Metronome isn't marking time

 

Paddy Agnew Euroscene

In the fading gloom of a mild Roman October evening, he is easily recognisable. The precision, the regularity, the accuracy and the unhurried simplicity of his ball distribution, even in a training kick-about, shines through the evening twilight. It is not hard to understand why they used to call him "The Metronome" during his days with Italy and AC Milan.

The player in question is 32-year-old Demetrio Albertini, back in Italian football this season with Serie A side Lazio after a season with Atletico Madrid in Spain. These days, 76-times capped Albertini is a player with a point to prove.

They used to call him "baby-face", given his premature breakthrough into the AC Milan side in the 1991-1992 season at the age of only 20. Surrounded by such as Baresi, Gullit, Van Basten and Rijkaard, he did indeed look like the newest kid on the block.

However, the kid could play. 12 seasons later, the kid has featured in a lot of team photos. He was there in Athens on the May 1994 night that AC Milan whipped Barcelona 4-0 to lift the Champions League. Just over a month later, he was again in the team picture when Italy lost the World Cup final to Brazil in Los Angeles.

From the USA World Cup finals through to Euro 2000, passing via Euro '96 and France '98, Albertini was always there. In that same period, too, he picked up five Serie A league titles with AC Milan. Put simply, Albertini has had a magnificent career, one which merits, or should merit, plenty of respect.

And there's the rub, of course. For Albertini is still trying to understand just why, at the age of 30, he found himself unceremoniously off-loaded by AC Milan two summers ago. When The Irish Times caught up with him at Lazio's Formello training ground recently, we wondered if that departure from Milan still represented something of an open wound: "Yes, the wound was and is deep all right, above all because of the circumstances. I can only guess at just why they got rid of me, but perhaps it would be better to ask them (at Milan).You know I first went to play for Milan as an 11 year-old.

"So many of my memories are linked to Milan. I was certain I'd end my career there, but . . . "

In the end, he moved on for a season in Spain. An interesting experience, he concedes, more from the off-the-field viewpoint than from the strictly footballing one. Yet, even while he was enjoying the city of Madrid, he kept an eye out for how things were working out at home. Which is why, when Lazio came knocking, he jumped at the chance to get back into Serie A, notwithstanding the Roman club's well documented financial problems.

"Even if I was playing in Spain, I followed everything that was happening in Italy, read about it, watched TV programmes about it and therefore I knew that Lazio were sorting things out, coming to terms with their financial problems.

"I could see that the team was playing really good football last season, turning in an excellent performance in the league, notwithstanding all the financial problems."

But, why Lazio?

"Because I felt that at 32, I still had plenty of football in me and Lazio gave me the chance to prove it. It wasn't my last choice, on the contrary I'd had a lot of other offers but I entered into negotiations only with Lazio."

For Albertini, of course, it is the Champions League that represents the biggest shop window for "proving" his point. An away win against Besiktas, a home draw with Sparta Prague and an away defeat by Chelsea represents a mixed bag of results, suggesting that this Group may not after all be dominated by Lazio and Chelsea.

"If we and Chelsea had both won both our opening games, you could then say that this Group will be fought out between us. But, I would say that all four teams are more or less at the same point even if, on paper, we and Chelsea look like the stronger."

What does he make of the "Abramovic Experiment" at Chelsea?

"Certainly, it helps if you have good players and if you have the money to go and buy them. Above all, that way you can take a short cut (to success) but we all know that it's not a mathematical certainty, you are not always certain of winning just because you have great players. Fact is, the side with the best players doesn't always win."

Over to the Olympic Stadium and next week's Lazio v Chelsea clash to see that theory tested.