x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Old rivals in classic encounter

The group phase of the 2009-2010 Champions League is unusually replete with what nostalgics would call "classics".

Marcel Desailly lifts the European Cup  in 1993 after Marseille beat AC Milan 1-0 in Munich.
Marcel Desailly lifts the European Cup in 1993 after Marseille beat AC Milan 1-0 in Munich.

The group phase of the 2009-2010 Champions League is unusually replete with what nostalgics would call "classics". Juventus against Bayern Munich, which comes up on the calendar before the end of October, is one such game, Inter Milan against Barcelona tomorrow is another. But the match to really remind of why and for what this competition came into being, replacing the old, strictly knockout European Cup is tonight's confrontation in the south of France: Olympique Marseille versus AC Milan.

These were the sides who contested the first final of the new-look, modernist, elitist tournament devised by Uefa, European football's governing body, to update what they deemed a stagnating European Cup. They called it the grandiloquent Champions League and its debut final would certainly offer theatre. France's biggest club against Italy's most successful in Europe, and in Munich that night in May, an atmosphere befitting two heavyweight clubs.

"It was just beautiful, looking up at the stands and seeing all that blue and red," remembers Marcel Desailly, a giant of the Champions League for more than a decade, and a man for whom OM versus Milan will always carry a particular frisson. "Marseille was the club I supported, even before I played for them," he explained, "and though Milan would become the club that gave me so much later, I will always have an emotional bond with OM: a lot of Frenchmen of my generation did.

"We grew up in the game before the Bosman ruling, so we looked at our own domestic football teams, and in that era, OM was as big as it came in France. "I was so keyed up that day: 25 years old and playing in a Champions League final, though we still couldn't help calling it the European Cup then. But we also knew we were facing a side from another dimension: AC Milan." Yet OM won, 1-0, and their athletic, Ghanaian-born defender confirmed in the match the favourable impression that Milan had long held of him. Desailly would join the club who had lost the inaugural, 1993 Champions League final promptly, and in time to win, with Milan, the 1994 version.

It was a wise switch. The French club he had left would become involved in a match-fixing scandal surrounding their domestic campaign in the year they became France's first and only Champions League winners that would eventually see them relegated; Milan, with Desailly a mountain in their midfield or their defence, grew to pre-eminence in the mid-1990s. And it is from that perspective that Desailly will view tonight's game, for which he has travelled from what is now his home in Ghana to France to scrutinise it as a television analyst.

"Apologies to my dear Milan," he smiles, "but I am with OM as a fan, and also believe that, whatever Milan's problems may be at this moment, OM need the lift that comes from a good showing in the Champions League." For the best part of eight years, Marseille have lived in the shadow of Lyon as France's most muscular European team. The city demands better. To paraphrase Desailly's recall of that famous final, 17 seasons ago, OM might fancy that this Milan are also a team "from another dimension", a dimension some milanisti are struggling to recognise.

Milan, 10th in the Serie A table, return today to Champions League action after a year's absence. "They are having a tough time right now," says Desailly, "but you cannot blame the coach. Leonardo is intelligent, and an excellent choice. I just think he may have been unlucky when he took over this squad. They have just lost some leaders: Kaka, Paolo Maldini and Carlo Ancelotti, and football clubs move in cycles. Milan are at a low point and, at a club whose Italian players have always been important, they are no longer producing players from within."

ihawkey@thenational.ae Marseille v Milan, KO 10.45pm, Aljazeera Sport + 4