Italians keep faith in craft of defending

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The Independent Online

Alessandro Nesta may bridle at the suggestion that defence is everything - "the old idea of football based on catenaccio is outmoded. No one has played that [way] for years," the Milan defender stated emphatically - but it is no coincidence that it is a vast billboard photograph of Paolo Maldini which hangs over the entrance to the Italian club's training ground, the Milanello.

Alessandro Nesta may bridle at the suggestion that defence is everything - "the old idea of football based on catenaccio is outmoded. No one has played that [way] for years," the Milan defender stated emphatically - but it is no coincidence that it is a vast billboard photograph of Paolo Maldini which hangs over the entrance to the Italian club's training ground, the Milanello.

Maldini is Milan, of course. He is their symbol, one of the world's outstanding players throughout his career, with record appearances for club and country, and the man set, amazingly, to compete in his seventh European Cup final when he captains the Rossoneri against Liverpool in Istanbul tonight.

He knows his place in history, too. Indeed, Maldini believes he may be part of a dying breed which probably explains why, aged 37 next month and in his 21st season at Milan, he has no intention of retiring just yet.

"Since I started in 1984-85 we have had five or six defenders who have made the history of our club," Maldini said in reference to Franco Baresi, Mauro Tassotti, his friend Alessandro Costacurta, who will be on the bench tonight - and, of course, himself. The Invincibles, they were called.

"And even though I am not going to coach in the future, if I had to pass on a recommendation it would be to base your game on having a strong defence," Maldini said. "But having said that I genuinely think it's harder to find good young defenders now than it was in the past. They don't seem to be coming through as they used to."

This may explain why the average age of the Milanese back line tonight will be touching 33 - although one of those, the relatively youthful Nesta, 29, joked that even then no one is quite sure how old the Brazilian Cafu is (officially, it is 34). Jaap Stam is 32, Costacurta 39. But then, as Nesta also said, the most important attribute for a defender is "the mind". And the most important attribute of Milan is their defence.

When Maldini finally does retire it has already been decided that the No 3 shirt will be retired also. The only other Milan player afforded that honour was Baresi, who now coaches the under-16 Primavera side. His assistant is another former defender, Filippo Galli, while another Angelo Colombo coaches the under-13s aided by Tassotti. To complete the theme Carlo Ancelotti, the club's coach, was a hard-working defensive midfielder while Cesare Maldini, Paolo's father, the former coach who remains on the staff, and the first captain of the club to lift the European Cup, in 1963, was also a defender.

"There is such a great tradition at Milan," Nesta, who joined three years ago from Lazio, and to whom the baton is being passed, said. "The ethos of a strong and disciplined defence has always been there and through it has passed some of the greatest defenders in the world. It's an honour to play in that tradition. It goes back to Baresi, Costacurta and now I have my place. I think it comes from a sense of organisation, of tactics and understanding."

It is, Maldini added, so ingrained as to be unspoken, even if that groove has come from countless hours on the training ground to create an almost telepathic response. Maldini is so proud of his craft as to refer to it as "the art of defending" and its most recent object lessons came in Milan's Champions' League triumphs over Internazionale, and Manchester United - who were so comprehensively outplayed, with Wayne Rooney looking no more than a little boy lost. Not a goal was conceded. Milan remained unruffled. At the same time, nine out of 12 Serie A matches ended with clean sheets.

But it is no dark art of negation. Little wonder Nesta disputes any labelling of Milan as a team of catenaccio ("bolted door"), especially as Ancelotti has been true to his word when he declared that he was not "interested in victory at any price".

The coach said: "We have to play well, first and foremost," evoking memories of the team of 1989-90, of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten. It is why he has stationed, at the base of his midfield diamond, the creative, non-tackling Andrea Pirlo, and striven for "total football" - the antithesis of Helenio Herrera's catenaccio.

The strain sometimes shows. Until the second leg of their semi-final against PSV Eindhoven, Milan hardly needed to boast they were not only the most senior defence in the Champions' League, but also the best. They had not conceded in 622 minutes of European football - 20 minutes short of a new Champions' League record. The Dutch, with their speed and verve then scored three times while Milan, in relinquishing the Scudetto, have conceded five goals in their last two Serie A matches.

The defence is hugely susceptible to pace, as PSV proved, and with Liverpool having both Djibril Cissé and Milan Baros at their disposal it is a weakness that the Liverpool manager, Rafael Benitez, will certainly try to exploit. Maldini, with the quality and timing of his interceptions, marshalled his defences brilliantly against United but he, along with the rest of his team, has looked tired since then, and it is almost month since they have won.

Milan's attacking intent is partly through design, partly through necessity - as Maldini's original claim that there were few good young defenders emerging through the ranks revealed. Milan, he and Nesta declare, are the most "offensive" team in Europe and yet they also agree with Cafu that it is a defender, Jamie Carragher, who they most admire in Liverpool's ranks. Ancelotti, in turn, criticised Liverpool's negative tactics and praised their defensive organisation and discipline.

"He is the heart of their team, even more so than Steven Gerrard because a team's strength comes from the defence," Cafu said of Liverpool's 27-year-old central defender. "Carragher is world class. England must have some pretty good centre-backs if he is not an automatic choice. From the evidence of the two games against Chelsea [in the semi-final], he could play in many international teams."

Or, indeed, in Milan's - as Maldini's successor. Not that he would ever want to leave Liverpool, of course, but his opponents tonight are keen to stress their admiration in what they expect, according to Cafu, to be "our hardest match of the season". After all, good defending is a tradition both clubs share.

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