Italians set to dish up a tactical feast

Champions' League final: Juventus and Milan possess enough attacking talents to defy negative stereotypes and provide thrills
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The Independent Football

Though there are few live matches left this season, and the Champions' League final represents the pinnacle of the club game, plenty will be pondering alternative viewing tonight.

Stereotypes frequently have a basis in fact. Many Italians do cook with passion, dress with style and drive with reckless panache. When it comes to football they do like a defence and there is evidence to suggest the pessimism surrounding this all-Italian tie is justified. Seven of the last 20 finals have finished 1-0, all involved an Italian club.

Yet there are reasons to believe watching Juventus v Milan will be more rewarding than reaching for the remote. Pavel Nedved is suspended but the artistry of Alessandro Del Piero, the silkiness of Rui Costa, the quicksilver virtuosity of David Trezeguet and the coruscating power of Andrei Shevchenko are always worth viewing.

Then there is the background. Juventus are Italy's Manchester United, loved and hated across the nation. With the backing of the Fiat conglomerate, they have won every prize in the game including two Intercontinental Cups, two European Cups, and 27 league titles. Milan are the hobby of Silvio Berlusconi, the club president, media baron and Italian prime minister who has had to combine government with attending court to answer corruption charges.

Juve have as their manager Marcello Lippi who has won everything with them but nothing elsewhere - his recent spell at Internazionale was a failure. Lippi is a friend of Sir Alex Ferguson and the Manchester United manager will be even more jealous than usual tonight. The urbane Italian, who Ferguson once described as being so good-looking that "he makes most of us look like Bela Lugosi", will be occupying Fergie's dug-out for the match at Old Trafford. With United having defeated Juventus twice in the competition this season, hosting the final will be a wistful experience for the Scot.

Milan's coach is Carlo Ancelotti, a two-time European Cup winner as a player but yet to lift any trophy as a coach. When Lippi left for Inter in 1999, Ancelotti took over. Two second-place finishes later he was fired. Lippi returned.

This personal rivalry is mirrored on the pitch where Milan's Filippo Inzaghi and Edgar Davids of Juventus face their former clubs. Both have the type of personalities which will have created some enemies in their old dressing rooms.

That the match will be tight there is little doubt because, and there is no getting away from this, the dominant characters are the defenders. It is to be hoped aspirant young English stoppers like John Terry will be watching from La Manga as the likes of Paolo Maldini, Lilian Thuram and Alessandro Nesta go about their work of suffocation - though the uncompromising and, at times, brutal Paolo Montero might be more to Danny Mills' liking.

Ferguson, who allowed Lippi's squad to train at United's Carrington complex yesterday, will certainly be taking note. Of his own team he said: "We are improving all the time and I think that the only thing we lack now is experience, particularly in defence. Very few of our defenders can compare in terms of age and experience to the likes of Madrid, Juventus and both Milan clubs, but that aspect of our game will eventually come. All teams that win Champions' Leagues, or even World Cups, have tremendous knowledge at the back."

Indeed. There will be no-one on the pitch under 24 and the average age of the likely Milan back four is 30, of Juventus 31. United's oldest regular defender is Gary Neville, age 28. Age could prove a factor if Trezeguet isolates himself in a race with Maldini or Shevchenko against Ciro Ferrara. But watch the veterans lean into their younger opponent if they do. An unhampered sprint will be as rare as an untugged shirt at a corner.

Midfield, as ever, is more likely to the the decisive area. Lippi must decide how he is to replace Nedved, the team's heartbeat for much of this season. Most likely Mauro Camoranesi will come in on the flank, though he could draft in the veteran Antonio Conte or Igor Tudor and play Davids wide.

A more positive approach would feature Marco Di Vaio joining Del Piero behind Trezeguet in the "Christmas tree" formation which worked to good effect for Juve earlier this season. Either way Lippi will look to his anchor, Alessio Tacchinardi, to complete a fine campaign by subduing Rui Costa.

Milan have a doubt over their veteran right-back Alessandro "Billy" Costacurta. The 37-year-old's nous and spirit have been a big influence but, given the form of Gianluca Zambrotta, who should be on the Juventus left, he cannot be risked if not fully fit. Roque Junior or Dario Simic stand by to replace him. Rivaldo should be on the bench.

Ancelotti has been under pressure from Berlusconi to play brighter football and did so for the first half of the season. But he also needs a trophy, especially as only by winning can Milan avoid having to pre-qualify for next year's Champions' League. The coach said it was possible to both play well and win but added: "The result is very important."

It should be an absorbing game but those few neutrals inside Old Trafford, like the television viewers in more than a hundred countries, will be hoping for an early goal.