Echoes of Ronaldo from the boy with feet of gold

Adriano is the latest Brazilian striker with a fearsome free-kick, sublime ball skills and lightning pace.
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There were two moments this week when Internazionale's young Brazilian striker Adriano brought to mind another Brazilian, Ronaldo. Last Sunday, on a 70-yard charge through the defence of Serie A's Udinese, feinting and shimmying past defenders before steering the ball into the net, the 22-year-old could have passed for Ronaldo in his pomp.

There were two moments this week when Internazionale's young Brazilian striker Adriano brought to mind another Brazilian, Ronaldo. Last Sunday, on a 70-yard charge through the defence of Serie A's Udinese, feinting and shimmying past defenders before steering the ball into the net, the 22-year-old could have passed for Ronaldo in his pomp.

On Wednesday night, when substituted by Ricardo Julio Cruz in Inter's Champions' League game against Valencia, Adriano left the Mestalla stadium to a standing ovation from the home fans, much as Ronaldo had done after his three goals at Old Trafford had helped Real Madrid dump Manchester United out of the Champions' League in April 2003.

The good news for Valencia is that despite taking a 5-1 pounding from Inter, they are still in the competition. The bad news is that they will face Adriano again in just over 10 days time. Before that, the bull-like forward will be targeting his firepower on city rivals Milan in tomorrow night's derby game at the San Siro.

Described by Inter coach Roberto Mancini as the most naturally talented player he has ever seen, Adriano is beginning to fulfil his potential.

When first signed by Inter from Flamengo of Rio De Janeiro in 2001, Adriano struggled to find a place in a team that contained Ronaldo and Christian Vieri. After a period on loan to Fiorentina, Inter sold a half stake in him to Parma at the start of the 2002-03 season. The club took 18 months to realise its mistake, buying back the half-stake in January of this year. Figures vary greatly as to how much Inter had to pay, but informed sources suggest it was around £4m.

He quickly repaid the investment, and his form since has been so spectacular that by the start of this season he had replaced Vieri as Inter's first-choice striker. Many observers believe that Ronaldo's place in the Brazil team could be similarly under threat. Indeed, in what has become an era of gifted forwards - not just Ronaldo, but Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry and Wayne Rooney as well - some regard Adriano as potentially the best of all.

Ronaldo, who became friends with Adriano when he helped the youngster settle in Milan, has not been surprised by Adriano's recent performances. "He's stronger than anyone else around and has an extraordinary shot with his left foot. He has the ability to take on opponents," the Real Madrid striker said, before adding ruefully, "and age is on his side."

Talking to the Italian Press in the wake of Wednesday night's game, Ronaldo highlighted another key factor in Adriano's development. "The fact that he suffered as a child has given him an incredible will to win."

Suffer he did, for Adriano is every inch the South American archetype of the back-street urchin with feet of gold. He was born Adriano Leite Ribeiro on 17 February 1982 in Vila Cruzeiro, one of Rio's largest and roughest favelas, or shanty towns. His late father, Almir, worked little, partly due to a gunshot wound picked up in a brawl. His mother, Rosilda, a seamstress, used what little money she earned to send Adriano to Flamengo's soccer school.

As is customary in such rags-to-riches tales, the player claims that, despite his immense wealth, he is no different to the poor kid who joined Flamengo. "I'm still the same although there are people from my old favela who say I've become big headed. Unfortunately, envy exists. My family is always there to remind me where I was born and to help me keep my feet on the ground."

Adriano's powerful running is matched by his ferocious shooting. His free-kicks are regularly clocked at over 80 mph and Sunday's 70-yard run against Udinese was preceded by a trademark 30-yard thunderbolt free kick for the first Inter goal. But there is much more to his game than power. His reverse nutmeg of Valencia defender Navarro combined grace and balance with audacity - it brought gasps from the Valencia fans.

The Milan derby, always a high point in the Serie A calendar, has become a little predictable of late, with Milan winning the past four encounters. But anticipation ahead of tomorrow night's game is unusually fevered. Among Inter fans there is a widespread feeling that Mancini could be the man to finally transform the club from Italy's biggest footballing enigma - how can a club spend so much money on world-class players and still be so hopeless? - into genuine contenders for the scudetto and the Champions' League.

For everyone else, the fun will be watching the some of the best defenders in the world - Nesta, Maldini, Stam and Cafu - figuring out just how to stop the boy from Vila Cruzeiro.

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