x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

The successors to Maldini

Who is the face of Italian football? Ask the question for many of the last 20 years and a good answer would have been Paolo Maldini.

Alessandro Del Piero, left, and Francesco Totti will pit their considerable wits and skill against each other today.
Alessandro Del Piero, left, and Francesco Totti will pit their considerable wits and skill against each other today.

Who is the face of Italian football? Ask the question for many of the last 20 years and a good answer would have been Paolo Maldini. With his blue eyes and high cheekbones, Maldini's was a face on which Italian football could easily sell its glamour as well as its high standards.

But AC Milan's Maldini is no longer on the Serie A landscape as an icon of extraordinary loyalty and endurance, among other qualities. The mantle for much of what he stood for passes to two other men, Alessandro Del Piero, of Juventus, and Francesco Totti, of Roma. At their respective clubs, who meet in Serie A this afternoon, their status is little short of sacred. Coaches fall out with them at their peril; no other employee of Roma or Juve would win a popularity contest up against Totti or Del Piero.

For much of their careers, Totti and Del Piero were bound together by debate, too, about how compatible they could be in the Italian national or team. They both play their best foot-ball around the zone of the trequartista, just behind the principal striker, and for periods over the last decade, national managers struggled to find a workable pattern for both Del Piero and Totti in the same side.

Totti, who won 58 caps, retired from international football soon after the 2006 World Cup; Del Piero, nine appearances short of a century for the Azzurri, wants to play for Italy again but is no longer selected by Marcello Lippi. Age has tempered both their games, as have injuries. Del Piero seemed to lose some of his pace after ligament problems in his 20s. Totti's knees are creaky. Both, though, should be fit today, Del Piero having missed Juve's opening match of the season with a thigh problem.

Diego is Juve's trequartista now, with Del Piero likely to play ahead of him. Quite how successfully they combine is one of the challenges facing Ciro Ferrara, the Juventus head coach. "Of course Alex and I can work together," says the Brazilian. Totti's role at Roma has also become a little more advanced in recent seasons, partly because his value as a goalscorer is so high, partly because, at times during Luciano Spalletti's stint in charge, the coach found it better to operate without a traditional centre-forward and opt for width and Totti's excellence surging out of midfield.

Roma looked more orthodox, tactically, last season but finishing outside the Champions League positions. This season the club from the capital will need to be consistent. ihawkey@thenational.ae Roma v Juventus, KO 8pm, AlJazeera +1