Pragmatic Milan to dominate romantics

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The Independent Online


reports from Vienna

The belief that money is the means to footballing success, so recently confirmed in the Premiership, will be thoroughly tested at the highest level tonight.

Milan, the flagship of Silvio Berlusconi's business empire and one of the world's richest clubs, meet Ajax, traditionally one of Europe's selling clubs.

The last time Ajax produced a crop of brilliant youngsters two of them, Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, went on to win the European Champions' Cup - for Milan. This time the club intend to win it for themselves. They have reason to be confident. They have lost only one match - in the Dutch cup - all season and have already defeated Milan twice in the Champions' League.

At the time those victories were widely regarded as signalling the end of one era, and the beginning of another. In contrast with Ajax, who play a fluid "total football" reminiscent of the great Ajax side of the early Seventies, Milan seemed to be an ageing team whose football, like their muscles, was stiffening with age. While Milan have one player - Demetrio Albertini - under 26 Ajax have just two players over that age.

Those defeats nearly put Milan, European champions three times in the last six years, out of the competition at the Champions' League stage. But they scraped through with a 1-0 success over Casino Salzburg in December in the same Prater stadium in which they contest the final tonight.

Since then Milan have rediscovered their form. Benfica and the highly rated Paris St Germain have been swept away with Dejan Savicevic, the star of last year's 4-0 final win over Barcelona, showing glorious form. Assuming Savicevic is fit - he suffered the recurrence of a thigh strain in training yesterday - they will even start as narrow favourites.

Victory would be Milan's sixth in the competition, equalling the record of Real Madrid. The first two were in the Sixties; the second, in 1969, signalled the rise of Ajax. Beaten that year they won the next three titles before Cruyff and Johan Neeskens headed for Barcelona. A win for them tonight and they will draw level with Liverpool, in third place with four titles.

It promises to be a classic encounter with the first goal crucial. Ajax have pace on the wings, in Marc Overmars and Finidi George, and inventiveness in the centre with the Finn Jari Litmanen coming deep to lend support.

But Milan have two excellent full-backs in Christian Panucci (though error-prone) and the peerless Paolo Maldini. In the centre, Ajax must get past Marcel Desailly and Albertini before they can attack Franco Baresi who, though still quick of mind, is slow of feet.

On the break, Zvonimir Boban and Savicevic have the pace and nous to pose a severe test to the elder statesmen, Rijkaard (32) and Danny Blind (33), in the heart of the Dutch defence.

Rijkaard, who will retire after the game, scored the winner when Milan beat Benfica to win the European Cup here in 1990. Along with Van Basten and Ruud Gullit he provided the inspiration behind Milan's rise.

The current Milan side, while technically excellent, rarely expresses itself as attractively as it did with the Dutchmen. It is still capable of playing football of the highest quality, as in the 4-0 win over Barcelona in last year's final, but realism dominates the romance.

That is more likely to be provided by Ajax. Whether it is enough to defeat the greater experience of Milan is doubtful. The heart says Ajax; the head Milan.

Ajax (4-2-1-3): Van der Sar; Reiziger, Blind, Rijkaard, F De Boer; Davids, Seedorf; Litmanen; George, R de Boer, Overmars.

Milan (probable) (4-4-2): Rossi; Panucci, Costacurta, Baresi, Maldini; Donadoni, Desailly, Albertini, Boban; Savicevic, Simone.

Referee: I Craciunescu (Romania).