Maldini came out on top because he has a more profound understanding of defensive play than anyone since Bobby Moore

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The Independent Online
Instead of filling their heads with pretentious thoughts about formations and tactics, lay football enthusiasts would be better served by attention to qualities that have established Paolo Maldini as the outstanding Italian footballer of his generation.

By this I mean not just Maldini's mastery of technique, the sureness of his touch and delivery, but the nous he further demonstrated against Russia at Anfield on Tuesday when coming up against Andrei Kanchelskis.

A fundamental truth about football, one many of today's students fail to appreciate fully, is that tactical developments have done nothing to diminish the importance of individual tussles.

The prospect of that between a full-back who has no equal in the game and a winger whose pace and directness regularly causes consternation in the Premiership was bound to quicken the pulse and provide relief from the impression that coaches have taken over the tournament.

Here, in fact, was an encounter that could have fitted into any period of football history. Maldini came out on top because he has a more profound understanding of defensive play than anyone since Bobby Moore, who had no equal among contemporaries.

A safe bet is that Maldini will not miss a match through suspension. Risking a referee's wrath does not figure on his agenda. Maldini demonstrated this when recovering from a rare moment of positional misjudgement, making up three yards in less than 10 to thwart Yanovski, closing the Russian down without needing to put a foot in. By then Kanchelskis had wandered off to try his luck elsewhere, probably cursing the talent Maldini was born with.

Drooling over Maldini's accomplishments, the congnoscenti formed a good impression of the Italian team; excellent combination and mutual understanding indicates that teamwork, as ever, has been high on the curriculum.

You can say as much about the Germans who have already drawn the admiration of professionals. "They look very good," said Arsenal's assistant manager, Stewart Houston. "Obviously very well prepared and, their goalkeeper apart, strong in every position. It will take a good team to beat them."

However, the way things have shaped up so far there is room for some individual attacking brilliance and a big improvement in long-range shooting. No complaints have been registered about the ball but one or two people I have spoken to who earn their living from the game can find no other explanation for the inaccuracy.

A personal complaint is that the football authorities again appear to be using a a major event to promote the spurious notion that the game would improve no end if they legislated against tackling.

The team that succeeds could possibly be the one that adapts best to prevailing attitudes. It may suggest a surfeit of efficiency, but the coach who studies referees closely on the clear understanding that they are seldom hampered by consistency could gain a critical advantage.

What we have been looking at so far is an international football tournament very little different in character from any other. You are always likely to learn more from the second than the first matches. By then the players have settled down and the coaches have a clearer idea of what they are coming up against.

We shall have to wait and see how this applies to England but, as they say about racehorses, it is possible the Switzerland match may have brought them on a bit.

During the 24 hours following the publication of fresh reports concerning the extracurricular activity of some England players it was agreed generally in discussion that they are naive to the point of stupidity.

What appears to escape them is that people profit from tipping off tabloid newspapers. It is like walking on to a building sight without a hard hat and complaining about being hit on the head by a falling rivet. Despite the protestations advanced by Terry Venables it does not begin to make sense and is to my mind quite indefensible.

The biliousness with which Venables and his squad are now regarding people assigned to report on their preparation for Saturday's critical match against Scotland is not without precedent, but a siege mentality does not guarantee an improved performance.

Maybe it has something to do with the quite ridiculous attention now given to players in the Premiership but England are almost alone with the cult of personality. "We have no stars," the German coach, Berti Vogts, said this week. "The star is the team." Hardly a stirring philosophy but not one you would rush in to bet against.

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