James Lawton: Italian iron door slams shut to silence talk of Premiership greatness

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The Independent Football

The French bar from where we watched the bolted door of Italian football slam ritually shut was not exactly en fête. No-one was inclined to buy a round to toast the glory of the beautiful game. But then no one looked away.

Formidable was the verdict, "Oui, tres formidable," said the man to next to me with great solemnity.

From the middle of the second half you knew it would go to penalties and you just had to hope that Milan would survive that ultimate ordeal of pressure. Not just because of Paolo Maldini, winning his fourth European Cup at 34 and playing so magnificently he must have provoked a thousand yearnings in the watching Sir Alex Ferguson, but because Carlo Ancelotti had produced a bolder performance from his players than his lordly rival Marcello Lippi had inspired in Juventus.

But then no one could get through the iron doors and what we had was not football spectacle but the game's oldest truth - the one so long embodied in the Italian game. Defence is the foundation of all success and without it you spin dreams which will ultimately fail. Ask Real Madrid. Ask Arsenal.

When Italy won the 1982 World Cup in Spain it was said, memorably, that their coach Enzo Bearzot had released the "caged bird of the national game," but that was not quite true. That victory, like all of Italy's at club and international level, was based on defence. On the way to beating the Germans in Madrid, the Italians absorbed the brilliance of Brazil's Zico and Socrates and Roberto Falcão.

The Brazilians failed because one of their defenders went on a mad run. At Old Trafford on Wednesday night Maldini and his team-mate Alessandro Nesta defined watchfulness and nerve and for that alone we should accept that Milan's victory, while no doubt the opposite side of the coin of Zinedine Zidane's fantasy winning goal at Hampden Park last year, was still football currency of the highest order.

It proclaimed a standard which must be met before there can be the kind of loose talk of all-time greatness which came in such an extravagant deluge when Real over-ran United at the Bernabeu. What the Italians brought to Old Trafford was not the dream football of Madrid but the benchmark of defensive order. Beat that, they were saying, and you can talk about football greatness. You can speak of Zidane in the same breath as Di Stefano or Puskas or an old Italian master like Gianni Rivera. Beat that and the publicity mill of the Premiership will be celebrating more than knock-about circus.

Premiership the best league in the world? Put Nesta and Maldini in the defence of United or Arsenal and install a division of their compatriots through the league and we might just have the beginnings of a discussion. Until then reality should be accepted with a little more grace.

Ferguson knows well enough the limitations of the league he has dominated so profoundly. That's why he admired Laurent Blanc for so long and hoped so desperately that the sharpness of his mind would compensate for the ageing of his legs and why, you have to believe, that even now he is telling United plc that Nesta for Beckham and some serious change would represent a massive step forward in the re-trenching of a football empire.

No, the Italians did not thrill our blood with the show they put on at the "theatre of dreams". But surely they stimulated some activity in a corner of the English football mind. Surely we saw how difficult they made it for such celebrated forwards as Andrei Shevchenko and Filippo Inzaghi for Milan, and David Trezeguet and Alessandro Del Piero for Juventus. Surely we saw that a daunting level of football challenge was being laid down with unbreakable concentration and something close to technical perfection.

The Real Madrid of Zidane, Raul, Figo and Ronaldo could not get past this tank trap and for a little while there was disordered talk of this being the greatest club side the world had ever known. Italian football dismantled such madness. The Italians said yes, give us great spectacle, give us the finest circus, but if you want to be great when you come to us you had better have a key to the door. That is the enduring Italian gift to football. It may not be wrapped prettily but only a fool would push it to one side.