The Premiership's insoluble conundrum

Click to follow
The Independent Football

At the conclusion of a week in which those strange, translucent eyes of Paolo Maldini, almost hypnotic in their intensity, alighted voraciously upon the Champions' League trophy, before he raised it in triumph just as his father, Cesare, had done with the European Cup at Wembley 40 years previously, a lesson for all aspirants: everything comes to he who waits.

It has been nine years since the Milan captain last experienced such a delirious surge of pleasure. For the Beckhams, Giggses and Van Nistlelrooys who were absent at an Old Trafford which for the night had become a stage for enforcers rather than entertainers, Milan's victory, albeit ultimately a decidedly hollow one, would have offered them hope. So, too, any of those watching among Henry, Vieira and Pires at Highbury.

European domination has always been cyclical. Indeed, if we recall the winners of the last decade, the French, Italians, Dutch, Germans, Spanish and English have all found glory. Six different nations.

And yet, despite Manchester United's presence among such an illustrious collection of clubs, one has to ask whether it remains a plausible ambition for Premiership teams. Perhaps even more pertinently, we might consider the question: to achieve it, would the culture of our football not have to change so radically as to make the game unpalatable for domestic consumption? And a further thought: even if our clubs desired to instil a more pragmatic approach to achieve the European crown once again, would we be able to educate our performers to embrace that culture?

As our sense of fascination was being stimulated on Wednesday by the studious manner in which Milan's centre-backs, Maldini and Alessandro Nesta, and the night's most influential player, Gennaro Gattuso, shackled the Juventus forwards and midfield, could we really imagine Rio Ferdinand or Wes Brown defending with such a degree of concentration in such circumstances? Or Sol Campbell or Martin Keown, for that matter?

With the Italians, we enjoy indulging our preconceptions. Of course, they are as much masters of the black art of defending as they are successful when it comes to a forward approach to women. Once Milan and Juventus were pitched together in this year's final, the cognoscenti of the Scudetto were imploring us to look way beyond our instinctive antipathy towards the Italian way. Just remember the manner in which Juventus accounted for Real Madrid in the semi-final games, they scoffed.

Yet the fact is that while Italian teams are no longer totally addicted to catenaccio, they still revert to habit when the occasion demands. Hence we suffered a second half and two periods of "silver goal'' extra-time largely bereft of incident. Ultimately, victory was achieved by dint of one penalty scored by the Ukrainian Andrei Shevchenko, after a shoot-out in which some players unforgivably opted not to participate and which will be best remembered for some superb goalkeeping.

Those who subsequently eulogised about the content of this contest tend to forget that even the most sublime defensive technique must be supplemented by ambition. For much of the first half Milan, with the game's most technically adroit player, Rui Costa, constantly arrowing passes through to Shevchenko and Philippo Inzaghi, had us believing in the liberation of Italian football. But then the argument fell apart.

One simply could not envisage Sir Alex Ferguson's current team, nor Arsène Wenger's side, adopting such caution. Certainly not Sir Bobby Robson's men. Naïve? Well, maybe.

The other footballing Sir Bobby, who was so prominent on the only other occasion an English club claimed Europe's élite prize, understands the paradox. "Maybe we will have to bend our style to conform to the European way, but not to the detriment of our adventure,'' says Charlton. "If we played defensive football, nobody would come along and watch.''

It is a dilemma which, in this observer's view, is impossible to resolve. The suspicion is that our quartet of teams next season will continue to be damned by defensive vulnerabilities. Still, maybe it is better that our clubs should continue to place emphasis on attacking flair and fail rather than attempt to adopt a strategy which is alien to most spectators and could still fail to yield the desired reward.