Rangers threatened by free-spirited Simone

Phil Gordon talks to the Italian dreaming of a final fling in Milan
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The Independent Football

There was no fanfare to greet Marco Simone's Champions' League goal last Tuesday night. Unlike Andy Cole, 24 hours later, the little Italian was not breaking any records, merely raising the barrier a notch.

There was no fanfare to greet Marco Simone's Champions' League goal last Tuesday night. Unlike Andy Cole, 24 hours later, the little Italian was not breaking any records, merely raising the barrier a notch.

It may interest those around Old Trafford to know that, worthy though Cole's effort was in eclipsing Denis Law's 14 European Cup goals, the most prolific man in the competition belongs in the red and white of Monaco, not Manchester United. Simone's ultimately vain equaliser in the 3-2 defeat by Galatasaray in Istanbul extended his record to 22 in Europe's most prestigious competition. He will attempt to increase his tally still further against Rangers in the Stade Louis II on Wednesday night to keep alive his cherished dream of a return to the place he calls home.

The San Siro, where this season's Champions' League final will be staged next May, acclaimed the former Milan striker's goals for eight years, when he did not just partner some of the best players in the world, such as Marco van Basten and George Weah, but matched them too.

That is the quality of the man Rangers must silence on Wednesday. "You can see he still has the quality he had at Milan," said Dick Advocaat, who watched the French champions play Marseille 10 days ago.

The bitter irony, though, is that while Simone's time at Milan coincided with the most powerful club in the world appearing in five European Cup finals in seven years, all he has to show for it is one loser's medal from the 1995 defeat by Ajax.

He arrived as a teenager from Como just a month after the Ruud Gullit-inspired Milan had whitewashed Steaua Bucharest in 1989, and sat on the bench as they retained the trophy the following year by beating Benfica. He was there again when Barcelona were crushed 4-0 in the 1994 final and missed the 1993 defeat by Marseille after succumbing to injury. Van Basten played in that final, Simone did not - but at least the Italian would play again.

"I love playing," reflects Simone, now 31, "and at Monaco I have discovered the pleasure of playing football again. What happened to Marco shows that players can take nothing for granted. He was the best goalscorer ever, but now he has trouble walking."

Van Basten was the main man when Simone came to Milan as a fresh-faced youngster with a deadly reputation. The Dutchman and everyone else quickly discovered why. "My first European Cup goal was against Mechelen," Simone recalls. "I dribbled past six or seven Belgian players. For me, it was a dream. I was only 19 and partnering one of the greatest players in the world [Van Basten].

"The only final I played in at Milan was against Ajax, where I played with white boots, which had just come into fashion. [Fabio] Capello [the then Milan coach] was not pleased, and when we lost he blamed me for bringing bad luck."

Capello, though, knew it was more than just luck that had allowed Simone to score 17 European Cup and Champions' League goals in his time at the club. Only the legendary Jose Altafini with 20, and the unfortunate Van Basten (19) eclipsed that figure. He remains the best-ever Italian scorer in the competition.

"I am very proud of the fact that I achieved my honour with Milan, when it was such a great club, but I would love a winner's medal from the European Cup."

Whether Monaco can provide Simone with that is uncertain. The departures of four top players -- including Fabien Barthez to Manchester United and David Trézéguet to Juventus -- from the side which won the French title in May has not helped. But Simone feels that the manager, Claude Puel, unknown until he was promoted from his position as Monaco's youth coach, can follow in the success of his predecessors, Arsÿne Wenger and Jean Tigana.

"He is an 'Italian' coach," declared Simone. "He is a thinker, but he is also strict and that pleases me. That was the way Arrigo Sacchi was when I came to Milan and like Sacchi he has given me a free role, which is why I am playing so well." That liberty threatens to shackle Rangers' own ambitions on Wednesday.