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Apr 7, 2006

Dodgy keeper?

Two 'this is our turn' years ended in midweek.

Inter bowed out of the Champions League with a thud, Juventus saw their choice of brawn over brain exposed in Europe, where refs are not impressed by their name and have not developed the neck muscle pull which has been known in Serie A, where heads are turned the other way whenever they do injustice to their own skill level and resort to rough play or excessive gamesmanship.

As soon as they started leaking points to the likes of Messina or Sampdoria, Inter turned their attention from the Serie A to the Champions League, or to be more accurate you had the feeling most of the media, always willing to kick whoever is already down provided it is not career-threatening to do so, did it for them.

Intermittently brilliant, Inter seemed to fit more with the smash and grab tactics of two-legged European ties than to the complex, carefully planned, sometimes downright boring get-rich slowly schemes of a whole league season.

Obviously, this stuff only comes out right after the horses have bolted. Many, count me among them, in fact believed this time Inter had all the right tools to go the distance for the scudetto. Hard facts say they didn't.

And the customary, early spring can of worms has already been opened at the Milan club, where owner Massimo Moratti has already pointed his fingers at the players, steering well clear of indicting coach Roberto Mancini, under whom, by the way, the nerazzurri have probably played their best football in years. Stay tuned, because Inter, of all top clubs in Italy, seem to be the most vulnerable to internal bickering and back-stabbing.

As for Juve, a personal note here, because I watched their match in slightly surreal surroundings. Being in New York on assignment (for non-football reasons, obviously), and based in a West 48th Street hotel, do you think I'd watch Juve on one of the big screens at - ahem - ESPN Sportszone in Times Square in one of the most shameless examples of brand loyalty in recent times? Well, I would, wouldn't I?

Keeping well clear of anyone even remotely looking Italian in a standing-room only crowd - I have never been one for meeting up with fellow Italians abroad - I positioned myself at the left end of the bar, with only the groans and cheers, mixed with those emanating from the fans watching Barcelona-Benfica on the smaller screen, serving as a background, as the voice of our esteemed commentators could not be heard above the din.

Juve's frustration at their failure to dent Arsenal was literally jumping out of the screen, and as the match wore on it was clear to anybody in the venue that only a stroke of luck, such as the error by Wiese which had given them passage to the quarter-finals last month, would have helped them.

Milan, then, remain Italy's lone flag-bearers in the Champions Leage, a huge letdown after the quarter-finals draw had caused many to believe the Serie A would have three in the semi-finals.

Their last-gasp win over the unfortunate and unlucky Lyon was again down to brilliant positioning by Pippo Inzaghi, arguably Italy's best striker in the last couple of months, which makes Marcello Lippi's decision to leave him out of the World Cup squad - for the time being - even more puzzling, because the Azzurri have no one like him.

Inzaghi hardly passes for the nicest character on the pitch - I can guarantee he's better off the pitch, having seen him sign autographs for kid after kid at a basketball game - and his manic goal celebrations have attracted much scorn among all those who do not support Milan, but his knack of being in the right place at the right time was again prominent on Tuesday when he putted in Shevchenko's right footed shot which had been bravely deflected on to the right then left post by Coupet.

Lost in the celebrations for Milan's win and the huge, upcoming match against Barcelona was, again, an unconvincing performance by their goalkeeper Dida, whose season can only be described as adequate at best.

Three years ago, after his three penalty saves helped Milan lift the Champions League after the win over Juventus in Manchester, Dida was on top of the world, and appeared to have crushed the prejudice that has seemed to live with Brazilian goalkeepers forever, even in fiction.

One of the most memorable cameos in one of Italy's cult football movies, Eccezziunale... veramente 2 (Exceptional... really, the sequel), happens when the main character, a Milan fan who gets to select the side after some time away from the country, walks up to Dida and asks him who he is, and what he does. When the answer comes, the character says 'Goalkeeper? I am not going to waste a Brazilian in goal! What's next, Pele driving the team coach?'.

