Savage relishing the latest chapter of Italian adventure

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Peculiar things happen to Robbie Savage whenever Wales enter Italy's orbit. He brought one melodrama on himself. Then he was caught up in someone else's soap opera. And on the most recent occasion he took a central role in a passion play that few who saw it will forget.

Peculiar things happen to Robbie Savage whenever Wales enter Italy's orbit. He brought one melodrama on himself. Then he was caught up in someone else's soap opera. And on the most recent occasion he took a central role in a passion play that few who saw it will forget.

That was last October, when Wales overcame the might of Italy 2-1 in Cardiff to signal their intention to qualify for next summer's European Championship finals. The 28-year-old Savage believes that the return game, at the San Siro in Milan tonight, could decide who proceeds automatically from Group Nine to Portugal. Another quirky occurrence, in the shape of a Welsh win or a draw, would not go amiss.

Already, the Birmingham City ball-winner points out, the confluence of himself and Italy is producing unusual events. "Not long ago, going to Milan would have been a shopping trip for us, and I wouldn't have been able to buy anything because I was with Crewe," he said, chortling at his train of thought. "My wife, Sarah, has never been to an away game in her life. Guess where she's going to be this weekend?"

Savage, the object of some last-minute shopping himself this week when Everton tried to buy him before the transfer window closed, anticipates a credit-card "hammering". He may receive the verbal equivalent from the 80,000 crowd, both for his uncompromising style and the aspersions he is perceived as having cast on the Azzurri during Wales' forlorn campaign to reach Euro 2000.

A television interviewer, cynically exploiting Savage's patriotism and reputation for acting first and thinking later, persuaded the Wrexham-born midfielder to toss aside the national shirt of the Milanese legend Paolo Maldini on camera. Mark Hughes' predecessor as manager, Bobby Gould, drummed him out of the squad (although he was later reinstated).

"You regret certain things in your career and that's one of them," Savage reflected. "The second time I was involved against Italy was the following summer for the return game in Bologna. I was suspended but travelled out to watch. That was the night Bobby Gould resigned.

"The third time was when we beat them at the Millennium Stadium, which is probably the best night in Wales' footballing history. In the past when we've beaten teams of Italy's quality people have said we were lucky, but that night we thoroughly deserved our victory."

To repeat the feat would arguably surpass anything Wales have achieved, including the run to the World Cup quarter-finals in 1958 (still, amazingly, the last time they qualified for any finals). It is a measure of how far Hughes' side have come that anyone is talking in such terms; when the Italians won 4-0 in Gould's last game, Savage recalled, "everybody expected that result, but they don't now".

He is adamant Wales would have defeated Italy last autumn even if the match had been staged in Milan or Rome "because we were brilliant - every time I watch it on video it gives me goose pimples.

"Now we've got to do the same again. We just have to do what we're good at, which is hitting teams on the break through the pace of Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy. And when you've got John Hartson, there's always a chance of scoring."

The outcome may hinge on what he foresees as "a good battle" between himself and the similarly combative Gennaro Gattuso. In the Premiership, Birmingham's bottle blond is viewed by fans of rival clubs as arrogant, so it is surprising to hear him suggest that the Italian enforcer is "obviously a better player than me". Or it could simply be Savage psychology.

Either way, he warns that Italy's resurgence since the first meeting and the proximity of the finishing line makes tonight the definitive test. "This is the one. There's no messing about now. I've said on other occasions 'This is our biggest game', but this is definitely it. We're the favourites if we win whereas they'll be odds-on to finish top if they beat us.

"They still have to go to Serbia and Montenegro next Wednesday and that's a difficult place to get a result, but they'll be very confident. Let's face it, when Italy play to their potential they can beat anyone. Italian football went through a decline, and we met them at a good time before because it wasn't long after their World Cup defeat by South Korea. But now it's back. Milan winning the Champions' League proved that.

"Yet if we win or get a point - which would be as good as beating them at home, if not better - we'll be buoyant going into our home games with Finland and Serbia, which I feel we can win. But I'm not even thinking about those matches. We must be completely focused on Italy."

Playing on one of the great Serie A stages might have daunted past Welsh teams, but not this one according to Savage. "Some have played at San Siro, like Gary Speed, and said it was unbelievable, if not as good as the Millennium. It's an atmosphere to relish, not to fear.

"It's a tribute to us that the Italians have taken the match to Milan. A few years ago it would have been somewhere smaller. They must know our wives like shopping! But it's fitting given what is at stake. It's possibly Wales' biggest game ever and certainly the biggest of my career."

Incredibly, he might have missed it after taking an accidental elbow in the face from the referee in Birmingham's win at Newcastle, Matt Messias. "There's only one person in the world that could have happened to," grinned the player carpeted by the FA in his Leicester days for using the match officials' toilet and failing to pull the flush, "and that's me.

"I think referees have been wanting to knock me out for a while and now it has actually happened. When I came round, Alan Shearer was laughing, so it must have been funny," added Savage, his jaw sore but ready to enjoy the last laugh tonight.

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