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Football: Waiting for Ronaldo? Ferguson couldn't care less whether he plays or not; MANCHESTER UTD CONTINUE THEIR QUEST FOR EUROPEAN GLORY BUT THE WORLD'S TOP STAR IS KEEPING EVERYONE GUESSING.

IN the luxurious country retreat on the outskirts of Appiano Gentile, a doctor is about to make an Important Announcement.

As Italian and English journalists anxiously crowd around, and the paparazzi's cameras flash away, a goofy, shaven- headed kid surfs the net in another corner of the room.

Idly flicking through a copy of La Gazzetta dello Sport, he seems completely oblivious to this world-shattering news.

The Italian sports paper declares: "Dupo due mesi Ronaldo s'e allenato con l'inter" - after two months, Ronaldo is back in training with Inter.

Not that he cares, for he IS Ronaldo and, after what he went through during the World Cup Final, the latest pronouncement on his knee injury pales into insignificance.

There is only one other man in football who appears equally unconcerned about the soccer legend's fitness - Alex Ferguson.

"The things coming out of Milan, we've seen it all before," says Fergie.

"I'm not taking any notice of what is being said about Ronaldo - whether he plays or not won't affect the way I'll attack the game."

Still, apart from the Brazilian striker and the Manchester United manager, the rest of us are waiting for Ronaldo. And what we are all waiting to hear is: How is he feeling?

Which is why Inter's doctor has just addressed an overcrowded press conference. Declaring him fit to travel to Manchester for Wednesday's Champion League quarter-final first leg, he warns: "But not fit to play, probably."

This is not what Mircea Lucescu wants to hear.

While downstairs his star player plonks on a baseball cap and trots outside for some light work on his notorious knees - the subject of endless speculation by Netheads and newspaper letter writers - the small, curly-haired boss puts a brave face on it.

Mircea who? Well, exactly.

The unknown Internationale coach sports the deathly complexion of someone who is living on borrowed time.

His side are struggling in the League and out of the Cup - and his players are in open revolt.

Savaged by the powerful press for his tactical blunders, apparently unable to control his pampered prima donnas, he is expected to be replaced by ex-Juventus coach Marcello Lippi before the season is out.

Lippi, indeed, announced he was leaving Juventus for Inter at the beginning of the season, thus provoking the kind of chaos the chaps at Lancaster Gate are all too familiar with.

Gigi Simoni was sacked by president Massimo Morratti in November and, like the FA, the Inter chief was forced to bring in a short-term coach.

But whereas David Davies and Co lured the popular Kevin Keegan to their temporary post, the best Morratti could come up with was the undistinguished Romanian.

If Keegan is Mr Motivator, then Lucescu has proved himself to be Mr Demotivator.

After managing Steua Bucharest and the Romanian national team, he coached Brescia and a few other minor Italian sides before returning to his homeland three years ago. Hardly a CV to inspire the passionate devotees of San Ciro's superstars.

Second in the League to Juventus last season, Inter have already conceded the title. They currently lie sixth in Serie A, 11 points adrift of leaders Lazio. No wonder Lucescu has become public enemy No 1.

Players like Sousa and Colonnese have lost four, Djorkaeff and Baggio have failed to find a rapport up front and Inter have yet to score a goal in free play away from home this year.

Some fans threw plastic water bottles onto the pitch last week and chanted "expensive elephants". But any team boasting the likes of Baggio, Djorkaeff and Zomarano are a frightening prospect. And given the indignities they have suffered this season it is possible they may perform at Old Trafford like wounded tigers.

Back at the training ground, Lucescu shakes the doctor's hand and sighs. More than anyone else, he is waiting for Ronaldo.

With the 22-year-old Brazilian in his side, he has a chance of rescuing the season - and his failing career - by beating United. He predicts: "Whoever gets through this round, Inter or Manchester, will reach the final."

He refuses to accept that he is simply keeping the managerial seat warm for Lippi, yet the writing is on the wall.

Suzanna Wernelinger, the club's head of communications, insists his job is safe. "Listen, the thing that we can tell you is that Mr Lucescu is our coach."

This sounds about as convincing as an English football club chairman's vote of confidence in a soon-to-be sacked manager.

"We appreciate his work a lot," she continues. "It wasn't easy because he took over at a certain point of the season and he is changing the tactics of the team - and we are very glad about it."

Ms Wernelinger's spin-doctoring, like her English, is excellent.

When I ask her about the players' revolt, she feigns surprise. "Of course, there was a discussion with Taribo West but that's all, just a discussion."

The "discussion" she is referring to, which took place after last Sunday's Serie A game against Lazio, got a little heated.

She explains: "Taribo always does exactly what's on his mind, he is very spontaneous."

The Nigerian defender is reported to, along with striker Nicola Ventola, have "spontaneously" attacked Lucescu at the end of the 1-0 defeat, Inter's eighth of the season. Both players were fined pounds 20,000 by president Morratti for their involvement in the discussion.

"We have some players who are very disciplined and some who are not," admits Suzanna.

West clearly belongs to the latter category. He spontaneously threw his shirt at the beleaguered coach after being substituted against Vicenza. Three weeks earlier Djorkaeff simply refused to leave the pitch when Lucescu made the same request and, during the 2-0 defeat by Palma, Bergomi took an early bath after pushing the referee. Colonnese and Zanetti also received red cards.

Such indiscipline is symptomatic of a team in turmoil. Ripe with factions, morale is at an all time low.

Ferguson must be rubbing his hands with glee - Inter are surely there for the taking.

Unless, of course, the 40million-dollar man makes a miraculous recovery in time for Wednesday.

The king of football's fitness is not something to joke about - given how much is at stake both for himself and his team - but Lucescu loudly guffaws when asked if Ronaldo will be at Old Trafford this week.

"Yes, we are taking him to Manchester," he teases. "To be cautious I'll say he won't be playing but we have to look at it on a day-to-day level."

Is that a no, then? "If you want I will say yes. Do you want him to play?"

Not really, but will he be on the bench? Pause. "We shall see."

The softly spoken Romanian might be a condemned man, but he is determined to bow out of Italian soccer with a smile on his face.
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Title Annotation:Sport
Author:Clavane, Anthony
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Feb 28, 1999
Words:1142
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