WHEN Paolo Maldini, Oliver Bierhoff and the rest of the current Milan squad arrive in London tomorrow for Wednesday's Champions' League fixture at Stamford Bridge, they will be bringing a lot of history along with them. The club's latest red and black shirts bear not just the badge denoting their status as Italian champions but also a shield commemorating the centenary of the founding of the club - an event for which an Englishman, Herbert Kilpin, was responsible when he gathered a group of friends together at a bar in the city's Via Berchet one day in 1899 and announced his intention to create something called the Milan Cricket and Football Club.
It has been a while since the club put out a cricket team, but they have long been established as one of the world's great football powers, five times champions of Europe and three times winners of the Intercontinental Cup. Yesterday they warmed up for their encounter with Chelsea by scoring three goals to Perugia's one, with goals from Bierhoff, Leonardo and their new pounds 18m Ukrainian striker, Andriy Shevchenko, plus a remarkable debut from another acquisition, the Brazilian wing-back Serginho.
"We're particularly happy to begin our centenary season, and our Champions' League campaign with a visit to London," Adriano Galliani, the club's vice-president, said at the weekend. "Football was born in England, and we don't forget the fact that we have our name - Milan, not Milano - because our founder was an Englishman and gave the club the English version of the name, which doesn't leave much doubt about our origins. We remember, too, that our first European Cup victory was in London."
Galliani was thinking back to the 2-0 defeat of Benfica in 1963 when the trophy was presented to Cesare Maldini, father of Paolo, the present captain, And it is exactly 30 years since the last time Milan played a European Cup tie in England, when the team of Gianni Rivera and Giovanni Trapattoni went to Old Trafford to secure a result in the second leg of the semi-final and denied Matt Busby's Manchester United - Law, Charlton, Best and all - the chance of holding on to the trophy they had won a year earlier.
This year's squad resembles the 1969 edition, which went on to beat Ajax in the final in Madrid, in at least one significant respect: it has an Italian defence, a multinational midfield and an attack made up of stranieri, or foreigners. Facing Perugia at San Siro yesterday, Milan went into their first home match of the new Serie A season with a line-up that included both their big new foreign investments, and if Shevchenko sometimes looked a little lost, Serginho wasted no time in making an impression.
Bought from Sao Paulo, the 28-year-old appears to have been designed to combine some of the qualities of a Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos. He has that patented Brazilian blend of elegance and rapidity and although he sometimes runs into blind allies, it will usually take at least two men to stop him finding a way out. He played on the left, in front of Maldini, and put over several dangerous crosses from the byline, including one from which Shevchenko nodded in the second goal just before the hour.
"There are things Serginho needs to learn," Alberto Zaccheroni, Milan's coach, said before the match. "He's fine when he's got the ball. When the opponents have possession, he could do better. But he can't learn if he doesn't play. And it helps to have a player behind him like Maldini who understands the game very well and can give him a hand if he gets into difficulties."
Milan had taken the lead after 27 minutes when Bierhoff ran on to a clever headed pass from George Weah and slotted home a left-foot shot. Then, having started brightly, they went to sleep and allowed Marco Materazzi to equalise from close range after Hidetoshi Nakata had fooled Maldini and Massimo Ambrosini wide on the right before clipping in a low cross.
Another clever pass from Nakata should have brought a goal for Alessandro Melli early in the second half, but Ambrosini's carefully delayed ball created the opportunity for Serginho to present Shevchenko with his second league goal in as many matches just a minute before the Ukrainian left the pitch, to be replaced by Leonardo.
Thirteen minutes later, Serginho and Leonardo stood over a free-kick 25 yards from the Perugia goal and it was merely a question of which of the two left-footed Brazilians would bend the ball round the wall and away from Andrea Mazzantini's dive.
Aside from Shevchenko and Serginho, Milan's other summer signings were all Italians, mostly brought in from lowly clubs, including the powerful Under-21 star Rino Gattuso, from Salernitana. "Our policy is to find champions, wherever they're born," Galliani said on Saturday. "So although we've invested in Shevchenko and Serginho, two great acquisitions, we're also maintaining a core of talented young Italian players, who will provide the basis for our future."
Gattuso, who was on the bench yesterday, is likely to start the match against Chelsea, in place of the suspended Ambrosini, although the more experienced Federico Giunti came on yesterday in place of the other central midfielder, Demetrio Albertini. Also unavailable on Wednesday will be Weah, who is resuming a six-match ban imposed by Uefa in November 1996, when he reacted to the constant fouling of Porto's Jorge Costa by thumping the Portuguese player in the tunnel after the match. Weah missed the subsequent Champions' League fixture, against Rosenborg Trondheim, which was Milan's last European engagement, and will now miss the first five games of the new campaign, including both meetings with Chelsea. Leonardo will almost certainly replace him.
The other significant absence is that of Zvonimir Boban, the 30-year- old Croatian playmaker who is receiving treatment for a stomach injury suffered during a Euro 2000 qualifier last month. Boban joined Milan in 1992, and has won four league titles and the 1994 European Cup, making him the most decorated foreign player in the club's history. It was not until halfway through last season, however, that he established himself as an indispensable member of the team, when he started to provide a regular supply of ammunition for the attacking "trident" beloved of Zaccheroni.
Boban's absence has been noticeable during Milan's pre-season matches, including defeats by Juventus, Real Madrid and Parma, and questions were again being asked - not least by the club's highly visible president, Silvio Berlusconi - about the efficiency of the trident, in which Weah, Bierhoff and Shevchenko are expected to form a blend. But after their 2-2 draw at Lecce in the opening league fixture a fortnight ago, Zaccheroni put the blame for the failure to win on the midfield quartet - hence the introduction yesterday of Serginho. But Perugia were unable to put the system to much of a test yesterday, even though the three-man home defence - "Billy" Costacurta, Roberto Ayala and Maldini, who recently suffered a broken toe and was playing on painkillers - looked less than impregnable.
The 46-year-old Zaccheroni, a small and cheerful man who arrived from Udinese last season to rescue the club from a four-year decline, had a brief disagreement with Galliani last week over the question of the club's priorities. "It's better to be champions of Europe than champions of Italy," the vice-president observed, appearing to suggest that the club would be putting a greater effort into the Champions' League campaign. The coach was quick to make his opinion plain. "We don't think of one as being more important than the other," Zaccheroni said. "We have to try and stay at the same level, whatever the competition."
Last season's championship, Milan's 16th, was achieved with a late run of seven consecutive victories which coincided with the sudden collapse of Lazio, who held a seven-point lead when Milan began their assault. "It was a pleasant surprise," Galliani said. "We weren't expecting it, but you can't predict these things in football."
In the eyes of most critics, Milan won the title without playing outstanding football. Even Zaccheroni agrees. When I asked the coach if the biggest difference between working at Udinese and working at Milan was the size of the squad, he replied: "No. The only difference between Milan and Udinese is that Udinese played better than Milan. It's difficult to get Milan to that level. We're talking about the tactical side, of course. At Milan I have players of high quality, with more experience. But they're less tactical. Udinese were very organised."
Milan were tactically organised enough to account for Perugia yesterday. But when Gianluca Vialli - who once turned down a move from Sampdoria to Milan because he would not be able to get up in the morning and see the sea - studies the videotape he will notice Milan's lack of sheer speed both fore and aft, the opportunities presented by Christian Abbiati's fallible clearance kicks, and the general impression of a team still sorting itself out. And he will fancy his chances.
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