The Last Word: The sick man of Europe nursed back to health

English clubs must beware Serie A shifting balance of power in Champions’ League culture clashes

Chris McGrath
Sunday 22 February 2009 01:00

Sooner or later – perhaps as soon as this week – Premier League teams will become so groggy with wealth and self-regard that they may suddenly find themselves impotent to exercise the droit de seigneur they have come to consider their prerogative in Europe. Having provided three semi-finalists in consecutive Champions’ Leagues, they approach the knockout stages this time with all the braggadocio of Cristiano Ronaldo addressing a free-kick, chest puffed and feet splayed as though trying to accommodate some monstrous priapic capability. But as Ronaldo himself demonstrated by missing penalties in both semi-final and final last year, not even the best can be relied upon to rise to the occasion.

As it happens, his is the only English club bringing irresistible domestic form to a clash of footballing cultures so perfect that it almost over-compensates for the most perfunctory group stage in the tournament’s history. Certainly only a final featuring Barcelona would be more fitting than the tie between two teams dominating their respective leagues, Manchester United and Internazionale.

Even the dissonance between their managers, Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, is but a sideshow to a critical test of equilibrium between the Premier League and Serie A. Chelsea, still trying to drive out Mourinho’s poltergeist, come across his predecessor, Claudio Ranieri, with Juventus, while Arsenal and Roma may both prove better suited by dilettante opportunities abroad than weekly attrition at home.

Luciano Spalletti, at Roma, is considered an inspiration for what has become the trademark gyration of Ferguson’s fluid forward line. Funnily enough, last year he accused Ferguson of reviving catenaccio – the stale “door-bolt” tactics once synonymous with the Italian game – in away games against his own team and Barcelona. But Spalletti had hardly forgotten Old Trafford in April 2007, when Roma’s 7-1 emasculation became the defining moment in European football’s new balance of power.

To some, Milan’s eventual success that season was the last thing Serie A needed, not least after Italy’s World Cup – literally contra mundum – the previous summer. Such deeds nourished a comforting illusion condensed by Orson Welles in The Third Man, comparing 30 years of bloodshed under the Borgias, producing the Renaissance, with 500 years of brotherly love in Switzerland, producing the cuckoo clock.

For Serie A remained stubbornly unreconstructed. Still to repent of violence, racism and corruption, Italy had become the sick man of the European game. Certainly broadcasters decided it was no longer deemed worthy of a British audience nowadays being entertained, on their own doorsteps, by the world’s richest stars.

But then, last Sunday, there was a brief, tantalising amnesty, when BBC3 decided that even the peripheral involvement of David Beckham might stimulate sufficient curiosity in the Milan derby to warrant a live broadcast. And they were rewarded by perhaps the best game on British television this winter. Certainly anyone who retains his objectivity, against the overweening claims made for the Premier League, must have contrasted the theatrical intensity of Inter’s 2-1 success with the apprehension that has stifled most “showdowns” between our own elite clubs this season.

As it happens, the game only ignited on Beckham’s withdrawal. On came Pippo Inzaghi, whose own advancing years and familiar foibles no doubt qualify him, in many eyes, as a perfect symbol of the Italian league’s decline. Together Inzaghi and Beckham surely illustrate Milan’s specific need for regeneration, but only the joyless could resist a classic cameo from one of the great predators. Yes, Inzaghi kept the linesman busy as usual but he peeled constantly into terrifying positions, wasting a world-class finish from an illegal one but unlucky not to win a penalty and only just thwarted in the final moments.

With the seraphic Paolo Maldini retiring at last, Alessandro Nesta troubled by injury and Kakha Kaladze execrable last Sunday, Milan desperately need fresh blood in defence. But anyone who watched this game gained new respect for the conclusion of Kaka – who sat injured in the stands – that no amount of money could give Manchester City’s “adventure” parity with an experience like this.

The failed seduction of Kaka was a parable of our times. Not everyone will fall into a swoon before all that dough. So beware schadenfreude among the many pundits expecting effete, depleted opposition from Italian clubs this week. The new stereotype may prove no less valid than any of the old ones. Italian football is a renewable paradox. How else could it be, when a nation supposedly intoxicated by gesture and aesthetic form should have long cherished such austere, functional tactics?

Mourinho, to that extent, has been a duck to water at Inter, where Esteban Cambiasso has become the bedrock of an adamantine midfield. Unmolested by Mourinho, of course, Ferguson is achieving “untouchable” status at home, his defence all but inviolate. Inter faced no Nemanja Vidic last Sunday. They were, moreover, fitful in the group stages. But this is the sort of tie Massimo Moratti did not trust Roberto Mancini to win. This is the tie for which Mourinho was hired.

Already he has renewed the virility of Serie A. The consensus seems to be that the Premier League nowadays has greater vitality, but those who predicted a terminal abyss between them may find it reduced to a mere fissure this week.

England, remember, still turns to Italy to restore dignity not only to its management, but also to its most illustrious player. The Premier League may be soaring in wealth, accomplishment and ambition. But never forget Italian football’s genius for pragmatism, as succinctly expressed by one of its great coaches. “Icarus flew,” Giovanni Trappatoni said. “But Icarus was a jerk.”

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