Looking after Paolo – Searching for the next Maldini

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When Paolo Maldini kicks his last ball as a professional footballer, an era will not just draw to a close, but come to a juddering halt. At 40, he is not the player he once was, but his performances in big games still earn him a place in the line-up of one of the best teams in Serie A. The Milan man is unquestionably a phenomenon but his seemingly eternal ability to command the Rossoneri backline also reveals a serious lack of defensive depth in Italian football.

637 competitive games on from his debut in 1984 (that‘s 57,330 match minutes) Paolo Maldini continues to grace Serie A with unrivalled grace, dedication and spell-binding talent. Unless he makes another unexpected decision to plough on for one more season, these are the last moments of one of Italian football’s most remarkable careers. But will there be any response to his absence next season? Who, if anyone, is worthy of taking up the great man’s mantle both for club and country?

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Maldini’s legacy is immense and his reputation shall endure like Gianni Rivera, like Giacinto Facchetti, and – more importantly – like Franco Baresi. When Baresi retired, fans enthused by the delicious (and despicable) joys of Italian defending were comforted by the fact Maldini was already approaching his pomp. But now, who is there to continue the chain of majestic defenders and protect Italian football’s deserved reputation as masters of the shut out?

The truth is, not many names spring to mind. Lagging slightly behind Maldini, shuffling toward retirement, are a series of celebrated defensive players with only a season or two left in the tank. Alessandro Nesta, a natural replacement, has been slayed by a career-threatening injury for almost two years. Although prone to errors in judgment (in particular the inability to anticipate a ball’s bounce) Nesta is extremely gifted and commanding. Whether or not he will ever shake off the effects of his back problems is one of Milan’s biggest problems and a sincere pity for one of the game’s most stylish and astute defenders.

Other notables close to the finishing line are, in no particular order – Gianluca Zambrotta – always dynamic but increasingly slack in tracking back. Fabio Cannavaro – still excellent for the Nazionale but questionable for Real Madrid and seemingly destined for a homecoming swansong at Napoli for a year or so. Christian Panucci – the soldier of Serie A still has something to offer Roma’s shaky backline but his increasingly cantankerous nature has cost him many games on the bench this season. Marco Materazzi – the sinister joker in the pack should have retired after his glorious 2006 World Cup run. The fact that the gangly oaf has lifted above his empty head football’s highest accolade – and Maldini has not – is proof enough that God has a cruel sense of humour…and that he’s an Inter fan.

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Following these lauded players are a rag-tag of defenders of unfulfilled potential or simply mediocre talent. Massimo Oddo heads the skeleton crew, his career swerving on loan to a Bayern Munich team gripped by underachievement. At 32, he’s no spring chicken and his crossing for Milan was an absolute embarrassment largely because he seems unable to accept he has been sold by Lazio. Also in German exile is Andrea Barzagli, one of world football’s youngest journeymen at 27 and of distinctly average ability. His two excellent seasons at Palermo now seem more of an anomaly than a sign of things to come. Close at hand in Wolfsburg is Christian Zaccardo, who seems like a jolly nice chap with the unforgivable air of a loser. Naturally more gifted than Barzagli, and once the next-big-thing at Bologna, Zaccardo’s indecision and lack of confidence at international level will always count against him. If only he hadn’t scored than own goal against the USA.

Dedicated enough to become celibate, Nicola Legrottaglie is suitable to the grind of a league campaign but is barely up-to-scratch for a serious European or international campaign. Daniele Bonera only plays for Milan when the veterans are too knackered to turn out and his presence is pretty insignificant. Alessandro Gamberini is a fine club man but can you see him rising to one of the top four clubs and sustaining form? In his Champions League and UEFA Cup campaigns thus far he has been found wanting and it’s very rare for a player to significantly improve his game after 25. Let’s not even delve into the black hole that has swallowed up the perceived talents of the bow-legged Andrea Dossena and the slapstick Simone Loria. Of all these players listed, in a big game, at the highest level, who would you rather have leading your team on to the pitch…any one of them or Paolo Maldini, still?

