The real Crespo stands up to be counted on

Chelsea exile puts the turbulent times behind him as he aims to make history for Milan
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The Independent Online

Hernan Crespo points to his wedding ring. "I don't know if it will bring me luck but I am very happy," he says. It's Tuesday, the day after the 29-year-old Argentinian striker's wedding by the banks of Lake Como. "It was the first free day we had for a long time," Crespo volunteers. It was also a moment in his life that draws a line under the "personal problems" that affected him for some time. Another such moment, Crespo hopes, will come on Wednesday with the Champions' League final against Liverpool.

Hernan Crespo points to his wedding ring. "I don't know if it will bring me luck but I am very happy," he says. It's Tuesday, the day after the 29-year-old Argentinian striker's wedding by the banks of Lake Como. "It was the first free day we had for a long time," Crespo volunteers. It was also a moment in his life that draws a line under the "personal problems" that affected him for some time. Another such moment, Crespo hopes, will come on Wednesday with the Champions' League final against Liverpool.

"It's an historic game in a player's career," Crespo says. "It's one of the opportunities that you want to have, one of those things you want to have next to your name." Ah, his name. His reputation. It's the currency in which sport trades, and his has taken a fearsome beating over the past couple of years. The luck, he feels, deserted him for a time too. Little wonder he rubs that wedding ring.

As he speaks, at the Milanello, Milan's ornate training ground in the hills near his Como home, the mind spins back to August 2003. It's the press room at Stamford Bridge and Crespo emerges, smiling broadly, his distinctive mane of brown hair swept back. Claudio Ranieri hopefully referred to him as "my lion" and said he would have the same effect on the Premiership as Ruud van Nistelrooy and Thierry Henry.

That afternoon, Crespo's £16.8m move from that other Milanese club, Internazionale, appeared to be a confirmation that Chelsea could attract the world's biggest stars. And even if Crespo admitted the money was an attraction - at £94,000 a week he was the club's highest-paid player, along with his countryman Juan Sebastian Veron - he talked of history that day too. "We'll try and write ours," he said with the broadest of smiles.

Except his contribution faltered. The lion didn't roar. "I've talked many times about this," Crespo says now, although he doesn't sound as weary as those words would suggest. "Listen, there are two ways of looking at this. Look at the numbers of goals and the quality of goals [he scored for Chelsea]. Then you have 19 games and 10 goals. That's not too bad. And there were some good goals, too. So, I am happy with that. But I always want more and I wasn't able to do more and that's my one regret. Mentally, I wasn't able to do more."

Mentally, the move to London was tougher than he expected. That's a frank admission from a man who was able to leave River Plate, the Buenos Aires club he had been attached to since the age of five, when he had just turned 21 and move to Italy and Parma. Not just a new country but a new continent. At his final match at River Plate 80,000 fans chanted "Crespo don't go away". It was soon after he had led them in winning the Copa Libertadores, the South American equivalent of the European Cup.

In Italy he thrived - 115 goals in 197 games - and he was up there with Gabriel Batistuta. The moves, too, were astonishing. When Lazio, then coached by Sven Goran Eriksson, launched their defence of the Scudetto in 2000, they made him the most expensive footballer in the world at £36.5m. When Lazio's creditors began to catch up in 2002, Internazionale signed him, and he scored nine times in his first eight Champions' League games.

His credentials seemed perfect for the Roman Abramovich revolution, but Chelsea didn't see the best of him. Why not? "I'd been in Italy for many years before that and I had some quite serious personal problems," Crespo says. "With my partner, that side of my life. And that certainly affected me." His partner - now his wife, of course, and the mother of his two-year-old daughter, Nicole - is the 22-year-old Italian model Alessia Rossi.

Crespo, who likes to talk, also struggled with the language. There were "domestic problems" too - just getting chores completed became a constant irritation, while the implication is that Chelsea, who themselves were transforming rapidly, didn't really offer much support to their new recruits.

"And also I did have physical problems which needed certain treatment which maybe I wasn't able to get in England," Crespo says of the persistent thigh injury he suffered. "The other thing is that I joined Chelsea when the championship had already started and so I missed out on the pre-season training. I believe it's no coincidence these physical problems occurred. This season, for example, I've not had any problems at all."

This season, of course, he has been at Milan, his fifth club in six years. When Jose Mourinho arrived he could see Crespo wasn't happy. Unlike Veron, who was also moved on, no one questioned his effort; it's just that it wasn't working, although Mourinho remains an admirer. So Milan stepped in with a season-long loan, picking up part of his salary, and Crespo became the fourth striker, behind Andrei Shevchenko, Pippo Inzaghi and Jon Dahl Tomasson.

But 15 goals so far have convinced Milan of his worth and he has moved up the order. At that wedding last week all the club's players and directors, plus the coach, Carlo Ancelotti, were among the 250 guests, while the president, Silvio Berlusconi, called to offer his congratulations. The perfect wedding present would be the conversion of that loan to a permanent deal, although that may depend on whether Milan make a serious offer for the hot young Parma striker Alberto Gilardino and whether Chelsea's transfer demands come down too.

It's clear what Crespo wants. "I'll be very happy if Milan want me to stay," he says, "but it's something I don't have control over. I'm very happy here. I've lived here in Italy for many years, Milan is a place I know very well, but if I have to go back to Chelsea it would be no problem for me." His declaration about the club to whom he still belongs is understandable, although hard to believe, especially when he adds: "Life is not just about playing football. It's also about social things".

It could have been Chelsea in the final, of course, instead of Liverpool, which would have been a perfect irony. There is also the irony of Chelsea having to throw on Robert Huth in attack in the semi-final because they had no more strikers. But Crespo says he harbours no bitterness about the criticisms he received in England. Scoring the two goals which knocked Manchester United out of the European Cup earlier this season, Crespo says, was just "a dream to score in such a big game for Milan", while he winces when asked if beating another English team in the final would be "revenge".

"The last word I would ever use is revenge," Crespo says. "I'm very relaxed about things that have happened in the past and I am very pleased that people can see me playing well now and being fit and healthy. But I'm not thinking about revenge. I'd be just as pleased performing in any big game, whether it's against Manchester United, Bayern Munich, Liverpool or whoever."

Beating Liverpool, he says, will be hard enough: "They defend very well, and [Rafael] Benitez is a good coach, so we have to look at ways of breaking them down."

It helps that he is aided by such creative threats as Kaka and Andrea Pirlo, and Milan are undoubtedly a fine team in which to try to score goals. As he sets about his task, the watching millions in England will have a chance, he hopes, to see the real Hernan Crespo.

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