their home match 3-2 and Juventus won theirs 1-0 to scrape into the quarter-finals - this confrontation promises to be as much a battle of wills as skills.

While much of United's success will rest on keeping the attacking duo of Zinedine Zidane and Pippo Inzaghi at bay, stifling the midfield threat of the Juventus dynamo and French captain, Didier Deschamps, will be equally vital.

Once spitefully described as a water-carrier by his predecessor, Eric Cantona, the diminutive midfielder is at the heart of everything his club and national sides do. "I'm like Dunga [the former Brazilian captain]," he said in a recent French interview. "I play in the axis, in front of the defence. In France, we call it defensive midfielder, but that's a bit pejorative. In Italy, though, it's known as the playmaker."

Watching him play for France against Armenia last Wednesday, you could clearly see how he influences a game. Known as "Little Big Boss" by his team-mates, he is the orchestrator on the field, constantly barking orders at the players, young and senior. "On the pitch, I am better placed than the manager to ensure we are carrying out the game-plan," said the man who now holds a record 84 French caps. "I can see how a match is progressing from a player's point of view, and I like getting involved with tactics. That's why I intervene more than others."

Deschamps' two main strengths are his tackling and his distribution. By sitting very deep (he rarely ventures out of the centre circle) he allows the more attacking players - Emmanuel Petit or Youri Djorkaeff at international level; Zidane or Edgar Davids with Juventus - to forage forward. "Somebody has to stay at the back," he joked. "When I'm on the pitch, scoring is not my aim. I actually think more collectively than individually."

Ironically, for a player whose skills were often questioned by the French press during his early years, he has since forged a hugely successful career by playing simple football. There is rarely anything elaborate about his play. He is rather like a ping-pong practice machine: you ping the ball to him, and he will pong an identical one back. This may be simplicity, but the execution is perfect.

One man who knows him better than most from their time together at Nantes Marseille and the national side, is the Chelsea centre-back Marcel Desailly. They are lifelong friends and room together when on international duty. "Didier is a very charismatic player," he said. "He is tremendously influential on any group he frequents, because he gets involved and is so often right. He may not have the skills of a Platini or a Maradona, but he still has the ability to orchestrate a game."

He does not just let his feet do the talking, though. "No. With all the experience he has acquired over the last few years in Italy, he is a natural leader on the pitch," insisted Desailly, who has played 44 internationals alongside him.

Tactically, he is important to Juventus. "Everything goes through him," said Desailly. "The defence passes the ball up to him rapidly, and he then redistributes it to Zidane or one of the attacking players."

But Deschamps is not all quick thinking and quick passing. He is also fiercely competitive. "He's a real recuperator," Desailly said. "He will get hold of the ball in those crowded areas and then pass it to a team-mate in space. Never hurried, he always makes an accurate, clean pass."

Playing against Manchester United for Juventus may not be quite the same as taking on England in the French colours, but Deschamps and Zidane will have learned a great deal about the British game from that 2-0 win at Wembley. "In England, it was physically challenging. We had to weather the early storm," said Deschamps. "But we were never in real danger, and as soon as we scored the first goal, we knew..."

A more composed United side, should prove harder to break down. "It will be close," admitted Desailly, whose loyalties are divided. "I would like my friend to win with Juve, but I would also love to see an English team do well in the Champions' League. It's been too long since English teams were at the top."

For Deschamps, a previous winner with both Marseille and Juventus, the prize is a fifth final in seven years - five more than all the United players put together have managed. For his club, the prize is salvation. For the onlooker, endless fascination.