The cameras focused on the technical director in the stands of San Siro. There were many reasons to choose Paolo Maldini, and his role is not the most prominent. Not for the man who remains synonymous with elegant, effortless defence, not when his name is synonymous with the European Cup. Arguably the greatest left-back of all time barely witnessed a defensive masterclass. Even if he had, the primacy of Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Maldini himself would have remained undisputed: they are perhaps the best four in football and certainly AC Milan’s.
Comparisons were rarely going to flatter Davide Calabria, Fikayo Tomori, Simon Kjaer and Theo Hernandez. A chaotic demonstration made them more dazzling. It’s true that Maldini knows that these defining European games can take on a life of their own. He captained AC Milan during Deportivo de la Coruna’s four-goal comeback in 2004 and Liverpool’s three-goal barrage in seven minutes in the 2005 final. Inter’s flurry of two in four minutes might have brought back unpleasant memories. . But Maldini won five European Cup finals and Milan conceded a solitary goal in them.
And, 11 minutes into their first semifinal in 16 years, they were down two, and two of the biggest. Maldini could be a poster for veterans: champion of the Champions League for the last time a few weeks before turning 39he birthday, he is still the oldest goalscorer in a final, at 36 years old.
Which, Edin Dzeko can feel, is enviably youthful. When he put Inter in the lead, he became the second-oldest goalscorer in a semi-final, behind only Ryan Giggs. After a 37-year-old striker came a 34-year-old; Henrikh Mkhitaryan is another figure from the past. When José Mourinho’s Inter won the Champions League in 2010, they were a team famous for their experience. Simone Inzaghi can expect that, at least in his goalscoring, he has borrowed from the same formula.
Dzeko and Mkhitaryan can adapt to the image of Serie A as a retirement home, a comfortable abode for footballers too old to gegenpress. The reality is more complicated, and Italy’s renaissance has involved shrewd signing and a host of players more than a decade younger than Dzeko.
But the rhythms of the division can be adapted to older people. Those who are tactically adept and technically competent, like Dzeko is, can avoid the passage of time. It helps that he has so much the presence of an objective man; so, too, that he is a beautiful ball-hitter. Dzeko has long been a wonderful volleyer. Five years ago, he scored a goal for Roma against Chelsea that had a Marco van Basten touch about it; except, unlike the big Dutchman, he marked it with his less-favored left foot. The first goal of the derby came with another movement of his left foot, another clean connection, another beautiful goal.
it was the 400he from 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 still take him to Istanbul and transport Inter back in time. Goals from another quintessential number 9, Diego Milito, won the Nerazzurri the Champions League in 2010. The false nine has become more frequent and popular in the intervening 13 years, but Dzeko is the old-fashioned center forward who never left . Five years ago he scored in every game of a Champions League semi-final, but for Roma and to no avail and both after Liverpool’s five-goal barrage at Anfield.
Eighteen years ago, he could have been rooting for AC Milan against Liverpool. Dzeko’s hero is the top scorer in the history of the Madonnina derby; Admittedly, all those goals went to the Rossoneri and it was easier for the Bosnian to be open about his love for Andriy Shevchenko before joining other club Milan and the San Siro. Shevchenko was in the crowd, sitting across from Maldini, to witness an excellent finish.
He saw Mkhitaryan, an old rival from Dynamo Kiev’s games against Shakhtar Donetsk, burst into Milan’s box and fire a shot over Mike Maignan. The Armenian ran straight down the middle. It was too easy.
Somehow, Milan’s poor defense didn’t produce more goals. Hakan Calhanoglu, who has crossed town, hit the post. Referee Jesús Gil Manzano first awarded a penalty to Lautaro Martínez and then rescinded his own decision. Maignan made an excellent save for Dzeko.
And so, Milan will return to their homeland as the visiting team in six days, even with the possibility of Maldini playing a role in winning a sixth European Cup, to add to the 1963 triumph, when his father Cesare captained them. , and 1969, a rare success without Maldini. But not if they defend like that, and not if Old Master Dzeko is just as clinical.