Taibi returns to the theatre of bad dreams

Champions' League final: Keeper who quaked in Schmeichel's boots is back in Manchester to cheer old side Milan

Talk about having one's nose rubbed in it. Having provided the venue, the food and even the music system, Man-chester United will not be present at Europe's big party on Wednesday night. Instead, Old Trafford is being taken over by Juventus and Milan for a very public celebration of Italian football.

While no one in Man-chester wants to come across as a spoilsport, many United supporters still feel that, but for the eccentricities of a French goalkeeper, their team could be playing in, rather than merely hosting, the Champions' League final. Fabien Barthez's bizarre performances in the two legs of the quarter-final against Real Madrid left the fans and manager scratching their heads. He was promptly dropped, and is now almost certain to be sold this summer.

Such harsh treatment may seem unwarranted, but is wholly in keeping with the pattern that has emerged since Peter Schmeichel left the club four years ago. Just ask Massimo Taibi, one of the six keepers who were brought in by Sir Alex Ferguson to replace the great Dane, and one of the six who have failed.

"There seems to be a curse of the keepers at Old Trafford," the Italian says. "It is incredible to think that so much money has been spent on so many good keepers, and yet none has been able to establish himself as the undisputed No 1."

Taibi, who now plies his trade with Atalanta in Serie A, made his United debut in a thrilling 3-2 away win at Liverpool in September 1999. He was immediately hailed as the new Schmeichel, but then allowed a weak 35-yard shot by Matt le Tissier to squirm under his body before conceding five at Chelsea the following week. The stay was short and the end swift, and Taibi was sent back to Italy, where he joined Reggina.

"I tried my best," says the man who has since become only the second keeper in Serie A history to score in open play, "but it wasn't quite good enough. I made mistakes and I have to accept that."

He adds: "The one consolation is that I can understand why I struggled, because I was going through a nasty divorce at the time. But I must say that I am particularly surprised that Barthez has not done better. I think that he is one of the best in the business, and his record at international level speaks for itself, so why has he not made it? People need to start asking some questions, and fast."

So, is Ferguson too demanding? Or is it impossible to fill Schmeichel's ample boots? "A bit of both," says Taibi, who arrived in England with a £4.5m price tag and a glowing reputation, but left through the back door two months and a mere four League games later. "When I joined the club immediately after Peter had gone, Ferguson wanted one keeper for the League and one for Europe. That was crazy, but he didn't trust me, Mark Bosnich or Raimond van der Gouw to do both jobs. Then, when he seemed to have finally found the answer in Barthez, Fabien eventually cracked."

Bearing in mind that other experienced and well-respected professionals such as Bosnich, Roy Carroll and Ricardo have also failed to make the cut, one wonders if anyone could come in and make the position his. "There are a couple of guys," Taibi says, "but they would cost him a bomb. In fact, one of them will be playing in the final for Juventus. I think Gianluigi Buffon is the best keeper in the world right now, and he could do a job for Man U. But why would he want to leave Juve?" Especially if Marcello Lippi's team confirm their status of favourites and are crowned champions of Europe.

Taibi, who plans to be at Old Trafford on Wednesday to cheer on his former club Milan, believes that the keeper who best handles the cauldron-like atmosphere of the stadium will emerge on the winning side. "It's an exceptional place to play football; one of the greatest places on earth," Taibi explains, "because it's a very intimidating arena. Just look at what it does to people. It brought out the worst in me because it made me too nervous, and the worst in Barthez because it made him too cocky. Buffon and Dida [the Milan keeper] will have to keep their cool, or else the final could be lost.

"Buffon is the better goalkeeper, but Dida might find Old Trafford more familiar because it is very much like the San Siro stadium in Milan. To be honest, though, it's just too close to call."

Like most of his fellow countrymen, Taibi is excited at the prospect of Wednesday's historic all-Italian final. As the keeper explains, all football fans in Italy will watch the game, if only to see their arch rivals lose. In Manchester, though, the interest seems limited. For United fans, the idea of hosting a Champions' League final for others is proving too hard to handle. Only one small section of the Mancunian population is over the moon.

"We call ourselves the Juv-entus club of Manchester," explains their chairman, Umberto Iannaccone. "We're only a small group, but we take our Italian football very seriously. Every Sunday evening, for example, a bunch of us get together to watchNovantesimo, the Italian version of Match of the Day. It's like a religion."

Iannaccone will be praying that his beloved Juventus, the team he has supported avidly since 1980, do not slip up against their Milan counterparts. "I can honestly say that losing to Milan in Manchester would be the ultimate insult," he says. "Our group couldn't cope with that."

The good news is that while Juventus have a sister organisation in London, which will be sending more than 300 of their members up the M6 for the final, there is no Milan equivalent anywhere in the country. "There used to be a group in London," Iannaccone says, "but they seem to have disappeared. I think we're the only Italian club left standing in England."

He will be hoping that is still the case come 10 o'clock on Wednesday evening.

Juventus v Milan: The crowning duels

David Trezeguet v Paolo Maldini

The word is that this could be Maldini's final game for the Rossineri. If it is, and the best defender of his generation does hang up his boots, the match-up with the dynamic French striker could be one to remember. Trezeguet (below left) and Maldini (right) are at the top of their respective arts, and many feel they hold the key to their team's fortunes. So what will be the deciding factor: Maldini's precise tackling or Trezeguet's pinpoint finishing?

Edgar Davids v Clarence Seedorf

These two midfield anchormen go back a long way. Both were groomed at the world-renowned Ajax Academy, before playing alongside each other in the hugely successful senior side of the mid-Nineties who lifted the Champions' League trophy in 1995. Having also played in tandem for Holland, there is obviously very little that these two do not know about each other's game. Expect a "welcoming" tackle from Davids within a minute of kick-off.

Gianluca Zambrotta v Kakha Kaladze

Kaladze is built in the Ashley Cole mould, ie he is a left-winger who has been converted into a left-back. As a result, Zambrotta, who is fast becoming one of the best right-sided midfielders around, may have to double up with his right-back, Lilian Thuram, to stop the Georgian's dangerous runs. Equally, though, Kaladze's lack of defending nous could create problems in the Milan rearguard, particularly if Zambrotta is prepared to take them on.

Filippo Inzaghi v Paolo Montero

Beauty against the beast. Inzaghi, or Pippo as he is known, will be risking more than his boy-band looks when he comes up against the Uruguayan hard man. As Ronaldo observed after Real Madrid's semi-final defeat: "Montero is, quite simply, the hardest and meanest defender in the business." Having played in the same team for four years, though, perhaps Inzaghi knows how to get round the centre-back.

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