Italians unable to defy critics in flat final

Members of the AC Milan team celebrate after winning the UEFA Champions League. — Pic. LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES-

IN the end the fears that the first all-Italian Champions League final would produce a stalemate proved justified.

IN the end the fears that the first all-Italian Champions League final would produce a stalemate proved justified.

AC Milan won their sixth European Cup 3-2 on penalties after a game, which, having started brightly with a disallowed goal from Andriy Shevchenko and neat football from Milan, drifted into a quagmire.

After a dreadful, defensive, half hour of extra time it was hard to feel either side merited a night of celebration.

But perhaps there was some justice that it was Shevchenko who struck the decisive final spot kick to ensure that his captain Paolo Maldini lifted the European Cup 40 years after his father Cesare had done so at Wembley stadium.

Milan were by no means at their best, but their first half performance provided the only real pleasure in this final and they had the bulk of the chances.

This season's Champions League has produced some outstanding football and both the Italian teams have made their contribution to the success of the world's top club tournament.

Sadly, though, there was none of the dynamism that Juventus showed in their semi-final, second leg win over Real Madrid.

While Milan showed in the opening 45 minutes some of the intelligent constructive play that characterised their impressive autumn form, they also ran out of ideas against the disciplined defending of Marcello Lippi's side.

Juventus, 27 times Italian champions, will count their third defeat in four Champions League finals under Lippi as their unluckiest, coming after the lottery of a penalty shootout.

When the disappointment has eased, however, they might also ponder that as Italian champions, they were unable to produce anywhere near enough chances to merit beating a Milan team coached by their former boss Carlo Ancelotti.

A header by substitute Antonio Conte that crashed against the woodwork just after the interval was the nearest they came to a breakthrough.

Their forwards David Trezeguet and Alessandro del Piero both had disappointing nights, although they were starved of service from a four-man midfield that sorely missed the incisive and positive play of the suspended Pavel Nedved.

As well as Shevchenko's ruled-out strike in the eighth minute, Milan came close again nine minutes later with a diving header from former Juve striker Filippo Inzaghi.

Milan's creative midfield forces, Rui Costa and Andrea Pirlo, enjoyed plenty of space to move the ball around, with Juve forced back deep.

When the Turin side did win possession they were not able to launch the sudden counter-attacks that Nedved has provided throughout his two seasons with the club.

The crisp and precise passing out of defence from Maldini and Alessandro Nesta was in stark contrast to the hurried clearances from Juve's backline, but that changed after the break.

In replacing ineffective right-winger Mauro Camoranesi with the rugged experience of Antonio Conte in midfield, Lippi closed down space, eliminating the channels Milan had used to start their moves.

The 65th-minute addition of burly Marcelo Zalayeta in attack, at the expense of midfielder Edgar Davids, seemed a positive move from Juve but, in truth, all Zalayeta contributed was more effective pressuring of the Milan defence.

A negative side-effect for Juve was that Del Piero was forced to drop into a deeper role and any chance of him providing a jink or turn to unlock the Milan defence faded.

With his side unable to find the rhythm they had in the first half, Ancelotti looked for width by bringing on Serginho. But the inconsistent Brazilian's crossing was poor and not once did he manage one of his winding runs that can turn a game.

The crowd were left to wonder if the fatigue of extra time could lead to an error that might decide the game.

When Milan substitute Roque Junior pulled up with a muscle injury, leaving his side, who had used all their substitutes, effectively playing with 10 fit men, the balance looked to have shifted towards Juve.

But even then, with Milan looking to do little more than hang on for penalties, Juve couldn't threaten Dida's goal.

Their fruitless display was summed up when, three minutes from the end of extra time, Del Piero blasted high over the bar from a promising position.

It was left to the penalties to provide their usual cheap thrills and ensure that at least the Milan supporters were left with a night to remember.

Celebration in Milan

The city of Milan burst into spontaneous celebration after AC Milan won the shootout, while a shroud of silence fell over Turin, hometown of losing finalists Juventus.

Fans in both cities had crowded around huge screens and crammed into bars to watch the first all-Italian Champions League final but had to sit through more than two hours of goalless football before Milan triumphed 3-2 on spot kicks.

