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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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Liverpool and Arsenal set for showdown

50-50 Challenge
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The one man band

Think about it. Say you're the general manager of one of the world's top sides. You know you can afford to buy a player who can win a match, any match, with a simple touch of brilliance even on a day when most of his teammates have their minds elsewhere.

You go on with the purchase and you're safe in the knowledge this player will make the difference when forces are even, or rescue you from a bad situation when the chips are down. He does just that... and you get sneered at in the media because, the reasoning goes, where would your side be without him?

Now, concentrate on Milan and Shevchenko, and you'll know the one I outlined was not just an imaginary situation. Milan trail Juventus by six points and are the only reasonable candidates to overtake them in the race for the scudetto, but they have had to thank Andriy Shevchenko for most of their wins lately.

Which has sprouted the accusations for the Rossoneri of being totally reliant on the brilliant Ukrainian striker, the only one in the squad, with Tomasson enduring a bad spell (stop giggling at the back, Newcastle fans), Crespo struggling to get into footballing shape and Inzaghi out for a few more months after his ankle surgery, able to channel Milan's approach play into goals.

The accusations have more than a rational explanation, of course: Milan's style in the last couple of years has been one of possession football, play being directed through the wise feet of Andrea Pirlo who then distributes the ball from his position in front of the defence.

Quick bursts forward to Shevchenko and Inzaghi would leave other midfielders free to reach the edge of the penalty area and create matchup problems, but it was all down to the two strikers to provide the goals, and rightly so.

This year, what looked last season like an intelligent, safe and sometimes brilliant style of approach has driven Milan into blind alleys too many times, and they have been rescued by Shevchenko so frequently that one can understand why the accusations, or whispers, have been growing: in the last month 'Sheva', as all Milan fans call him, has scored all of Milan's goals in the Champions League and in the Serie A. The winner at Sampdoria on October 30, the only one against Roma in the 1-1 draw, the one that briefly put Milan ahead in Barcelona and the couple to beat Siena last weekend, which gave him exactly 100 Serie A goals.

It may not be a case of an 'addiction' to Shevchenko, as Milan has too many good players to be like that for too long, but it can safely be said Juventus would be so much more ahead of them had the Ukrainian not provided some firepower.

In the only Serie A match he missed recently, a midweek slugfest on a heavy pitch in Brescia, Milan hardly looked like scoring and went close to losing, as the defence - but that's another matter - has also had its collective head turned by some opponents (remember Ronaldinho in Barcelona, dancing nimbly on the edge of the penalty area before being allowed to shoot?).

As a result of his wonderful form, Shevchenko has increased his iconic status among Milan fans. Born in - hold your breath - Dvirkivshchyna, Ukraine, on September 29, 1976 - ironically, he shares his birthday with Milan owner and Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi... - Andriy started playing football at an early age and actually played at the San Siro for a Kiyv youth side when he was 14.

After starring for Dinamo Kiyv in Europe - his strike partner was current West Ham forward Sergei Rebrov - he was signed by then Italian champions Milan for 20 million euros in the summer of 1999, and immediately became the Serie A's top scorer with 24 goals.

Shevchenko: Fitness race
Shevchenko: Fitness race

Milan, however, did not win a major trophy until 2003, when they lifted the Champions League in Manchester, beating Juventus on penalties. Shevchenko, of course, scored the winning strike from the spot, and he still says that was the best moment of his life, one he'd been dreaming about since he was a kid.

It had perhaps an added value because midway through the 2002-03 season injures and a loss of confidence had opened a Pandora's box of suspicions about his effectiveness (he ended the Serie A campaign with only five goals in 24 appearances). That penalty in Manchester helped him turn the corner and it's safe to say he hasn't looked back since. He's again among the main favourites to win the overhyped Ballon d'Or or Golden Ball, something which would obviously please him but not as much as his stated desire to lead Ukraine to the last stages of a major international competition.

After missing out on Euro 2004, Ukraine have a five-point lead in their group: their 2-0 win in Turkey on Wednesday was a masterpiece, an example of how a team playing away from home in a noisy and hostile environment can steer the game in its direction early; after Guseev had put the visitors in from on nine minutes, Shevchenko's brace - his 18th and 19th goal in 20 competitive matches this season, and 26th in 57 appearances for his nation - sealed the result.

His first strike summed up one of Andriy's main abilities: he's arguably the best striker in the world at scoring inside the far post from a tight angle, a feat he's performed a few times already.

On a more personal side - not something that should normally dwelt on, but this is not a normal situation - Shevchenko married American model Kristen Pazik in Washington last July, and the couple have a child, Jordan, born three weeks ago and named after a certain former superstar basketball player.

Old Trafford 2003: Shevchenko celebrates the moment he had always dreamed of.
Old Trafford 2003: Shevchenko celebrates the moment he had always dreamed of.

I'm a bit embarrassed about stooping down - or is it up? - to gossiping, but the story of the relationship between Miss Pazik and Shevchenko commands some words. Twenty-six-year-old old Kristen was briefly the girlfriend of Piersilvio Berlusconi, Silvio Berlusconi's son and the head of the television empire his father built.

Kristen once posed for a photoshoot which required - er - little or no clothing in the gardens of the Berlusconis' mansion in Arcore, near Milan, and rumour has it Silvio wasn't too pleased with that. Some time after that, Kristen and Piersilvio split, Shevchenko met her and they even posed for the cover of the same mag that had published that photoshoot in 2000.

As embarrassing and corny as it is to write a story about a perfect couple and a footballer in his prime, that's how Shevchenko's life and career look at the moment. Now, if only Tomasson or Crespo or Kaka or Seedorf or someone else, anyone else, could help him...

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