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The best of a bad week

Many Italians don't know their geography, so it was perhaps no surprise to discover on Tuesday that Milan's Alberto Gilardino was tricked into thinking Glasgow was really Edinburgh and that Champions League's last 16 1st leg was the title of a pantomime you would, or on second thought wouldn't, see at the Fringe Festival.

The striker's horrible dive to earn a penalty with Celtic goalkeeper Artur Boruc at least three yards away will go down in the annals of play-acting, something the Italian international will want to keep away from his grandchildren.

Gilardino's disgraceful show stood out like a sore thumb in a Champions League week that brought little relief to Italian football, which had been looking forward to the resumption of Europe's top competition as a way of getting away from the domestic troubles.

As everyone knows by now this involves the difficult transition from a long standing period of disregard for safety regulations by clubs and for rules by anybody else: and it IS difficult, when you consider the fact some MPs, paying little to no attention to safety issues, have tried to lobby the authorities in charge of determining which grounds were fit to host matches so that their constituency's fans would be able to access them.

With Inter and Roma both drawing their home games, the former with the added onus of conceding two goals, Milan's scoreless trip to Celtic Park was at least the best result among Italian sides; even though Celtic did not concede a goal gives them a massive boost for the return leg at the San Srio Carlo Ancelotti's side knows no slip-ups will be allowed. It was indeed, as Milan's vice-president Adriano Galliani put it, 'the worst of the good results'.

After conceding three goals against Siena on Saturday, two from Steve McClaren's best friend Massimo Maccarone - which proves either the Serie A is now of a lower standard to the Premiership (as Fabio Capello claims) or that Gareth Southgate had a gem and didn't realize it - the Milan defence held up well in Glasgow, although Francesco Oddo's uncertain positioning and touches showed that Champions League football and an intimidating setting like Parkhead can be intimidating even to a 30-year old World Cup winner.

The Celtic onslaught some feared never really materialized, and after a while Milan, despite looking shaky defending set-pieces, gave an assured performance of ball-control and tempo-setting, protecting the defence with at least one midfielder all the time and basically giving up the chance to attack in numbers.

Ironically enough, it is common opinion in Italy now that having Ronaldo in the side - the Brazilian is Cup-tied, having already played in the competition with Real Madrid - would have made the difference, but this is then a damning evaluation of the state of Milan's forward line, which has been missing Andriy Shevchenko ever since the Ukrainian left for London.

What hope for Milan if a player who is clearly not what he once was and has just joined the club is deemed so crucial for the Rossoneri's fortunes?

With Gilardino still missing too many chances, Pippo Inzaghi injured - his goals had dried up anyway after a brilliant start - and Ricardo Oliveira too frequently appearing out of his depth, Milan will have to rely on Kaka again, or on the enterprising spirit of Seedorf, if they nurture any real ambition of going far in the competition, which has become even more important for the club once all hopes of a Serie A title evaporated back in October.

As for Inter, it would be easy to say their run of consecutive wins in the Serie A was helped by the mediocrity of thier opponents and that they were found out by a good team in Europe, but it did appear more complicated than that.

Inter played better than Valencia and dictated play for most of the game, but the combination of technical skills, natural talent and fearsome physical power which have been steamrolling opponents in the domestic competitions failed to dent the Spanish side, and the loss through injury of Patrick Vieira and Esteban Cambiasso could leave them short-handed in the middle of the park in the return leg.

The Inter entourage appeared disappointed at the 2-2 draw but upbeat at the prospect of playing at the Mestalla in a fortnight's time: the mysterious ways the human mind works, especially in football, have made past Inter displays at Valencia's home ground - 1-0 and 5-1 wins in their last two trips - become so relevant that optimisn grows as strong from that meaningless statistical bit as from the form of the side, which is still excellent.

Inter's potential going forward, with Ibrahimovic gaining stature and confidence each time he steps on the pitch, may keep their chances of progressing at least at 50%, but one particular player may again be asked to arise from the ashes and make a difference.

Adriano, him again. The reason coach Roberto Mancini left him on the bench on Wednesday was that the Brazilian had not trained well before the match and, the manager's words, 'was not in the shape to play a whole game'.

It immediately sparked speculation about how exactly Adriano had celebrated his birthday at the weekend, rumours having it that a Brazilian reunion with other Milan-based players - and there are plenty of them around, at the moment - had gone beyond the reasonable boundaries of having a good time.

Which, if proved to be true, would be astonishingly unprofessional of Adriano, who had enjoyed a revival in the last month, scoring five in seven matches and looking every bit as if he were on the way to becoming an unstoppable force as he'd been a couple of years ago.

Inter's defensive solidity and confidence wasn't dented on Wednesday night, as Valencia's goals came from a free kick and a shot from range following a deflection, but following their 2-2 draw, and knowing how much hope owner Massimo Moratti places on doing well in Europe, the return leg at the Mestalla could be the best among the eight ties in fifteen days' time.

Which perhaps couldn't be said of Roma's trip to Lyon. The Giallorossi, just like Celtic, can take comfort from the fact they did not allow a goal at home, but their display reeked of nervousness and tension, as the eight yellow cards showed them by Mike Riley proved.

Three times the culprits were guilty of diving or 'simulation', although Francesco Totti should have been let off, and it was also a case of self-inflicted wounds as Roma thrive on an uptempo game with constant passing and movement which will not have been helped by the constant stops in play because of fouls and offsides.

With a thinner squad than Milan or Inter, Roma needs most of its players to function at or close to maximum efficiency in big matches - one example their marauding 2-1 win at Milan in November - and it clearly wasn't the case against Lyon, who displayed some attacking enterprise before being sucked into the mediocrity of the evening and levelling off.

Roma's approach to away matches can easily lead to a goal through sheer movement and interchanging up front, especially as Luciano Spalletti keeps using Totti, who's having a record goalscoring season as an atypical centre-forward, as the more advanced striker who track back and opens up lanes for his teammates.

Not that Lyon manager Gerard Houllier doesn't already know that, though.

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