By Paolo Menicucci in Milan
When AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti fought off competition from J-League side Yokohama F Marinos to land Cafu on a free transfer last summer, many observers had doubts about the decision to recruit a 33-year-old who had just had an unsuccessful season with his former club, AS Roma.
But since joining the UEFA Champions League holders, 'Il Pendolino' - the Express Train - has not stopped. The Brazilian is enjoying a fantastic campaign with the Rossoneri, who are dominating their domestic league and are the sole Italian survivors in the Champions League.
Cafu, the only player to have appeared in three FIFA World Cup finals, assessed his team's prospects in tonight's quarter-final first leg against RC Deportivo La Coruña when he spoke to uefa.com yesterday. "It will be a difficult game," said Brazil's captain. "They defeated Juventus [FC] and this is evidence of how strong they are. We should be really careful, especially in not allowing them to counterattack, their favourite weapon."
Home and away
Playing the first leg in Milan could be considered a disadvantage, with the decider to come at the Riazor stadium in La Coruna, but the experienced Cafu sees it otherwise. "It's not that different," he said. "Deportivo have proved they can play well away from home too so we have to play two matches with the same kind of intensity and spirit.
Their main strengths are their organisation and ball retention. They are extremely solid and they always know what to do, having played together and with the same tactics for many years. Their weakness? Even if they had one, I would say nothing."
Of his own side's strengths and weaknesses, Cafu said: "We have no particular secrets. We are a strong team, we are working hard and we are all pushing in the same direction. This is a fabulous group of players."
Ten points clear
In the past eight seasons, only FC Bayern München in 2000/01 and Manchester United FC in 1998/99 have managed to capture both their domestic title and the Champions League in the same year. Milan, who are ten points clear at the Serie A summit, seem to have a good chance this year.
Long way to go
"If only these two teams managed to win both competitions in the same year, it means it is really difficult to do it," Cafu said. "We'll try everything we can to win both, but we know it will be difficult and that there is still a long way to go, both in Serie A and in the Champions League. I honestly believe that at this stage of the competition every team is extremely strong."
Italian clubs are often criticised for taking a defensive approach, but Milan are refreshingly different this season, fielding an attacking formation and always trying to play attractive football. Cafu's own role is emblematic of this. His foraging runs into opposition territory are still as lethal as ever, as his three assists in eight Champions League games testify.
Does the Brazilian think Milan can become a model for other Italian teams? "Milan have always tried to be an innovative side, starting from the team coached by [Arrigo] Sacchi until today," said Cafu. "I hope Milan will become the model to follow for Italian teams - it would mean that we had gone far in the Champions League!" The first step along that road comes tonight.
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