The question of what a Brazilian is doing in goal may - harshly - have been asked by many others, this season, after Dida made an unusual number of mistakes.

And while he cannot be completely faulted for Diarra's equaliser at the San Siro the other day, as the whole of the Milan set-piece defence again forgot who was supposed to mark whom, his reluctance to leave the line or do it at the wrong time has given Milan fans many a worry this season, not to mention produced other blunders.

He dropped an easy right-wing corner against Parma, placing the ball at the feet of Paolo Cannavaro, then failed to react quickly to Sampdoria Gasbarroni's shot from outside the area and let it go in with an awkward attempt to parry it with his forearms while standing up. It was a mistake similar to the one he made against Bayern Munich at home last month, only this time he touched the ball, which rebounded just right for Ismael to slot it in and halve the Germans' deficit before half time.

Only last year, Dida, who's 32, had displayed exceptional goalkeeping abilities. His reaction double save against Ajax's Van der Vaart at the San Siro will long live in memory, and another one at Chievo is the kind of stuff you rarely see. Baronio's fierce free kick from outside the area had been deflected along the way but Dida, despite being clearly wrong-footed by the ball's sudden change of direction, had managed to summon enough agility, reflexes and upper body strength to reach back and tip it over the bar.

'No less than a goal' was Carlo Ancelotti's analysis of that save's worth to Milan, who won that match 1-0. In November 2003, he had literally plucked out Pavel Nedved's header from the top left-hand corner of the net during a top-of-the-table clash with Juventus.

Of course, Leeds (and Milan, for sure) fans will remember his embarrassing blunder in a match at a soggy Elland Road in September 2000. Standing in for Abbiati, who was then at the Olympics with Italy, he caught then dropped Lee Bowyer's shot from long distance, and the ball went in through his legs.

His explanation, a valid point, was that he did not trust the wet ball so he tried to first absorb the force of the shot then catch it, but the ball landed in a puddle and skidded backwards.

An admirer of former Brazilian keeper Taffarel and of Russia's Dassaev, Dida, whose complete name is Nelson Jesus Dida, signed for Milan in 1998, but the rossoneri had exceeded their quota of non-European players and he was loaned to Lugano in nearby Switzerland.

In January 2001 it emerged he'd obtained an EU passport by virtue of dodgy (i.e. false) paperwork, and was suspended then loaned to Corinthians, only to rejoin Milan in the summer of 2002, fresh from winning the World Cup as an understudy to Marcos. When Abbiati pulled a muscle during a pre-season friendly, Dida replaced him for the Champions League's preliminary match against Slovan Liberec and hasn't relinquished his place since.

Some believe Dida's slump began when he was hit by a flare thrown by Inter fans during last year's Champions League semi-final second leg, an event which apparently shook him - and remember, he was not blameless in the final against Liverpool.

His position coach at Milan, William Vecchi, a former goal custodian who'd helped develop Gianluigi Buffon at Parma under Ancelotti, has stated often that one of the admirable Nelson's qualities is his ability not to let emotions interfere with his play - his stony face after a mistake gives away little to nothing - so it may just be a matter of a prolonged slump, which could still make competition for Brazil's number 1 shirt at the World Cup interesting. Rogerio Ceni, Marcos and Inter's own Julio Cesar are all challenging Dida.

It may sound cynical to focus on him now Milan have landed safely in the semi-finals - safely being perhaps an over-optimistic word for a side who were two minutes from bowing out of the competition and are preparing to play Barcelona and Ronaldinho - but too many rossoneri fans inch closer to the edge of their seats whenever their team concedes a free kick or corner kick.

And the fact Milan have been extending the contracts of many players who'd become free agents in June 2008 but have not touched Dida's deal, which expires in 2007, may also be seen as a lack of faith in him, with strong rumours of none other than Buffon lined up to replace him.

Ironically, everybody still trusts Dida to do the job in the most difficult game situation, penalties, a circumstance that may well come up in the near future.


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