Football: Zidane plays into United's hands

European Cup semi-final: Comments by Juventus' benefactor appear to have aided Alex Ferguson's cause tonight
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The Independent Online
HIS VISIT lasted only 10 minutes, but a lifetime in Italian politics has certainly taught Gianni Agnelli how to use the slightest opportunity to make an impact. With a couple of throwaway remarks this week, the honorary president of Juventus seems to have done Alex Ferguson's job for him, at least in terms of psychological warfare.

As Juventus prepared to meet Manchester United in tonight's second leg of their European Cup semi-final, the 78-year-old Agnelli - the former boss of Fiat, and Italy's most influential figure for most of the post- war era - made one of his quasi-papal visits to the Stadio Communale, the club's training centre. He talked to the coach, Carlo Ancelotti, and to the players. And, as is his way, he also gave a brief audience to the press, during which he was invited to comment on the stories circulating about the possible imminent departure of Zinedine Zidane, whose performance at Old Trafford a fortnight ago had been one of the finest of his career, but who is said to be homesick.

"He's not homesick," Agnelli said. "He's under his wife's thumb. And there's nothing I can do about it."

He may not be quite up to speed on the current state of sexual politics, but Agnelli's views on the relationship between men and women undoubtedly draw on direct experience of complexity and conflict. This is a man who, almost 50 years ago, injured himself quite badly when he crashed his Ferrari after his mistress, Pamela Churchill (later Pamela Harriman, the US ambassador to Paris), had found him in bed with another woman, also not his wife. A fluent French-speaker, he will certainly be conversant with the doctrine of "cherchez la femme", in all its senses.

Agnelli told the reporters that he had asked Zidane who was the boss in his house. "He replied, `Since we had our two sons, it's my wife.' I told him that I hoped that he would stay with us. The problem isn't Zidane. It's his wife."

Yesterday afternoon Zidane spoke to a reporter from L'Equipe, the French sports daily, and told him that he was upset by Agnelli's words, and by the way the whole business of a move had blown up. Last weekend, he said, he had given an interview to Italian journalists in which he reasserted his sincere intention to stay in Turin until the end of next season, which marks the end of his present contract. He had woken up the following morning to find one newspaper, Turin's Tuttosport, flatly contradicting his statement with a claim that he would be leaving this summer, in a matter of weeks - probably for one of the big Spanish clubs, since his wife is of Andalusian origin, and is said to be keen to move to a city closer to the sea.

Gianni Agnelli may be the most powerful man in Italy, and Turin may have been virtually his personal fiefdom for half a century, but not even he can move the Mediterranean nearer to the city in the foothills of the Alps. What he can do is unbutton his lip, and he went further during his visit by remarking on how nice it would be to have Ronaldo in the colours of Juventus next season, playing alongside Alessandro Del Piero.

At his time of life, and from his position of eminence, Agnelli can say just about anything he likes. He has nothing to lose, and no one to fear. He loves football and footballers, particularly those who wear the black and white shirt, but a man who has had John Charles, Omar Sivori, Pietro Anastasi, Michel Platini, Paolo Rossi and Roberto Baggio on his payroll is unlikely to bend the knee even to a man who scored two goals in the last World Cup final and is Fifa's current player of the year. He may have felt that his remarks would have a stimulating effect on Zidane, or he may just have been saying what he thinks.

It is impossible to predict what effect, if any, his words will have on the great Frenchman's performance. Until Juventus rested Zidane last Saturday for their visit to Lazio, and then went and handed out a thrashing to the league leaders, his presence had been thought every bit as indispensable to their tactical scheme as it is to that of his national team.

At Old Trafford, in the first leg of the semi-final, he took the field with his right knee heavily strapped, having tweaked a ligament three weeks earlier. Yet, although completely lacking in match practice, he went on to give a masterful display as notable for the unrelenting intensity of his physical commitment as for the artistry of his silken touch and the originality of his imagination. Goodness knows whether Agnelli's words will provoke or deaden his instinct to give a repeat performance tonight before a full house of 64,500 at the Stadio Delle Alpi. Most probably, Zidane's urgent desire to add a European Cup winner's medal to the gong he picked up in Paris last July will prevail over any topical irritation, particularly since he was on the losing side in the last two finals of the competition.

Ancelotti and his club captain, the underrated Antonio Conte, presented a serene and confident front when they shared a press conference yesterday afternoon. Without displaying a hint of arrogance, they nevertheless conveyed the impression that the harder part of the job had been done, and that a proper observance of their professional duties would see the team through to the club's fourth consecutive European Cup final.

"This is going to be a very difficult match against extremely formidable opponents," Ancelotti said, more than once, and the thought was readily seconded by his captain, who spoke of the need for his team mates to maintain absolute concentration throughout the 90 minutes. Conte's goal at Old Trafford, the coach felt, had given them a slight advantage, but there would be no underestimating the size of the challenge presented by Alex Ferguson's men.

He paid tribute to the personal and professional qualities of the United manager, and acknowledged the depth of experience acquired by Ferguson after a dozen years at the helm of the club. It is only two months, by contrast, since Ancelotti became the 33rd man to take the coach's job at Juventus, the heir to the first man to hold the job, George Aitken of Scotland, and the successor to Marcello Lippi, whose four seasons in charge featured three league titles and one European Cup before he mysteriously ran out of steam in mid-February.

Reflecting on tonight's match, Ancelotti expected the same sort of tactics from both sides that we saw at Old Trafford. "Away from home," he said, "Manchester United play with the same attitude that they show in their own stadium. The mentality doesn't change."

He dismissed the idea of profiting from the possible absence of Ryan Giggs. "We have prepared ourselves to play a team, not an individual," he said. "It won't really affect the way we approach the game."

Similarly, he refused to be drawn on the potential inclusion of Teddy Sheringham, whose surprise appearance as a substitute at Old Trafford gave United the focus that enabled them to construct Giggs's late equaliser.

Didier Deschamps, however, had already warned about the possible dangers. "Giggs is a very strong competitor," the veteran French midfielder said, "and it would be better for us if he didn't appear. He's a player who always does well against us, even if only for a few minutes in the game. And there's Sheringham, who is a phenomenon in the air, and very hard to handle. But the first leg proved that when we play the way we want, pressing them high up the field, we can give them problems. But we let them back in. So we have to play for 90 minutes the way we played for the first hour in Manchester."

Agnelli said something similar. If Juventus could play for the whole 90 minutes of tonight's game with the sort of intensity and invention that they showed in the first half in Manchester, he observed, their success would be assured. "I can't guarantee that we can keep up that sort of rhythm through a whole match," Ancelotti responded. "We hope so."

But at least the honorary president's interventions did not seem to have impaired his sense of humour. To a player, Ancelotti remarked, winning the European Cup represented the highest possible ambition. "But for a coach, it's not quite as hard as keeping your job at this club."