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By Peter Sterling
Gennaro Gattuso and Steven Gerrard, the men who wear the No8 shirts for AC Milan and Liverpool FC, perfectly illustrate one of the reasons for football's universal appeal: you do not need to be any particular body shape to be a great player.
Despite contrasting physical appearances, they are both hugely influential midfield players, fiercely combative and industrious. The outcome of Wednesday's UEFA Champions League final could well depend on which man dominates the all-important midfield battleground. Unlike most Italian players, Gattuso has something of a British footballing philosophy, honed during the 1997/98 season at Rangers FC, so the final against Liverpool will be special for him.
A self-confessed admirer of the English game, he said: "I learned so much in Britain. I really respect British culture and the more genuine mentality of the people. They judge you for what you are, as a person. My experience there changed my life." Technically, Gattuso, nicknamed Ringhio ('growler'), might not have the pure footballing ability of some of his team-mates, but his never-say-die approach is as important as the talents of Kaká, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf.
His commitment makes him a fans' favourite and his aggressive attitude is crucial for Milan since he is their only real ball-winner. Still, his improved skills on the ball and long-range shots are often over-looked. Liverpool's Jamie Carragher has personal experience of his capacity to strike from distance. He was in the England midfield when a 25-metre Gattuso effort gave Italy a 1-0 friendly win in Turin in November 2000.
That goal was a rarity, though, as he has only scored five league goals since 1995 – and only two since returning to Italy from Scotland seven years ago. He has also won the hearts of the female audience who recently voted him the eighth sexiest footballer in Italy – higher even than team-mate Paolo Maldini, whom Gattuso is likely to succeed as captain when Maldini eventually retires.
Gerrard is already Liverpool's skipper and will lift the cup should they make it a fifth European Champion Clubs' Cup success in Turkey. Like Gattuso, Gerrard can tackle well, but his best attributes are his abilities to find a man with a 40-metre pinpoint pass or else power his way through the midfield on a surging run.
He is also an essential pivot, able to direct an approach with clever one-twos or inventive, telling passes as he illustrated against Chelsea FC at Anfield in the move that led to Liverpool's winning goal in the semi-final second leg. Unlike Gattuso, who joined Milan in 1999 after earlier spells at AC Perugia, Rangers and Salernitana Sport, Gerrard is a one-club man, a product of Liverpool's academy who has played nearly 300 matches for them, scoring 40 goals.
Whether he scores many more is open to some debate as newly crowned English champions Chelsea FC are known to covet him. Having helped eliminate the Londoners at the semi-final stage, though, Gerrard only has thoughts on Wednesday's game, saying "It will be a dream for me to lead the team out in Istanbul." Gattuso will be trying to ensure that is where the dream ends.
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