"I watched two dreadful halves, 30 minutes of nail-biting extra time and in one second of a nightmare shootout, my world has crashed around me," said Juventus fan Tomaso Rossi, who watched the match in Turin's central Piazza Castello.

But 140 km down the road, Milan fans forgot how they had clutched their temples every time Juventus attacked and predicted a golden era for their club, owned by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

"We're six-times European champions. Now we're going to win the World Championship, Serie A and the European Cup again. Nobody can stop us," cried Riccardo Battaglia, hanging out of one of the hundreds of cars in a huge traffic jam.

Other fans decked Italy's financial capital in Milan's red and black flags and fired bright red flares into the balmy evening air.

Flocks of the 30,000 people who watched the match on a giant screen in Milan's San Siro stadium hugged each other on the metro trains home.

"This was judgement day for Juve — they can't win forever," beamed 27-year-old Tarek, waving a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag in honour of Milan striker Andriy Shevchenko, who scored the decisive penalty.

In Turin, groups of grown men collapsed on the side of the street, weeping quietly on each other's shoulders.

Others kicked despondently through the sea of empty bottles in Piazza Castello, blaming the loss on a weakened midfield that missed the influence of a suspended Pavel Nedved.

"We played so well against Real Madrid in the semi-finals but without Nedved they were like a bunch of teenagers. I can't bear it," said Geli Odobashi, an Albanian immigrant who said his job in life was to cheer on the recently-crowned Serie A champions.

Seedorf enters record books

Dutch midfielder Clarence Seedorf broke down in tears after becoming the first player to win the European Cup with three different clubs.

Seedorf helped AC Milan to a 3-2 penalty shootout win over Italian rivals Juventus in the Champions League final at Old Trafford, adding to his successes with Ajax Amsterdam in 1995 and Real Madrid in 1998.

"It's incredible, incredible," Seedorf said. "I don't have any words. I am so, so happy." Sobbing, the Dutchman — one of two Milan players to have his penalty saved — added: "It has just been a great spectacle for us, a great atmosphere, a great stadium. I think Milan deserved it, during the game we were the better team."

Ukrainian striker Andriy Shevchenko, back to his best after a bad knee injury earlier this season, scored the winning penalty for Milan said, "I just tried to stay as calm as possible. In these situations it's a bit like a duel between the goalkeeper and whoever's taking the penalty. For me, this is the biggest trophy I can win. My injury at the beginning of the season could have been disastrous, but at the end I've managed to make a difference."

Asked what he felt, Milan manager Carlo Ancelotti said: "Satisfaction, joy — I'm feeling all these things equally at the moment." Ancelotti was sacked by Juventus in 2001 but said he did not want to talk about any feelings of vindication.

"There'll be plenty of time to talk about things like that," he said. "For now I just want to celebrate with my players."

Juventus coach Marcello Lippi lamented the absence of his injured Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved, who was suspended for the final. "It was always going to be difficult without Nedved," he said. "With him in the side we would have been able to push forward more. Then we suffered injuries to (Igor) Tudor and (Edgar) Davids. Those certainly didn't help."

Milan captain Paolo Maldini celebrated his fourth European Cup triumph with the club 40 years after his father Cesare helped them to their first success in the competition in 1963.

"To lift the cup as captain is a huge joy for me," he said. "To be here again so many years after the first one (in 1989), and to follow in my father's footsteps is something really special."

Milan striker Filippo Inzaghi said: "To win on penalties isn't maybe the best way to clinch it. (Juventus goalkeeper Gianluigi) Buffon pulled off a phenomenal save to stop me scoring in the first half, but the most important thing was that we won. It's been a tough year for Milan at times, but this makes up for it."

Milan finished third in Serie A this season but Inzaghi only had praise for Ancelotti. "The boss has always done great things. He'd already finished runner-up in Serie A twice. If we can round off our season with victory in the Italian Cup, it'll be an even greater year for us." he said.

Buffon, who saved two of Milan's penalties, said, "I think overall we had the better penalty takers. Maybe we could have taken them a bit better, but I'm an optimist. There will be more opportunities in future."