Houllier's lament as Milan fly the flag for lamentable Italians

Lyon's loss may be Berlusconi's gain as remarkable revival has a political spin-off
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The Independent Online

Harold Wilson insisted for years that gloom enveloping the nation following England's collapse in the 1970 World Cup quarter-finals cost Labour the general election five days later. Silvio Berlusconi, president of the Milan club and prime minister of Italy, is hoping against hope that football might have the opposite effect for him.

Berlusconi, believed to be behind his rival Romano Prodi going into this weekend's election, needs the sort of late rec-overy that his beloved football club somehow pulled off against Lyon in their Champions' League quarter-final on Tuesday while he was campaigning in Rome. But he can hardly count on a widespread feel-good factor to see him home. Italian football is feeling distinctly bad about itself, Berlusconi's club aside, after their city rivals Internazionale and then the Serie A leaders Juventus were drummed out of Europe.

Inter fans reacted to a depressingly limp performance in defeat against Villarreal by abusing their players at the airport, and the club president, Giacinto Facchetti, lamented: "Without character, determination and conviction, you won't reach anything."

Juve were equally feeble against Arsenal the following night, recalling their similar effort - or lack of - against Liver-pool in last season's semi-finals. Supporters in Turin, resentful of the wages earned by star players, echoed the Inter chant -"Go and get a job" - as well as asking questions about why an ageing squad always seem to fall short at this stage of the season.

Like Chelsea and Barcelona, Juventus are judged these days not by an ability to win the domestic championship but on what they achieve in the Champions' League. Unfortunately for Gérard Houllier, the same criterion may soon apply to Lyon. Only founded in 1950 - half a century after Milan - they did not win the French league until 2002 but have taken every one since.

Fears that the dynasty would die with the departure of Paul le Guen, who will take charge of Rangers next season, proved unfounded, and Houllier's first season will mark a fifth championship crown in succession. For the third time in a row they reached a Champions' League quarter-final, and deserved to make history by progressing further this time. The away goal headed in by Mahamadou Diarra was sufficient until the last two minutes of normal time, when Filippo Inzaghi and Andriy Shevchenko cruelly denied them.

The quarter-finals of this competition, Houllier had said, comprised "two sprints"; Milan dived for the line and somehow got there by the thickness of a vest. "Obviously it was an enormous disappointment," he said later. "Milan are a very good counter-attacking team. They win the ball back so quickly. With Shevchenko and Inzaghi, they have one of the six best attacking partnerships in the history of European football."

Lyon, he admitted without naming names, do not have anything like the same weapons at their disposal, something Sylvain Wiltord, John Carew and the Brazilian Fred had made clear with their finishing.

Even after losing Michael Essien to Chelsea last summer, Houllier believes he has the best midfield in Europe in Juninho Pernambucano - the free-kick specialist, not the little sprite once at Middlesbrough - Tiago (who was suspended for the second leg) and Diarra. His problem is to prevent pillaging by richer clubs this summer, though Lyon's president, the supportive Jean-Michel Aulas, is promising financial backing.

What Houllier likes to emphasise, after his mixed experiences at Liverpool, is how committed he and his enterprising team are to entertainment: "The team are a playing team. They want to play, which has its advantages and drawbacks. You can say we should put the entertaining aside, but that is not my way. The team are a growing team and they'll learn a lot in adversity. You need to attack a team like Milan."

Barcelona will certainly do so, and the prospect is already causing mouths to water. It is good that the first leg is at the San Siro, where the sights and sounds last Tuesday were awesome, and where Milan will want to test a suspect Barça defence, whether counter-attacking or not.

Like Lyon, Milan average two goals a game in the Champions' League this season, Shevchenko having joined Eusebio as joint second highest goalscorer in all European competition (only Gerd Müller of Bayern Munich is ahead of them, by 69 to 57). Inzaghi, swift and mobile, with two more goals to add to his double at home to Bayern in the previous round, has convinced most Italian critics that he should win a place as fifth striker at the World Cup; and the fact that Luca Toni, Francesco Totti, the £16 million Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Del Piero are reckoned to be ahead of him should offer further encouragement to those who fancy the Azzurri in Germany this summer.

Adding further spice, as if any were required, was the announcement that in Uefa's official club rankings Milan have taken top position for the first time - just ahead of Barcelona. It is promising to be a bittersweet few days for Signor Berlusconi.

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