Dominant defences could turn Istanbul final into a real turkey

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When Uefa awarded the Champions' League final to Istanbul, it was breaking new ground, taking Europe's premier club competition to the doorstep of Asia. The match, though, will resonate with history as Liverpool and Milan, who between them have won 10 European Cups, collide for the first time in a fully competitive match.

When Uefa awarded the Champions' League final to Istanbul, it was breaking new ground, taking Europe's premier club competition to the doorstep of Asia. The match, though, will resonate with history as Liverpool and Milan, who between them have won 10 European Cups, collide for the first time in a fully competitive match.

It will be a momentous occasion, but will it be much of a match? With Liverpool having ground their way to the final on the back of three indomitable but unspectacular defensive performances, and Milan having kept seven clean sheets in their last eight ties, the 25 May climax could be an anti-climax.

One man will be using his considerable influence to ensure it is not. Tony Blair may claim to have sat on Newcastle United's then-terraced Gallowgate End, and Michael Howard profess to support Liverpool, Swansea, Folkestone etc, but Silvio Berlusconi is genuinely involved in football. When he is not running the country the Italian prime minister runs Milan. A year ago, frustrated at the dull football being practised under Carlo Ancelotti, he demanded the coach always play two strikers.

For a while Ancelotti took heed, then Andrei Shevchencko fractured his cheekbone, allowing him to revert to fielding a lone forward. In Istanbul, however, Berlusconi will expect his team to put on a show. The nature of the opposition, and a nine-year absence from the winners' podium, meant Ancelotti was forgiven the goalless draw which preceded the penalty shoot-out victory over Juventus in the 2003 final, but Berlusconi would now like the team to achieve success with a swagger.

They certainly have the capability. In Shevchencko, the deadly Ukrainian goalscorer, Kaka, the bewitching Brazilian midfielder, and his compatriot Cafu, still rampaging forward from right-back at 34, they have three of Europe's most beguiling players. But if these are the heirs to the Dutch triumvirate of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, who masterminded the European Cup triumphs of 1989 and 1990, the foundation, as then, is the defence. Then it was Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini who formed the backline. Now it is Cafu, Jaap Stam, Alessandro Nesta and... still, Maldini (with Costacurta in reserve).

This defence is one of Europe's most experienced but, as PSV Eindhoven showed in the semi-final, experienced players tend to be old ones and old players have old legs. With a demanding season still ongoing, Milan have shown signs of weariness. In Serie A, both Juventus and Milan have been stumbling in the run-in, in Europe they were given the runaround in both legs by PSV.

This may not matter against Liverpool. Though 30,000 Koppites will do their best to make the Bosphorus reverberate to the anthems of Anfield, the Olympic Stadium will not be as intimidating to their opponents. Liverpool are thus unlikely to drive forward as PSV did but may instead play a waiting game. This would play to Milan's strengths. As Ancelotti noted: "Liverpool are a defensive side, a very different team to PSV who like to dominate a game."

That he then quickly added "but they will also be very hard to beat", was typical. Unlike the manager of Liverpool's vanquished semi-final opponents, Ancelotti is old school and does not disrespect the opposition. Indeed, he oversees a club which, despite Berlusconi's influence, is more of a family affair than Liverpool's. The English team may pride themselves on the bootroom heritage but, though Steve Heighway and others are involved elsewhere at the club, neither Rafael Benitez nor his closest advisers have any previous Anfield association.

In Milan, Ancelotti is one of eight veterans of the 1989 and 1990 finals (including Maldini and Costacurta) still on the staff. Ancelotti's assistant is Tassotti while Baresi is one of four involved in the club's youth system. He coaches the under-16 side which includes Davide Ancelotti, the son of Carlo. Both finalists reflect and symbolise their cities. Liverpool, though long-owned by the millionaire Moores family, are working-class in outlook. Robbie Fowler's protest on behalf of the dockers struck a chord with the support, the Spice Boys did not.

Milan have a more glossy image. To judge from the movement along the stadium concourses, half-time at San Siro is regarded by many of the city's beautiful people as a sporting version of the evening promenade along the city's Corso Vittorio Emanuele II.

The club was founded, as the Milan Cricket and Football Club, by an Englishman and swiftly became the place for English sportsmen and wealthy Milanese to hang out. Between the wars, Milan became associated with the city's working classes but since Berlusconi's accession those boundaries have blurred with Milan once more attracting support from all sectors of society.

So the celebrations, should Milan prevail, will bring together the prime minister in the Palazzo Chigi, and the lowliest Ultra dossing in a flat in Milan's industrial suburbs. But first Shevchenko and company must succeed where Pavel Nedved and Frank Lampard failed, and find a path past Jamie Carragher.

Berlusconi's boys But do Milan have what it takes to win final?


The Brazilian Dida is highly thought of and has replaced the solid and reliable, but unspectacular, Christian Abbiati. However, lapses of concentration do occur especially in the Champions' League. Lee Bowyer of Leeds and Philip Cocu of PSV Eindhoven, on Wednesday, have benefited from his mistakes.


An ageing defence that includes Cafu (34), Paolo Maldini (37), Alessandro Nesta and Jaap Stam (32) is defensively solid and positionally astute. The heart of Milan's defence, helped by the combative midfield, has a physical and mental strength, combined with technical ability, that is almost unbreachable. However, a lack of pace is a concern and was brutally exposed by PSV in the semi-final. The tiredness of challenging for two trophies may be catching up with this otherwise imperious unit.


The diamond formation deployed by Ancelotti, with Andrea Pirlo protecting the back four, Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso shielding the full-backs and Kaka supporting the strikers, has managed to complete the two most difficult tasks in football, scoring goals and keeping clean sheets. Milan have kept nine clean sheets in 12 Champions' League games, scoring 19. The emphasis seems to be on keeping a strong centre, putting a huge responsibility on the full-backs to get forward and supply crosses. This allows the midfield players to remain central, collect any loose balls and prevent the opposition from breaking forward.


Milan have arguably the most complete strike-force in Europe. Andrei Shevchenko has pace, Crespo aerial ability, Kaka guile. Milan have the players with the ability to build slowly, break forward at speed, or play long-balls to the strikers.

Probable Team (4-4-2 diamond): Dida; Cafu, Maldini, Nesta, Stam; Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf, Kaka; Shevchenko, Crespo.