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Football: THE FINAL INSULT; EURO REFERENDUM: WAS CHAMPIONS LEAGUE FINAL A CLASSIC TREAT OR A STINKER? Ronaldo, the world's best player,brands dour Italian clash world's biggest bore RONALDO'S verdict: {'A very ugly and boring final'.

Byline: Martin Lipton CHIEF FOOTBALL WRITER

THE CELEBRATIONS in Milan went on long into the night, but there was little joy elsewhere in Europe as Italy's football renaissance bored the continent into submission.

AC Milan's Champions League Final triumph over Juventus allowed Carlo Ancelotti and his side to call themselves the best in Europe, even if opposite number Marcelo Lippi publicly doubted their right to brag.

If the ultimate result is all- important, then Milan will point to the return of the Cup with the "Big Ears" to the San Siro for the sixth time as justification for the game they played.

The fact of an all-Italian final demonstrated that Serie A has clawed itself back from the self-doubt that had begun to eat away at the national consciousness over the past four seasons.

Yet the carping from Madrid of Ronaldo, whose spell in Milan with Inter was decidedly unsuccessful, will have struck more of a chord than any Italian delight. He dismissed both the game and the two finalists as he delivered a withering put-down.

Real's Brazilian ace said: "It was obviously no great spectacle. We all saw that it was a very ugly and boring final.

"The result says that Milan are now the best team in Europe, but we have shown that Real play the prettiest football in Europe."

While the technical excellence of the first 45 minutes at Old Trafford was undoubted, the game then went off quicker than a bottle of milk left under the sun, as caution overtook both coaches and their players.

It became a desperate evening, sitting alongside Barcelona's inability to score even in the penalty shoot-out against Steaua Bucharest in 1986 and the Red Star Belgrade bore-draw with Marseille in 1991 in the list of games that will be remembered only for the poverty of the fare.

Nobody, not even those born and bred on a diet of Serie A, could say that they would have preferred to watch Wednesday's encounter ahead of a game involving Real, United or Arsenal.

Maybe it was effective, but it was neither pretty nor enjoyable. Football is also about entertainment and in Manchester both teams settled for penalties after just an hour, the fear of defeat outweighing any desire for victory.

That it was a game played at Old Trafford, where there has not been a single goalless draw all season, put the difference in approach in a stronger focus.Sir Alex Ferguson has accepted that his side must tighten up defensively if they are to take the final step back to the European pinnacle, and the expertise of Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini and Juve's Ciro Ferrara as they sucked the life out of the game was indisputable.

Yet no English side - and probably no Spanish one - would have escaped a public chorus of disapproval from a 62,000 crowd after two hours and 41 minutes produced so little to remember.

Even the Italian press agreed that Old Trafford had opened the way to the old stereotypes.

La Gazzetta dello Sport described the finish as "a condemnation of Italian football" and admitted United's epic clash with Real in the quarter-final represented "the true European final".

Maybe it was in artistic terms, but another season of Champions League failure by the cream of English football does put further doubt on the Premier League's proud insistence on calling itself the best in the world.

The cold reality of results in Europe suggest that English football might only be worthy of fourth place in the continental table.

The Champions League has been in existence for 11 seasons, exactly the same amount of time as the Premiership. But for all the claims made on behalf of the English game, Manchester United's dramatic triumph over Bayern Munich in 1999 represents the only occasion on which a Premiership side has reached European football's showpiece event.

Italy, on the back of Wednesday's Old Trafford non-event, can boast eight final appearances - four each by Juventus and Milan. Serie A is followed by Spain's La Liga, with Real Madrid's three victories bolstered by three defeats shared between Valencia and Barcelona.

Then comes Germany, with Bayern Munich having been to the ultimate stage twice and Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen once each. Even Holland, with back-to-back appearances for Ajax in 1995 and 1996 can boast more finalists than England, who share fifth place with France. It is a sorry return, suggesting that there is still a naivete about English football.

Liverpool boss Gerard Houllier, a member of UEFA's technical committee in Manchester, agreed that the Premiership mind-set remains an alien concept for many of Europe's elite players.

He said: "Players like Zidane and Raul would not want to play in England because of the way the game is here. The Premiership is accused of breeding players without skill, but that is wrong - you cannot play at the pace we do in England unless your technique is excellent."

The evidence of Old Trafford over the past five weeks is clear - the cream of football is an Italian defence, Spanish attack, and English crowd.

Maybe the nightmare is an English defence, an Italian attack, and a Spanish crowd.

Or maybe just an all- Italian Champions Leaguefinal, anywhere on the planet. The result of last night's Serie A relegation play-off first leg was ... Reggina 0 Atalanta 0. Another treat for the fans.

CAPTION(S):

MIRROR SPORT on the snore-fest; SNOOZE AT TEN: After two hours and 41 minutes of; tedium, Paolo Maldini lifted the Cup
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:May 30, 2003
Words:917
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