The battle between Bayer 04 Leverkusen's Zé Roberto and Manchester United FC’s Gary Neville, players of contrasting styles and temperaments, could be one of the key confrontations in the UEFA Champions League semi-final first-leg showdown at Old Trafford tonight.
Neville, who can play at right-back or in the centre of the defence, is one of the crop of high-flying graduates from the United academy who have formed the foundation of the club's success over the past decade. Also including the likes of brother Phil, best friend David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, 'Fergie's fledglings' are just reaching their physical peak, a frightening prospect for the rest of the English FA Premiership and for Europe.
The 27-year-old Neville goes about his work quietly, but is a leader on and off the pitch for both his club and country. He has already won five FA Premiership titles and played a major role in United's treble-winning season, as well as gaining 52 caps for England. While Beckham wins much of the praise, Neville works tirelessly to give the England captain the platform to shine, always willing to go on the overlap to take defenders out the game or provide an accurate cross himself.
Tonight, however, he will be without the injured Beckham, and will have to battle hard to keep Leverkusen’s left flank quiet. Zé Roberto, also 27, cost the German side a club-record fee of €6.4m when he signed from from Real Madrid CF in 1998. Now after a successful spell with Leverkusen it seems that the Spanish giants are just one of a whole host of top European sides keen to sign the Brazilian in the summer.
The interest comes as no surprise, after his consistently impressive performances this season have helped put Klaus Toppmöller's side at the top of the 1. Bundesliga and have made them the surprise package in the Champions League. Indeed, he was a crucial component in turning round Leverkusen's tie against Liverpool FC two weeks ago and his left-sided partnership with Diego Placente has already led Juventus FC and RC Deportivo La Coruña a merry dance during the group stages.
But even without the hard-working Beckham in front of him, the confident Neville will not be sidetracked. "We just have to win at home and away, simple as that. I don't think we should get in a fix about keeping it tight and not conceding an away goal," he said.
The hugely talented Zé Roberto, however, has had his focus slightly taken away in recent days by the incessant talk of big-money transfers. "[FC] Barcelona could be a future team for me," he said just before the defeat against SV Werder Bremen at the weekend. "I have spoken with an Italian agent, who said there was certain interest, but there's nothing concrete. I have a contract with Leverkusen, but I would like to play in Spain. I think everyone would like to play in Spain."
Dribbling ability and technique or ruthless competitiveness and solidity? Tonight will tell.
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