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Saturday, May 5, 2007

PREMIER REPORT

Liverpool, Milan prove worthy Champions League finalists


LONDON — The Athens police, sponsors, television companies and millions of fans around the world can relax. The Champions League final will not be between Liverpool and Manchester United, a matchup that would virtually have guaranteed nasty scenes in the Greek capital between two sets of fans whose only common link is their dislike of each other.

Christopher Davies

An all-Premiership final would not generate the interest or spectacle that Liverpool versus AC Milan surely will. Remember AC Milan vs. Juventus in 2003? One hundred and 20 minutes of goal-less tedium before the belated drama of a penalty shootout. The Champions League final needs a contrast of style and culture and not an in-house affair. In many respects UEFA could hardly have chosen a better game for Athens on May 23 than the Liverpool-Milan rematch.

Two years ago, Liverpool came back from 3-0 down at halftime to beat Milan on penalties. Revenge will be in the air when these two giants of European soccer lock horns again.

Liverpool overcame Chelsea on penalties last Tuesday, which means Rafa Benitez has triumphed over Jose Mourinho at the semifinal stage of either the F.A. Cup or Champions League in each of the last three seasons.

Mourinho was left with a giant-sized portion of humble pie to eat after his inevitable pre-match jibes about Liverpool. "Two finals in three years — not bad for a small club," said Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, responding to Mourinho's remarks about the Merseysiders. "Mourinho did our team talk for us," added Gerrard.

The Portuguese must learn from this, otherwise his constant belittling comments about opponents will continue to harm Chelsea. It is not wise to motivate the opposition with unnecessary sarcastic statements, but this particular leopard seems unlikely to change his spots.

Liverpool may trail Chelsea in the Premiership but Benitez knows the art of winning in Europe. Within Benitez's tactically astute framework, Gerrard and Jamie Carragher provide the bulldog spirit that has seen the Reds snatch victory from the jaws of defeat many times. There is no such thing as a lost cause for Liverpool.

It is the best team not the team with the best players that wins and master coach Benitez has again proved to have the Midas touch in club soccer's premier competition.

Those who scratched their heads as they looked at his Anfield team sheet for the second leg against Chelsea should have known better. No Xabi Alonso because the Spaniard is too similar to Javier Mascherano, so Benitez restored Steven Gerrard to the center of midfield alongside Mascherano.

Jermaine Pennant and Bolo Zenden are two inconsistent wingers but against Chelsea's makeshift defense Benitez reckoned their pace — at least Pennant's — and accuracy with crosses would pressurize the visitors' back line. Correct, as ever.

The Liverpool manager will need a special plan to counter Milan in the final (and not give the Italians a three-goal start this time) but don't bet against Benitez coming up trumps again.

The Manchester United players were virtual spectators at San Siro as AC Milan won 3-0 on Wednesday, the Premiership leaders torn apart by a combination of suicidal defending and a Milan midfield that is surely the best in the world.

Andrea Pirlo operates just in front of the center backs, sweeping up in the middle of the park. Clarence Seedorf and Gennaro Gattuso provide the power, precision passing, tackling and technique for Kaka to have a free role. Much was made of the Kaka-Cristiano Ronaldo head-to-head but over the two ties the Brazilian has every right to be acknowledged as the finest player in the world at the moment.

United had no answer to his pace and touch. Sir Alex Ferguson's instructions were for "the nearest player" to pick up Kaka but nobody could get close enough to be "the nearest."

Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Ryan Giggs were anonymous while Nemanja Vidic, returning after injury, was clearly not fit.

Ferguson spoke about the demands of the Premiership hindering United in Europe. "We have a very tough league and we've been using the same players in the last few weeks without respite," he said.

Yet the number of games the key players have appeared in this season in the Champions League and domestic league show little difference. For Milan, Pirlo (11/31), Gattuso (10/27), Seedorf (11/31) and Kaka (12/29). For United, Ronaldo (11/32), Michael Carrick (12/30), Paul Scholes (11/28), Giggs (8/28) and Rooney (12/32).

Purists may be unhappy that the Milanese were originally thrown out of the Champions League in the wake of the Italian match-fixing scandal but re-admitted after an appeal against their points deduction.

The simple truth is Fergie's men were not good enough and until they improve their dismal away form are unlikely to conquer Europe again as they did in 1999. In the last three seasons their away record in the Champions League is: Played 13, Won 2, Drawn 3, Lost 8. Not the stuff of champions.

A priority is Bayern Munich's Owen Hargreaves, needed to add bite to the midfield lost following Roy Keane's departure. Ferguson will also be aware that Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, regulars for the past 10 years, cannot go on forever.

However, the Red Devils are well placed to end the season by winning the Premiership-F.A. Cup double, which Ferguson and every United follower would have been delighted to achieve last August.

If United beat Manchester City on Saturday, then victory at Chelsea on Wednesday will see Ferguson's men win the Premiership. The heavyweights of English soccer then meet again in the F.A. Cup final on May 19 at new Wembley Stadium.

European disappointment for both Manchester United and Chelsea then, but domestic glory is a huge incentive for both Champions League losers in the next two weeks.

JOEY BARTON, the Manchester City midfielder, is an extremely talented player. Unfortunately, Barton is also extremely bad news and seems to be pressing the self-destruct button on what promised to be a successful career.

The Mancunians have suspended Barton for the rest of the season and fined him four weeks' wages — £100,000 ($199,000) — after an incident that left teammate Ousmane Dabo "looking like the Elephant Man," according to the Frenchman.

Dabo has instructed his lawyers to initiate legal proceedings after claiming Barton attacked him during training when the pair had traded insults. "I am disfigured," said Dabo. "I don't really remember what happened but my teammates tell me he hit me from behind which knocked me out for a few seconds.

"As I started to fall he jumped on top of me, held my head and punched me twice more in the face. Apparently when I was on the floor he punched me again before being pulled off."

Barton, whose brother Michael is serving life for murder, has a history of off-field indiscretions. He was fined six weeks wages for stubbing out a cigar in the eye of City's Jamie Tandy at a Christmas party. A two-month fine was incurred for an incident in Bangkok on a preseason tour involving a 15-year-old Everton supporter. That's the best part of £500,000 in fines for three disciplinary excesses in three years for Barton, which must be something of an ignominious record.

In March the England international was arrested on suspicion of assault and criminal damage in an incident involving a taxi driver and was bailed until May.

Good player, bad boy. And you can bet that if City feel it is in its best interests to offload a serial troublemaker this summer another club will step in believing it can handle Barton, who would pocket a tidy signing-on fee and probably see his wages increased in any transfer.

Quite.



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