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Are there any other contenders that might fill the well-worn but cavernous boots of Paolo Maldini? Well, we do have Fabio Grosso, a marauding left-back who rightfully retains his hero status because of THAT semi-final strike against Germany in the 2006 World Cup semi-finals. Pushing his range of experience by joining Lyon from an unappreciative Inter, Grosso is a gifted but peripheral individual in the great scheme of Italian schemers…good, but by no means great.

So why are things so grim at the back in Serie A at the moment? One obvious answer (or reason, or excuse) is the influx of foreign talent. Not the dazzling imports like Lilian Thuram, Cristian Chivu or Cafu, but the kind of players who offer very little to the Italian game. Of course, there’s no better example of a wasted work permit than the Titus Bramble of Internazionale, Nelson Rivas. His dismal display against Manchester United recently was an embarrassment to the shirt and did nothing for the undoubtedly fading reputation of Serie A. Flailing behind Rivas is the overwhelmingly overrated Philippe Mexes, who sees himself as a raging Libero in the Baresi mould. The truth is, if his nonchalant style of marking is anything to go by, he’d even struggle to get an autograph from most top strikers, so prone is he to losing them in a crowd. His positional sense is appalling and his lavish hairstyle totally unjustified. At least Gabriel Batistuta earned those crazy locks.

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These players clog up the production line…surely there are Italian youngsters missing out on challenging for a place – or simply disheartened – by the spectacle of these bunglers wearing the shirt they’d sweat blood for. You might take Arsene Wenger’s view that if a domestic player is good enough, his talent will shine through. Yes, the Professor’s logic is sound, but why do clubs then import substandard players to take the place of these Italian apprentices? Surely substandard Italian’s are preferable, giving the club a sense of place and identity. I know this argument might lead to more Simone Lorias than the universe is designed cope with, but it could be the only way forward. Whether or not importing mediocre foreign players is more financially sensible than investing in a long-term scouting and coaching regime is questionable, but one thing’s for sure – nothing breaks the heart more than watching one of Rivas’ mistimed headers and that kind of spectacle does nothing for Serie A’s worldwide rights sales.

But all is not lost – there is more than a little hope for the league’s defensive tradition. Giorgio Chiellini is a chink of light in an otherwise fairly dark landscape. Like a young Sol Campbell, he began as a rather lanky and uncoordinated bruiser who seemed physically but not mentally adept. Learning his craft at Livorno and Fiorentina, it was his move to Juventus – and the crucial experience he gained in Serie B – that has triggered the emergence of a responsible and committed defender. Dominant in the air and carrying a heart probably bigger than his brain, Giorgio is fast becoming one of Italy’s most prominent footballers. Against Spain in Euro 2008, Chiellini was one of only a few who did the Azzurri proud, locking out the inform duo of David Villa and Fernando Torres for 120 minutes. Even though he doesn’t have players of the caliber of Ciro Ferrara or Mark Iuliano to partner him in the Old Lady’s backline, Chiellini is still developing at an astonishing rate – adding a few more footballing qualities to his otherwise refreshingly uncompromising game.

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Saving the best to last, there is one player who offers more still than just a chink of light. In fact, his emergence has represented nothing less than a blast of light from the heavens for Inter fans. The rise and rise of Davide Santon within the Nerazzurri ranks has been phenomenal, sending shivers down the spine of the Inter tifosi and neutrals alike. At just 18, il bambino, as Jose calls him, has proven, in both the Derby della Madonnina and the Champions League home tie with Manchester United, that he is more than capable of excelling at the top level. With a cool head, a dynamic attacking sense and an elegant ability to recover the ball from a tackle, the kid looks a true thoroughbred. Every now and again a player comes along and you are certain – for no tangible or discernable reason – he’ll go on to be a complete success, notching up scores of domestic and international caps. Cannavaro had it, Nesta had it and, of course, Maldini had it in spades. And now, Santon has all the grace and natural ability to be the very best – carrying with him the hope of Italian’s everywhere desperate to crow once again about producing the world’s best defenders.

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If Chiellini is chiseled in the Rivera mould – a dogged man-marker who would rather collapse than give in – then Santon’s talent has certainly formed in the exquisite form of Maldini – universally gifted in the art of defending, unaffected by the chaos that lies before him. A few more like il Bambino and Serie A won’t be in crisis, but on the dawn of another golden age.

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