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On a whinge and a prayer

I have a confession. I love Filippo Inzaghi.

He is one of the greatest strikers of the last decade and is the man who will lead AC Milan to Champions League glory this season.

Seriously, hear me out.

True, most people's initial mental image of him (mine included) is on his knees, palms pressed together in a praying motion, petulantly protesting his fifth offside of the match with eyes that plead: 'Why me? What have I done to deserve this?'

He might have a face like a smacked arse, but you have to admire a player who manages to rile up opponents, fans and commentators while simultaneously delivering the goods at crunch time.

OK, it seems that you don't. In fact few players are maligned as frequently without any sort of a defence. He is an aunt Sally - a convenient whipping boy - at least we can all agree we hate Inzaghi...

When Jaap Stam pretty much accused Pippo and his brother Simone (half the charm, half the talent) of being playacting, conniving cheats in his autobiography, there was no furore. Most readers nodded their argument there. Somehow the revelation that David Beckham would never win Mastermind was considered a greater slur.

It was deeply ironic (although Stam would probably pick another adjective) that the big Dutchman was sold by Manchester United as a consequence of his book and ended up as a team-mate of first Simone then Pippo. He is now safely back in the Netherlands with Ajax.

The haters thought they had seen the back of Superpippo when persistent knee injuries kept him sidelined for the best part of two seasons but last year he was back, gesticulating and pouting his way to 12 goals in 23 league outings, plus four in six in the Champions League.

He even snuck his way into Italy's victorious World Cup squad and scored against the Czech Republic on his solitary appearance.

Now, at 33, he is the man who will need to rouse himself for one last season of needle, antagonism and goals if AC Milan are to win the Champions League.

Andriy Shevchenko has gone, and new signing Ricardo Oliveira hardly looks a ready-made replacement despite his decent goal record for Real Betis. Likewise Alberto Gilardino is good but not great, and at 24 can no longer be described as a promising youngster.

It is only Filippo Inzaghi who has the movement, the intelligence and the sheer bloody-mindedness to score the ugly goals and to make the most of Kaka and Andrea Pirlo's sublime creativity from midfield.

After all, he is one of the greatest strikers of his generation. Stop sniggering at the back - only six players have scored more goals in the Champions League (including qualifying): Andriy Shevchenko, Raul, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Thierry Henry and Eusebio.

Hardly shabby company to keep, yet even praise of Inzaghi carries overtones of something less savoury; he is waspish, slippery and crafty - never magnificent or majestic.

Kaka and Pirlo are a major reason why I can assert with a (partially) straight face that a whingeing geriatric with dodgy knees can still take Europe by storm.

The Brazilian was by popular consent his country's best player at the World Cup, and another season like he enjoyed last term could see him rival his illustrious compatriot Ronaldinho for Ballon d'Or and World Player of the Year honours.

The attacking midfielder piled up 14 goals in 35 Serie A appearances, and laid on countless more for his team-mates. Behind him, Pirlo dictates the tempo of the game while the leg-biting Gennaro Gattuso works double time to ensure nobody messes with Milan's twin playmakers.

Both creators routinely linked up with the wily old fox as he started the Serie A season against Lazio with a classic Inzaghi combo; he scored a superbly clinical strike, then had another ruled out for offside and got himself booked for protesting.

Whatever the merits or otherwise of Europe's public enemy number one, it's good to have the Champions League back.

For all its pompous theme music and bloated sense of self-importance, there really is no beating it. It thinks it's great and, for the most part, it is.

This week alone we see Chelsea-Bremen, Lyon-Real Madrid, Manchester United-Celtic and a trip to Sporting Lisbon for Roberto Mancini's lavishly talented but hideously bloated Inter squad.

And scheduling the start of the Champions League so soon after the break for Euro 2008 qualifiers only goes to emphasise the extent to which club football has overtaken the international game.

Out of 40 qualifying games only one of them featured two truly top-class sides, and that was a repeat of the World Cup final.

Yet even France's convincing 3-1 victory against Italy seemed somehow anti-climactic. For starters, it was never going to be the revenge mission that many set it up to be. One match was the biggest game possible, the other a poxy qualifier - are Les Bleus now meant to feel better about losing on penalties in Berlin?

Italy might be languishing in the lower reaches of Group B, five points off the top, but they have ten games to amble their way past Ukraine and Scotland to nab second place.

And what happened to all the good players? Most of us were under the impression that the World Cup final was played out between two top sides packed with world-class stars.

But who dominated at the Stade de France on Wednesday night? Sidney Govou and Franco Semioli - hardly players known for setting the pulse racing.

For a variety of reasons the leading personalities from Berlin were absent. We were without Zidane, Materazzi, Barthez, Totti, Trezeguet and Toni, and the spectacle suffered.

In fact, had it not been for a late 17-minute cameo from one Filippo Inzaghi the game would hardly have been worth watching.

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