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Apr 11, 2006

La dolce vita in decline

The Old Lady is ageing badly. The ancien regime is in a state of disrepair. And the perennial underachievers have not lost their self-destructive streak.

What has gone wrong with Italian football?

It was a question first asked four years ago when the Champions League had the novelty of a quarter-final draw without a single Italian participant.

Twelve months later, AC Milan overcame Internazionale in the semi-final and then Juventus in a final at Old Trafford. Not much, it appeared, was faulty. Hastily-penned obituaries were flawed four years ago, then, and may be again; Milan, after all, are in the last four of Europe's premier club competition.

Yet all is not right. Juventus were heavy-legged and uninspired when Arsenal, with conspicuous ease, ended an unconvincing Champions League campaign.

Milan, having assembled an older back four than even Escape to Victory, have lost their reputation for defensive parsimony. And Inter, ever finding new ways of failing to win the scudetto and Champions League, were deservedly knocked out by Spain's eighth best team.

And such a malaise should be lamented.

For those of us in the United Kingdom, the televising of Serie A - which began in 1992 - provided a much-needed cultural awakening in football; awash with style and sophistication, a galaxy of the world's leading talents. Before Real Madrid invented and discredited the term 'galactic', most were to be found in Italy. There was a welcome aversion to the long ball, showing marked differences with the poorer offerings in this country.

Since Diego Maradona's self-induced decline, the elegant, imperious and utterly clinical Marco van Basten would win this vote as the world's finest player. The Milan side he graced in 1992/93 were arguably the outstanding club team of the last two decades while, without the injured Dutchman, their demolition of Barcelona in 1994 is the most comprehensive performance in a European Cup final in that time.

It was a wonderful team coached by Fabio Capello, who retains his hold over Serie A in his new guise as Juventus coach. That conservatism, a natural consequence of ageing, helps explain Capello's mutation into an arch-pragmatist.

His teams never eschewed brawn - remember the imposing Marcel Desailly in the centre of the Milan midfield - but brain has become very much a secondary consideration.

Three, largely senseless, dismissals against Arsenal are one indication though it was a sad sight when the indefatigable Pavel Nedved, frustrated at being left in Emmanuel Eboue's slipstream again, hacked down the Ivorian. The wit of the absent Alessandro del Piero has rarely been needed more.

An emphasis on the physical, however, appears to have excluded pace and, consequently, vitality. Tactical inflexibility has become accompanied by tired legs; Capello, who pioneered the squad system, appears to have discarded it and exhausted his players. But Juventus dominate Serie A, demoralising would-be challengers with an ease Chelsea can only admire.

Their long-term prognosis may not be so healthy. Much of Capello's hefty transfer budget has been invested in veterans. Short-term success has been guaranteed, and when replacements are required - and Patrick Vieira's five-year contract looks ever more inadvisable - Capello will have traded in Juve and the Agnellis for another generous benefactor.

His team has an average age of 29. Milan's is still higher, a product of a defence who still regard Teddy Sheringham as an impressionable youngster.

Many brand Italian football negative though the 2003 Champions League final was a true defensive masterclass.

No such claims can be made of Milan's match against Lyon, or last year's semi-final with PSV Eindhoven. They have prevailed both times but a creaking back four have been exposed by pace and seemed strangely vulnerable at set pieces.

Goalkeeper Dida, as my colleague Roberto Gotta said last week, is also looking increasingly vulnerable. Jaap Stam's return to Holland in the summer, and the timeless Paolo Maldini's decision to call time on what will be a 22-year first-team career in 2007 means changes will finally be forced upon Carlo Ancelotti.

Against Lyon, salvation came in the form of Filippo Inzaghi, a footballing disciple of Machiavelli. Few have made such a speciality of scruffy finishing, but the ends justify the means.

His philosophy has been widely adopted; despite the best efforts of Maldini, del Piero, Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti, the declining influence of the aesthetic is evident, especially when defending set pieces. The penalty-box wrestling matches, permitted by officials, are a turn-off and, for defenders of the calibre of Fabio Cannavaro and Alessandro Nesta, surely unnecessary.

If we rely on stereotypes, inherent defensiveness is a cause of the decay.

Yet, while caution is a watchword for Juve, Milan are among the most progressive forces in European football. Silvio Berlusconi's preference for fielding two strikers as well as Kaka is well known. So, too, is his Inter counterpart Massimo Moratti's fondness for signing forwards, often to the detriment of his defence. Their 17-year wait for a scudetto or a Champions League title has been extended and an almost annual crisis appears to beckon.

Yet, as part of Italian football's ruling cartel, comparative failure remains rewarding. Because, over the past five years, the big three have become accustomed to a lack of challengers. Several years ago, Serie A seemed healthier on the pitch, if not off it.

But the financial meltdown that affected the indebted - such as Leeds United and Borussia Dortmund - hit Italy hardest. Lazio, Roma, Parma and Fiorentina have all diced with bankruptcy, unsuccessfully in the case of the Tuscan club, now reformed.

There is much to admire in the exploits of Chievo, Udinese and Sampdoria since then but Serie A has become, at best, a three-horse race.

A concentration of talent at the three richest clubs is one consequence of fire sales - Juve fielded four former Parma players and one apiece from Roma and Lazio against Arsenal last week - but so is a fall in standards, resulting from a lack of competition; overcoming domestic opposition is Juventus' strength, but English sides have found it surprisingly simple to stifle them.

Rejuvenation and renewal can come from an influx of talent but, with the notable exceptions of Adriano, Kaka and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there is a marked reluctance to import the emerging.

That the Premiership and La Liga have excelled in flexing their economic muscle in the last decade hardly helps, but the respect in which Italian football - and perhaps society - holds for experience may be a hindrance.

While the gifted, albeit volatile, Antonio Cassano decamped to Real Madrid, Spanish football already boasts - in Lionel Messi - one challenger for the unofficial title of Ronaldinho's successor as the world's next best footballer. The Premiership, in Wayne Rooney and Cesc Fabregas, has two.

A focus on the short term has, in its own perverse way, impeded Italian teams now. An emphasis on Serie A has blinded Juventus, in particular, to the change of pace of European football, whether Arsenal's breathtaking speed or Barcelona's effortless ability to change gears.

A reluctance to consign the past to history has almost cost Milan, and could yet.

And while their continental rivals show an admirable willingness to field the future, constructing teams with ambition and foresight, Italian club football, with its proud pragmatism, is threatening to stagnate.


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