False 9? Edin Dzeko shows the value of an old-fashioned centre-forward
The cameras panned to the technical director in the San Siro stands. There were plenty of reasons to pick out Paolo Maldini, and his job title is not the most prominent. Not for the man who remains the byword for elegantly effortless defending, not when his name is synonymous with the European Cup. Arguably the greatest left-back of all time was scarcely witnessing a defensive masterclass. Even if he had, the primacy of Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Maldini himself would have remained unchallenged: they are perhaps football’s greatest back four and certainly AC Milan’s.
Comparisons were rarely going to flatter Davide Calabria, Fikayo Tomori, Simon Kjaer and Theo Hernandez. A shambolic showing made them more glaring. Admittedly, Maldini knows such defining European games can take on a life of their own. He captained AC Milan during Deportivo la Coruna’s four-goal comeback in 2004 and Liverpool’s blitz of three goals in seven minutes in the 2005 final. Inter’s burst of two in four minutes might have brought unpleasant flashbacks. But Maldini won five European Cup finals and Milan conceded a solitary goal in them.
And, 11 minutes into their first semi-final for 16 years, they were two down, and to two of the elderly. Maldini could be a poster boy for veterans: a Champions League winner for the last time a few weeks before his 39th birthday, he remains the oldest scorer in a final, at 36.
Which, Edin Dzeko may feel, is enviably youthful. When he rifled Inter into the lead, he became the second oldest scorer in a semi-final, behind only Ryan Giggs. After a 37-year-old scorer came a youngster of 34; Henrikh Mkhitaryan is another throwback figure. When Jose Mourinho’s Inter won the Champions League in 2010, it was a famously experienced side. Simone Inzaghi may hope that, in his scorers at least, he has borrowed from the same formula.
Dzeko and Mkhitaryan can suit the image of Serie A as a retirement home, a comfortable abode for footballers too old to gegenpress. The reality is more complicated and the Italian renaissance has entailed astute recruitment and a host of players over a decade Dzeko’s junior.
But the rhythms of the division can be suited to the elderly. Those who are tactically adept and technically proficient, as Dzeko is, can stave off the passing of time. It helps that he has both a target man’s presence; so, too, that he is a beautiful striker of a ball. Dzeko has long been a wonderful volleyer. Five years ago, he scored a goal for Roma against Chelsea that had a hint of Marco van Basten about it; except that, unlike the great Dutchman, he scored it with his less favoured left foot. A derby opener came with another swing of his left foot, another clean connection, another lovely goal.
It was the 400th of a career for club and country that began with Dzeko as a nondescript midfielder in the Bosnian league. He has come a long way since then, but the journey may yet carry him to Istanbul and transport Inter back to their past. The goals of another quintessential No. 9, Diego Milito, won the Nerazzurri the Champions League in 2010. The false nine has become more prevalent and popular in the intervening 13 years, but Dzeko is the old-fashioned centre-forward who never went away. Five years ago he scored in each leg of a Champions League semi-final, but for Roma and in vain and both of them after Liverpool’s five-goal blitz at Anfield.
Eighteen years ago, he may have been cheering on AC Milan against Liverpool. Dzeko’s hero is the record scorer in the history of the derby della Madonnina; admittedly all of those goals came for the Rossoneri and it was easier for the Bosnian to be open about his love of Andriy Shevchenko before he joined Milan’s, and San Siro’s, other club. Shevchenko was in the crowd, sat in front of Maldini, to witness a terrific finish.
He saw Mkhitaryan, an old rival from Dynamo Kiev’s games against Shakhtar Donetsk, surge into the Milan box and lift a shot over Mike Maignan. The Armenian ran straight through the middle. It was too easy.
Somehow Milan’s shoddy defending did not yield more goals. Hakan Calhanoglu, who has crossed the city, hit the post. Referee Jesus Gil Manzano first awarded Lautaro Martinez a penalty and then rescinded his own decision. Maignan made a terrific save from Dzeko.
And so Milan will return to their home ground as the away team in six days, still in with a chance that Maldini will play a part in securing a sixth European Cup, to add to the 1963 triumph, when his father Cesare captained them, and 1969, a rare Maldini-free success. But not if they defend like this, and not if the old master Dzeko is similarly clinical.