Kakha Kaladze: Milan bank on Kaladze steel
The imposing Georgian defender who has fought back after the murder of his brother by kidnappers blocks Arsenal's path tomorrow. He tells Frank Dunne why mental strength will be vital and of his plans after football
Monday 03 March 2008
If Arsenal are to progress in this season's Champions League they will have to topple one of the great European institutions: the Milan back four. Since the former coach Arrigo Sacchi ripped up the Italian coaching manual with his zonal play in the late 1980s, Milan's back line has set the standard against which defending must be measured.
Chinks of light rarely open up against them in the Champions League and how Emmanuel Adebayor may come to rue his header against the crossbar in the dying moments at the Emirates Stadium two weeks ago.
"It was an incredible miss," says Kakha Kaladze, the 30-year-old Georgian who, after seven years at the club, is an established member of Milan's elite rear guard. Kaladze put in an otherwise impeccable performance in shutting out the big Togolese striker and the comment wasn't intended as a slight on Adebayor, for whom Kaladze is full of admiration. "He has everything, he's the complete forward and it's not easy to mark him. He's strong, fast and very good technically. Tall players like him are not always so mobile or so skilful."
Milan are aware that not having scored in London may leave them vulnerable to the impact of away goals at San Siro but the European champions are satisfied with the job done. "It was a very difficult game and we defended well, not just the back four but the whole team," Kaladze said. "Arsenal are very well organised tactically and attack with a lot of players, with very fast players in midfield and up front. They had a couple of chances but we didn't concede. We needed luck too but luck plays a big part in football."
So it does. Tomorrow night's game might have been more difficult for Milan had Arsenal not lost Adebayor's strike partner, Eduardo, to a broken leg from the lunge of Birmingham City's Martin Taylor just over a week ago.
Kaladze refused to be part of the defenders' union when talking about the incident. "It was a really ugly foul. I believe the Birmingham player when he says that he didn't intend to hurt Eduardo but we have to be gentlemen on the pitch. That doesn't mean you just stand there and let the other team play. You have to tackle, to compete, to be hard even, but not like that. Football is our bread and butter.
"When a player gets hurt that badly he always wonders whether he will come back and what kind of player he will be. I didn't want to look at the photos because it scares you."
The vicissitudes of fortune and the mental strength needed to deal with them are themes that Kaladze naturally gravitates towards. Given the circumstances of his life it is hardly surprising.
Kaladze began his career as a 16-year-old with Dinamo Tblisi in his native Georgia. In 1998, after four years at the club, he was signed by Dynamo Kiev of the Ukraine. His form for Kiev and for Georgia got him noticed and in 2001 Milan made him the most expensive Georgian player in history when they paid Kiev €16m (£12.2m). It should have been the start of a dream but it quickly became a nightmare.
In May 2001, Kakha's brother Levan, a medical student, was kidnapped and a ransom of $600,000 (£302,000) demanded. With the Georgian government refusing to placate the kidnappers, Kaladze's family endured five agonising years, torn every day between hope and fear. On 21 February 2006, their worst fears were realised when police confirmed that one of eight bodies found in the Svaneti region of the country was that of Levan.
In playing on through the ordeal, Kaladze showed the kind of courage that puts the demands of a mere football tournament into sharp perspective. But it was against this terrible backdrop that the player experienced one of the greatest nights of his life, when Milan beat Juventus to win the Champions League at Old Trafford in 2003.
"The league is important but the Champions League is incredible to play in. When you lift that beautiful cup with the whole world watching you really understand the difference. In the league you know that if you lose a game you can always make up the points. But when you know that if you make a mistake you're out, you really have to concentrate. We have players who are mentally strong, who know how to deal with these games. There are other great teams but they often have difficulty when the pressure is turned up."
Kaladze was talking on Friday at Milanello, Milan's training ground, prior to Saturday's disappointing 1-1 home draw with Lazio. It was two more points dropped in the chase for fourth place in Serie A, which, for a second consecutive season, is probably the best Milan can aspire to. They are currently fifth, four points behind fourth-placedFiorentina.
Kaladze was unsettled in the early years at Milan when he failed to hold down a regular place in central defence – Ancelotti preferred him at left-back – and he may have to compete with Alessandro Nesta, who is returning from injury, and the eternal Paolo Maldini for a place at the heart of the defence tomorrow.
Speculation that he wanted a move made him the target of Chelsea and Liverpool but the player insists that the two Premier League clubs have missed the boat. "When great clubs are looking for you it makes you feel good about yourself but I'm a Milan player until 2010 and I would like to end my career here."
Beyond Milan, Kaladze's sights are set on going into business but it won't be running a bar, founding a soccer school or becoming a television pundit.
He and several business associates have recently been granted a licence to set up a bank in Georgia. "I always look to the future. When you're playing all the time you're not aware of the years passing. A footballer's career is like a good film. It seems to just fly along and all of a sudden, it's over."
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