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Rae's say: Serie A supremacy

Don't say I didn't warn you. Back in the autumn I devoted this space to the proficiency of front-line Italian representatives in the UEFA Champions League. It seemed likely to me as far back as October that at least one Serie A team would be Istanbul bound come the end of May.

We still have a long way to go, but the odds against that eventuality have shortened considerably following the events of a thoroughly riveting first knockout round.

Forget the fanciful claims from England and Spain that football in their respective top divisions has outpaced the battle for the scudetto. That argument has surely been smashed to tiny pieces.

If the Champions League serves as a barometer gauging a domestic league's vitality, for this season at least, the advantage rests with the Italians.

While disciples of the Italian game will doubtless feel vindicated this week, it's worth reflecting on the qualities that enabled AC Milan and Juventus to prevail against some of the strongest opposition they'll face at any time in the course of the season.

In essence, the two Italian giants succeeded by remaining in their comfort zone. In other words, stressing dogged defence and tactical discipline. That all three Serie A sides left in the competition possess players of a lofty technical level should never be forgotten, but they're certainly no better than their Spanish counterparts on that score.

By adhering to a cautious tactical plan, and eliminating serious mistakes, Milan and Juve outdid Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively.

Inter conclude their tie with last year's winners Porto on Tuesday, and it will be no surprise if the nerazzuri provide Italy with a third team in next week's draw for the last eight and last four.

As it turned out, Juventus were a little bit fortunate against Real Madrid. Outplayed in the first leg, the old lady of Italian football nevertheless managed to limit the damage to a 1-0 reverse.

The nerves were jangling at the Stadio delle Alpi in the return, but Juventus remained patient throughout. Fabio Capello's introduction of David Trezeguet midway through the second half was a masterstroke.

Capello's opposite number Vanderlei Luxemburgo was left to rue leaving on the ineffective (and perhaps still under-the-weather) Raul for far too long, when a fresh Michael Owen was waiting on the sidelines.

A case can in fact be compiled that Real Madrid were marginally the better, more fluent team over the two matches. But the Italian approach, the Capello way of thinking, held sway.
A case can in fact be compiled that Real Madrid were marginally the better, more fluent team over the two matches. But the Italian approach, the Capello way of thinking, held sway.

Milan, on the other hand, were clearly superior to Manchester United over the two legs both technically and tactically. Really, the damage was done in the initial match.

Having blunted United's edge at Old Trafford, and taken advantage of Roy Carroll's howler, Carlo Ancelotti's side could afford a circumspect strategy at the San Siro: one of containing and countering. Ageing they might be, but there's not a better, more able defence in European football than the one orchestrated by the unique Paolo Maldini.

Tactical nous and defensive resilience (and the lack thereof) go a long way towards explaining the rise of Italy and the fall of Spain in the Champions League this week. Barcelona were astonishingly naïve in their return meeting with Chelsea, and some of their players have admitted as much.

For all that Milan and Juventus deserve rich praise, the Italian style is anathema to most of us who watch the competition with a neutral eye.

You don't have to be a supporter of Real Madrid or Barca to appreciate the commitment to attacking football these two teams consistently demonstrate. Unfortunately, as the Spanish standard bearers know to their cost, attacking football doesn't always equate with tasting victory.

To be honest though, our football existence would be rather dull if everyone decided to play like the Italians. Think back to the 2003 Champions League Final in Manchester between, you've guessed it, Milan and Juventus. This exercise in nullification might have been a wonderful event for those watching back in the peninsula, but it did little to enthuse the uncommitted.

AC Milan dominated Manchester United during Tuesday's second leg.
AC Milan dominated Manchester United during Tuesday's second leg.

In fact, there's something distinctly unsatisfying about a major final contested by two teams from the same land, irrespective of what country we're talking about: Real Madrid's meeting with Valencia in 2000 was a case in point.

It's my hope then, that Spanish teams, despite this week's Champions League setbacks, don't try to become carbon copies of Milan and Juve.

I should add, and Italian readers please don't take offence, I would prefer not to see an all-Italian final in Turkey. One Serie A side will suffice.

In football, as in life, variety is everything.

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