Maldini's final ambition

With AC Milan's captain having won seven of the eight UEFA Champions League semi-finals he has played, Manchester United FC hold no fear for Paolo Maldini.

Depending who you believe, the secret to longevity might be a good wife, a lack of stress, red meat or even gin. Yet as AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini weighs up the prospect of a ninth UEFA Champions League semi-final after helping his side defeat FC Bayern München 2-0 last week, the 38-year-old is keen to put a different slant on things.

'Great mentality'
"I approached the Bayern match in my usual positive way," Maldini said. "We knew we needed a win, but this team is blessed with players with a great mentality; they prove that every time. Now it is Manchester United. I think they were probably hoping to meet Bayern." The ashen look on the face of the watching Sir Alex Ferguson at the Fußball Arena München suggested that assumption might well have some grounding. The United manager has reason to fear the Italian side, who ended his team's campaign in the last 16 two seasons ago.

No fear
Sir Alex had a very different appearance 24 hours earlier as his charges routed Milan's Serie A rivals AS Roma 7-1. Maldini is confident his team-mates will provide a sterner test. "Manchester United have grown in strength over the past few years, and Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo are extremely impressive. It will be a difficult match, played at a great tempo. But we're not scared and we will go there in high spirits. What makes us strong is our great mentality, our determination. We are always ready when it counts."

Maldini legend
Milan have been crowned European champions six times, and only once has there not been a Maldini in their ranks. Paolo's father Cesare was part of the victorious 1963 European Champion Clubs' Cup side, while his heir has collected four winners' medals, in 1989, 1990, 1994 and 2003, during a 23-year spell at the San Siro. Such is his legend that when he does hang up his boots, the No3 shirt will be retired unless one of his sons plays for the club. Ominously for opponents hoping to see the back of the Maldini clan, Paolo's eldest child Christian, 13, is already on the Rossoneri's books.

"I keep playing because I love the atmosphere," said the former Italy captain. "To play just one more semi-final on an English ground, with the atmosphere we will face there and the possibility of reaching another final, gives me the strength to keep going." Any "possibility" of a final has become a virtual probability for Maldini. Until last term's defeat by FC Barcelona, he had never lost a last-four fixture. "This is yet another European Cup semi-final for me, my ninth. It went well seven times and I hope I will be able to make eight.

"This time we have qualified as the only non-English team, and in the last 20 years we have always been there; it makes me very proud. We have been somewhere near the top of the pile for years, ever since 1988." Maldini had made his Milan debut three years previously, against Udinese Calcio in January 1985. Two decades on he is eager for one last showpiece occasion. "Last summer this target looked almost impossible, and now it is within our grasp," said Maldini. If the last 20 years have taught us anything, it is that when Milan get a tentative hold on something, they tend to make it count.

This is an abridged version of an article that appears in this week's edition of the Magazine. To read the feature in full, click here.