Ageing defenders prove their dark art is back in vogue


One would have to go back decades to find a defender as skilful and implacable as Juventus' Lilian Thuram, who would shut most Premiership forwards in a box and not let them out even for Christmas. — Pic. LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES-

ANYONE who loses interest in the Champions League when the English teams go out needs their head examined. This kind of parochialism has been damaging English football for a generation. How do you learn if you refuse to look? The European Cup final is incontrovertibly the most important event in club football; the match that provides a computer print-out on the health of the world's favourite game.

Not that Manchester can be accused of intellectual laziness. The staging of this all-Italian final enhanced the old cotton town's standing as a great sporting city. Getting on for a year after the Commonwealth Games worked as a kind of Viagra for the northern soul, Piccadilly Gardens, in the centre of the city, mutated into a Little Italy of competing passions. In their eagerness to render Old Trafford a truly neutral venue, UEFA even forced the closure of the Manchester United megastore, which was the Las Vegas of merchandising outlets: a world that never sleeps.

The day of the final brought Milan fashion into conflict with Turin industry. This Milan side are not in the same vineyard as the illustrious Dutch-Italian ensemble of the early 1990s. It was Carlo Ancelotti's team, though, who stopped the game developing into a PhD course for defenders. They set the tone of an unexpectedly exciting struggle by moving the ball sweetly and trying to drill holes in the Alpine wall of Juve's muscularity.

Despite Milan's efforts to unleash their own club's finer traditions, there is no cause to alter the conclusion that defending is back in vogue. Everyone's talking about it. Especially Sir Alex Ferguson, who must have gazed enviously at these two craggy back lines. Paolo Maldini (Milan) is 34 and Ciro Ferrara (Juventus) 36. Alessandro Costacurta (Milan again) has made it to 37 with his first-team place intact. The agility and youth of a Wes Brown or Rio Ferdinand is just one half of the necessary defensive equipment. Ferguson talks about his young guards needing experience. Learning is one thing, but can young English defenders change their very nature? Change the way they think?

The last time we were here on a European night we watched a fevered Keystone Kops of a match between Manchester United and Real Madrid. The blood was pumping and the eyes bulged. The scoreboard toiled to record all the goals. But then another vast Champions League campaign was distilled into its essential elements. Goals were again hard to come by. The dark art of negation stopped the glory boy strikers in their tracks. You would have to go back decades to find a defender as skilful and implacable as Juve's Lilian Thuram, who would shut most Premiership forwards in a box and not let them out even for Christmas.

Brilliant though they undoubtedly are, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Thierry Henry would not score 70-plus goals per season between them if their workplace was Italy's Serie A. Milan's Filippo Inzaghi does his best to convince his audience that he believes he's going to score. In his many imprecisions, though, you can see evidence of how hard it is to maintain that belief. At the back, the top Italian sides sacrifice mobility for knowledge and high levels of concentration. There is never any question of bundling 34-year-old centre halves off into the hills. In England we regard them with suspicion. In Italy they can still dictate the tempo and tone, all the while stretching the laws of the game to their limits.

If Inzaghi and the Juventus pairing of Alessandro Del Piero and David Trezeguet seemed quiet, it was probably because they bounced off the wall of multiple tackling, of clever body angles and mildly nefarious challenges. For a while Andriy Schevchenko pressed his claim to be regarded as one of Milan's great strikers. Not Marco Van Basten, by any means, but certainly a Milanese menace of the old school.

Monty Python might have characterised this match as Socrates against Plato, with a bit of Macchiavelli thrown in. In the context all the brilliant blocking and tackling — and Gianluigi Buffon's exemplary goalkeeping in the Juventus nets — Henry's love of the ultra-open English Premiership made a good deal more sense. We have our virtues here, of course, but patience and tight defending are not among them. If Ferguson holds to his pre-match analysis, Manchester United will attempt to fuse an Italian rear on to the Spanish front of next season's team.

If you love football in all its contrasting forms, a European Cup final ought to be second on the must-watch list below the endgame of a World Cup. There was more cerebral might on show than in the last big event staged here (Manchester United-Real Madrid), and certainly more grace than we will see in the next: a concert by Bon Jovi.

Copyright, Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2003