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Alarm bells sounding for Everton

Everton
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Benitez's gamble

I'm sure some of you expected this column to focus exclusively on that night of shame at the San Siro. But having read my colleague Roberto Gotta's brilliant treatise on the subject of Italian fan culture in general, and Tuesday night's horror show in particular, I'll keep my own remarks on crowd problems somewhat brief.

Commentating as I was for ESPN while the flares came raining on, it was hard to believe we were covering a sporting event. Suffice to say, Italian football should be thoroughly embarrassed.

Almost as troubling as the fire throwing incidents though, were the ignorant statements that came out of the mouths of Inter players, Juan Veron, Ivan Cordoba and Marco Materazzi. All three sought to condemn the actions of the idiots in the Curva Nord, yet qualified their remarks by saying they could understand why the 'fans' reacted in the fashion they did. Apparently, it was all Markus Merk's fault for disallowing Esteban Cambiasso's goal!

We're all passionate about football, but clearly these men failed to recognize the gravity of what was going on just a few metres away from them on Tuesday evening. When a football pitch begins to resemble a fiery battlefield, we're in deep trouble.

Inter deserve to be kicked out of European football. Just as England addressed hooliganism in the Eighties, Italy must examine itself and its football culture now.

Frankly, it seems to me somehow inappropriate to talk at length about the football aspects of the derby itself, given the chilling sight of a goalkeeper being hit by a burning firework. Besides, AC Milan received praise enough from me last week.

The quarter-final second leg played the following night, between Juventus and Liverpool didn't pass off entirely peacefully either. Reports have surfaced that a barrage of bottles, oranges, coins and even flares, were thrown by Juventus supporters at their Liverpool counterparts inside the Stadio delle Alpi.

The game itself in Turin, while perhaps poor from an aesthetic point of view, was nevertheless nail-biting to the very end. Few of us had imagined Liverpool would be capable of keeping the Old Lady goalless. In the event though, genuine Juventus chances were few and far between.

Rafa Benitez spoke of Juventus coach Fabio Capello in glowing terms before the second leg. The Spaniard reckoned he would have to outwit 'a master tactician' if Liverpool were to prevail: he succeeded, by taking a couple of calculated gambles.

Xabi Alonso hadn't played for the first team since fracturing his ankle on New Year's Day, yet Benitez had full confidence in his compatriot's ability to put in a top quality display of craft and graft. Sitting slightly deeper than the much improved Igor Biscan, Alonso sprayed excellent passes around for much of the night, and was prepared to mix it with Juventus when necessary too. That he lasted ninety minutes, was the icing on the cake for Benitez.

There was of course the added bonus of seeing Djibril Cisse come on to replace Milan Baros in the closing stages, just over five months after breaking (and nearly losing) his leg against Blackburn.

Rafa Benitez: Recruiting.
Rafa Benitez: Recruiting.

Emerson might be the player Real Madrid feel can bolster their midfield next season, but the Brazilian played a definite second fiddle to the former Real Sociedad man on Wednesday night.

For Juventus, there was precious little creativity from Pavel Nedved and Mauro Camoranesi. Antonio Nunez and Steve Finnan cancelled out the former, while the latter struggled to get to grips with constant attention from Djimi Traore and John Arne Riise.

Ruben Olivera seemed not to know where he was supposed to be playing before being replaced at the break by his fellow Uruguyan Marcelo Zalayeta. Meanwhile, there was a distinct lack of guile from Alex del Piero and Zlatan Ibrahimovich. They both might argue that some of the offside decisions that went against them in the first half were a little harsh. That would be making an excuse however, for a decidedly below par attacking performance.

Sami Hyypia was a giant at the back for Liverpool, ably supported by the indefatigable Jamie Carragher. Jerzy Dudek in goal, had one of his less adventurous nights.

The well-worn theory that Liverpool are better equipped to deal with the subtelty of European football than the hurly-burly of the Premiership, will now be put to the test, given their semi-final pairing with Chelsea.

Logic and recent form point to a Chelsea triumph, although Liverpool are entitled to feel it's their turn to reverse this season's patterns, as played out in the Premier League and Carling Cup.

If Liverpool show the character and high level of organisation we saw in Turin, they'll have more than a fighting chance.

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