Kaka adds a dash of fantasy as Milan aim for summit

The heavyweights of 'Serie A' meet tonight with the brilliant Brazilian ready to take centre stage. He talks to Frank Dunne
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The Independent Football

Milan's Ukrainian striker Andrei Shevchenko may have just scooped the European Footballer of the Year award but when the Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was asked to pick a potential match winner for Milan in tonight's eagerly-awaited top-of-the-table match with Serie A leaders Juventus, he came up with a different name: Kaka.

Milan's Ukrainian striker Andrei Shevchenko may have just scooped the European Footballer of the Year award but when the Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari was asked to pick a potential match winner for Milan in tonight's eagerly-awaited top-of-the-table match with Serie A leaders Juventus, he came up with a different name: Kaka.

Scolari, England's nemesis in the 2002 World Cup and in Euro 2004, knows a thing or two about Kaka. He gave the last place in his Brazilian World Cup squad of 2002 to the brilliant young playmaker, then a 20-year-old with Sao Paulo. "There's no doubt for me that he's the player to watch. When he accelerates with the ball at his feet he's frightening. He's a genuine champion."

At Milanello, Milan's training ground, Kaka is relaxed and confident, promising that second-placed Milan will go to Turin's Stadio Delle Alpi looking to win. "We want to win it. They have a four-point advantage and four points is a big margin. A victory changes everything. If we win, we cut that down to one point. If they beat us, the gap is seven points and that's very difficult to close. Whatever happens, it's going to be a fantastic game."

Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, alias Kaka, exploded on to the Italian football scene last season. In his first season in Italy, after his transfer from Sao Paulo, he scored 10 goals in 30 Serie A games - helping Milan to the club's 17th league title. He has also scored four in 10 Champions' League games and will want to add to that tally when the Italians face Manchester United in the competition early next year.

His elegant gait, direct attacking style and powerful shooting with either foot drew comp- arisons with Serie A legends Michel Platini and Gianni Rivera. Even in a league which is used to importing the world's best players, the consistently high level of performance from such a young player took everybody by surprise, including the player himself. "I always expect to do well but to have that kind of season was fantastic. I enjoyed every minute of it but I must admit that, yes, it was a surprise even for me to have played such a big part in the club's success."

For the Brazilian, 2004-05 has so far proved to be that difficult second season. While fellow Brazilians Ronaldinho and Adriano and team-mate Shevchenko have consistently made the headlines, Kaka's brilliance has been seen in only glimpses.

Rated a lowly 15th in Europe this year by France Football, the magazine which created the European player of the year award, Kaka is open about his ambition to be one day considered the best player in the world but he feels no envy for the Ukrainian. "It's really a pleasure to play with Sheva. We are friends off the pitch and have a fantastic understanding. He's been playing at an incredible level for the last three seasons, not just for one season. He won the Champions' League in 2003, the scudetto this year and always plays well for his country. He deserves it."

Kaka attributes his problems this season partly to the effects of a more gruelling pre-season than he was used to at Sao Paulo and partly to the fact that he is more tightly marked than he was last season. "Tightly marked" is his characteristically polite way of saying that Serie A defenders are now out to stop him by fair means or foul. October's Milan derby was emblematic of this bruising new reality.

Early last season, the Milan coach, Carlo Ancelotti, appeared to gamble by starting Kaka ahead of the experienced Rui Costa against Internazionale, despite the Brazilian having played only a handful of games for the club. Ancelotti was rewarded in spectacular fashion. The youngster ran the match, scoring the second goal in a 3-1 win. In the corresponding fixture this season, October's 0-0 draw, Kaka's impact was limited, in large measure due to Inter's rough-house tactics. Nearly every time he ran at Inter's defence he was downed, with four Inter players picking up yellow cards for fouls on the Brazilian.

As a skinny 17-year-old on the fringes of first-team football at Sao Paulo, Kaka made an important breakthrough. After spending hours poring over videos of European football, he realised that he had to beef himself up if he was going to reach the level to which he aspired. Over the next three years his increased body strength, allied to his extraordinary technique, helped to establish him as one of Brazil's outstanding players and brought him to Scolari's attention in time for the World Cup finals. He admits that he may need to step up a level once again if he is to adjust to the closer attention he now receives from Serie A defenders. This time, he says, what is required is greater vision and awareness rather than physical strength. "I have to improve on being able to see the whole game while I'm in the middle of it - that's what I'm working on most in training. It's not about completely changing the way I play but maybe seeing things in a slightly different way so I can make better use of space."

The recent signs are that whatever he is doing in training, it is working. In Milan's 6-0 demolition of Fiorentina on Sunday, Kaka was the outstanding creative force. In the club's 4-0 Champions' League victory over Shakhtar Donetsk three weeks ago, he tormented the Shakhtar defence, scoring two goals. His return to form couldn't have come at a better time for the club and the boffins at Milan Lab - the club's state-of-the-art scientific research centre designed to "optimise the psycho-physical management of the athletes" - would no doubt claim that they have timed it all to perfection.

Whatever pressures the young player faces as the season moves into its critical phase, the chances of him going off the rails or disappearing off to Rio for Carnival are nil. The deeply religious Kaka eschews what Italians call la vita mondana - the high life - in favour of private prayer and Bible reading. With his angelic features and perfect smile, Kaka is as wholesome as a young Donny Osmond and is comfortable with his image as the "clean face of football", as the marketing men at adidas, Kaka's kit sponsor, quickly dubbed him. "It's a pleasure to be associated with what's good in the game. That's how I would like to be recognised by people because that's really how I am."

The great Milan sides coached by Arrigo Sacchi and Fabio Capello between 1988 and 1996 combined the pragmatism of Italian defenders like Franco Baresi with the style of Dutch forwards Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten. With one Champions' League title and one scudetto, Ancelotti's side is already on the way to greatness but instead of the Dutch Masters, he has the Boys from Brazil. Kaka's Brazilian team-mates at Milan include the flying full-back Cafu, the skilful left-footed forward Serginho and giant goalkeeper Dida.

"The mixture of Italian defending and Brazilian fantasy is there for everyone to see. It is one of the two main ingredients in Milan's success," Kaka says with a mischievous grin. "The other ingredient? For the moment we're keeping that to ourselves." Capello, now the Juventus coach, will be hoping that he has figured it out before 8.30 this evening.