Football: Zidane's commanding role

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The Independent Online
SAME OLD lady, same old story. Again Juventus, La Vecchia Signora, threaten to thwart the ambitions of Manchester United, thanks once more to the brilliance of a man who took the pitch at Old Trafford last night looking like a hospital case.

Zinedine Zidane's right knee was swathed in a thick bandage, but it did nothing to muffle his effectiveness. He commanded the stage from most of the 90 minutes, not just rolling and glancing and chipping passes with his usual perception but winning the ball and covering the ground with a desire that mocked whatever pain he may have been playing through.

Alex Ferguson once declined the chance to sign Zidane from Bordeaux, feeling that he was unsure of the Frenchman's best position in a team. Last night Zidane's best position was wherever he happened to be on the pitch. Ryan Giggs's last-minute equaliser ensures that the drama will be extended to another episode in two weeks' time, but it could not dispel the memory of the confidence with which Juventus, inspired by Zidane, had dominated the first period.

United's manager was generous in his praise, while retaining his right to take an optimistic outlook into the second leg. "I thought it was a fantastic game of football," he said. "That was top-level stuff. It was right that we were down 1-0 at half-time, and it could have been more. What we saw in the first half was that if you give the ball away in any part of the pitch at this level, you're in trouble. Juventus worked as hard as they possibly could - and they had to, to get a result here. Zidane and Didier Deschamps are World Cup winners, but you could see the pride that they played with tonight. But in the second half we had three or four chances, while they only had a couple of counter-attacks."

His opposite number did nothing to disguise his satisfaction. "I think we showed our superiority," Carlo Ancelotti said. "We're quite happy. We made things hard for them, and we could have scored more than one goal. We know that it will be hard for us in Turin, but it will be hard for them, too."

The intensity of United's 30-year quest to regain the European Cup was never likely to drop a notch last night, and the match began with a wonderful series of contrasting exchanges. United's raking moves, mostly concentrated on the partnership of Ryan Giggs and Denis Irwin on the left flank, produced early possession for both their strikers, but Dwight Yorke in particular found it difficult to turn against his defender, Mark Iuliano, while Andy Cole missed the target with two headers.

The history of the battles between the two clubs in recent years added an extra dimension to the contest. Unlike Internazionale, Juventus are a proper team, patterned and drilled to make the most of a group of players who, while perhaps not matching the glittering standards of some of their predecessors, nevertheless offer their coach a well-balanced line-up with plenty of options.

Last night it was soon clear that they were also offering him the kind of unselfish effort of which coaches dream. "They ran their legs off," Ferguson observed. While United pressed down the wings, Juventus made the most of their ability to win the ball and use it with care and cunning. Although they began with a four-man midfield behind Zidane and Filippo Inzaghi, it soon became obvious that Edgar Davids, Antonio Conte and Angelo Di Livio were fully prepared to arrive in support of the attack at every opportunity, while Didier Deschamps guarded the gate.

Roy Keane's defensive priorities and Paul Scholes's lack of continuity made United look thin and stereotyped by comparison. With David Beckham well policed by Di Livio and Gianluca Pessotto, virtually every United attack of substance was coming down the left and ending in a high cross aimed more in hope than expectation. "We neutralised Beckham and Giggs very well," Ancelotti said. "Apart from long balls from the goalkeeper, there was very little service for Yorke and Cole."

United spent the third quarter searching for a way to impose themselves on the game. "Our wide players had been playing too far forward in the first half," Ferguson said. "We'd been facing two against three in midfield, and they were using the space. But we did better after our wide players came inside a bit."

But for all the belated euphoria that greeted Giggs's smash-and-grab equaliser, an even scoreline hardly offered a true representation of the match. Ferguson spoke of United's predilection for enduring torture on the way to triumph, but gave an optimistic forecast. "I know Juventus will feel they're favourites for the second leg," he said, "but something tells me we're going to win." What, however, if Zinedine Zidane should feel fit enough to remove his bandage?