| Paolo Maldini (top) and Alessandro Del Piero during a news conference Tuesday. (Reuters)
Manchester: Nobody can dispute that Italian clubs have rediscovered the ability to win this season.
Wednesday’s meeting of Juventus and AC Milan in the first all-Italian Champions League final represents the perfect response to those who had suggested that Serie A’s finest were no longer a force to reckon with.
What is less certain is whether the two clubs have either the ability or the will to put on a display worthy of what is certainly the biggest game in club football and arguably an occasion to rank alongside the World Cup final.
In terms of entertainment, the last European night at Old Trafford has set the bar pretty high. If the 190th meeting between Juve and Milan produces even half the drama of the seven-goal extravaganza served up by Manchester United and Real Madrid in their quarter final second leg, any neutrals in the crowds will head home happy.
But among even the most ardent admirers of the two finalists, there is a lingering fear that the safety-first mindset engrained in the Italian game could produce a defensive stalemate.
It is a concern both coaches are aware of. Carlo Ancelotti, Milan’s manager since he was sacked by Juventus in 2001, expects a tight battle, but insists that will not prevent the two teams from “shoulder-charging” their critics.
“The two teams know each other so well, and this is a Cup match, so it will be very even,” he said. “But especially after the national team’s failure at the World Cup last year, it’s important to show Italian football in a good light.”
Milan are chasing their sixth European Cup title. But having secured their second straight Italian league title, it will be Juventus who go into the match with the backing of most pundits, including Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson.
The Scot masterminded back-to-back victories over Juventus in the second group stage of this year’s competition, but he is well aware that his side were fortunate enough to catch Juve at a time when they were severely depleted by the combined ravages of injury and a flu virus.
“I suppose as the host I should be neutral but I’d have to go for Juventus,” Ferguson said. “I’ve fancied them right from the start.”
A key factor in Ferguson’s admiration for this Juventus team is his respect for the tactical acumen of Marcello Lippi, who has guided the Turin club to back-to-back Italian titles since beginning his second spell at the Stadio Delle Alpi in 2001.
In his previous spell at Juventus, Lippi saw his side lift the 1996 Champions League trophy. But he suffered defeats in the two following years and knows the line between another triumph and an unhappy hattrick of final defeats is a fine one.
“We know everything there is to know about each other so I don’t think it is a question of studying each other’s tactics. I think it is more likely to come down to which team is better prepared physically and psychologically,” said Lippi.
Ironically it is a Juventus old boy who could pose the biggest threat to Juventus’ hopes of adding to their 1985 and 1996 triumphs in the competition.
Filippo Inzaghi, who was offloaded to Milan at the same time as Lippi was beginning his second spell at Juventus, has scored ten goals in the competition so far this season. A final hattrick would see Inzaghi overtake Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record tally of 12.
Both teams will be missing one of their regular players, although it is Juventus who suffered the greater blow with the loss of their most important creative force, Pavel Nedved, through suspension.
The Czech playmaker was inspirational in Juve’s quarter final win over Barcelona and eclipsed Zinedine Zidane as they humbled Real Madrid in the second leg of the semi-final.
Torn shoulder ligaments have deprived Ancelotti of Danish striker Jon Dahl Tomasson and Brazilian goalkeeper Dida is a slight doubt.
Also, when Milan pair Andriy Shevchenko and Kakha Kaladze line up, they will achieve a goal that once appeared to have eluded them.Striker Shevchenko and defender Kaladze were part of the Dynamo Kiev team of the late 1990's that was the last from Eastern Europe to make a serious impression in the Champions League, reaching the semi-finals in 1999.
“At Dynamo we had a great team with Andriy but we couldn’t make it to the final and now we are both so happy to be there with Milan,” says Georgian international Kaladze.
“It’s a dream I’ve had since I was young, and especially since I became a footballer, to play in a Champions League final,” Shevchenko said.
“Back in 1999 there was great disappointment for everyone at Dynamo but, to be honest, I don’t think we were ready to go all the way. We didn't think we could reach the final and that was the moment we lost it,” he says.
Juventus: 1-Gianluigi Buffon; 21-Lilian Thuram, 2-Ciro Ferrara, 4-Paolo Montero, 15-Alessandro Birindelli; 16-Mauro Camoranesi, 26-Edgar Davids, 3-Alessio Tacchinardi, 19-Gianluca Zambrotta; 10-Alessandro Del Piero, 17-David Trezeguet.
AC Milan: 12-Dida; 19-Alessandro Costacurta, 13-Alessandro Nesta, 3-Paolo Maldini, 4-Kakha Kaladze; 8-Gennaro Gattuso, 21-Andrea Pirlo, 20-Clarence Seedorf; 10-Rui Costa; 7-Andriy Shevchenko, 9-Filippo Inzaghi
Referee: Markus Merk (Germany).