Donadoni denies Berlusconi 'team talk'

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The Independent Football

The Italy coach Roberto Donadoni had a message for the Italian media yesterday: stop imagining the contents of his conversation with the Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Donadoni was called by Berlusconi before Italy's opening match at the European Championship, and some critics suggested that Berlusconi told the coach to use three Milan players against the Netherlands. Berlusconi owns Milan, the club for which Donadoni used to play. "The other day I was asked about my phone call with Berlusconi as if he called to tell me to play the three Milan players in midfield. Let's be serious," Donadoni said. "It's not like Rosella Sensi [Roma's chief executive] called me before the Romania game and told me to use three Roma players."

The former Italy coach Dino Zoff famously resigned when Berlusconi criticised him after the Azzurri lost on a golden goal to France in the Euro 2000 final. Now, Italy need to beat France and hope the Netherlands hold Romania to a draw in tomorrow's final round of Group C games to reach the quarter-finals.

Berlusconi is known for making selection suggestions to the Milan coach, Carlo Ancelotti, but Donadoni said: "I also get calls from my mother and it's not like she tells me what lineup to use. Let's calm down. Stop imagining that there is a hidden agenda behind every selection. We had a private phone call and that was it."

Donadoni was heavily criticised for using the Milan trio of Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Massimo Ambrosini in the 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands. Milan had a disappointing season, finishing fifth in Serie A, 18 points behind second-placed Roma, whose midfielders Daniele De Rossi and Simone Perrotta were named for the 1-1 draw with Romania.

Donadoni also put Alessandro Del Piero into the starting line-up against Romania, but the Juventus captain suffered a knock in training and was on painkillers before he exited in the 77th minute after a sub-par performance. Now the Italian media are clamouring for the temperamental, but highly skilled, Antonio Cassano to get a game. "Before this game everyone was saying, 'Del Piero, Del Piero'. Now they're saying 'Cassano'," Donadoni said. "I wish there was some balance."

The world champions felt hard done by in Friday's 1-1 draw with Romania when Luca Toni had a goal wrongly flagged offside and the referee Tom Henning Ovrebo awarded a disputed late penalty, which Gianluigi Buffon saved to keep Italy in the tournament.

A controversial opening goal by Ruud van Nistelrooy led to the Netherlands beating Italy 3-0 in their first game, where an Italy defence bereft of an injured Fabio Cannavaro was exposed. Despite their misfortunes, Italy could still reach the last eight with a draw, depending on the result of the game between Romania and the Netherlands.

"Up to now the referees have made us feel unlucky both against Netherlands and Romania. I hope we have used up the errors coming to us," the defender Giorgio Chiellini said.

The Slovakian referee Lubos Michel has been put in charge of tomorrow's rematch of the 2006 World Cup final, a choice which made Buffon feel their luck could be changing. "It gives some guarantees. We deserve a respected referee for a decisive game," the goalkeeper said. However, the Azzurri know they shoulder most of the blame for having just one point.

Donadoni's side thoroughly deserved to lose against the rampant Dutch and, although they created more chances in the Romania game, they were far from stylish in their slightly desperate approach. "We cannot hide behind [referees' decisions]. We must play the game of our lives against France," Buffon added as he prepared for the game in Zurich.

"France, like us, are a bit surprised to have one point after two matches. But it is only two games which have gone. We all know the qualities of my team-mates."