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A Valentine worthy of champions

For anybody who struck up a relationship when there was mistletoe dangling and turkey still in the fridge, around six weeks have passed to prove you were listening to what your new flame has been saying. Undoubtedly, there have been hints but unless you have been unlucky enough to pick somebody whose birthday falls between the turn of the year and February 14, today, Valentine's Day, will be the first true test of how much you were paying attention.

Ideally, the present should not be cheap (a horrible trait) or too expensive (lest you seem too keen) while simultaneously managing to tug at the heart and fog the mind. If a shop existed for such gifts, it would make millions.

Before the full-blown internet age, mix-tapes were a handy tool when an ability to endure romantic music and press the 'stop' button just before the DJ started talking were all that was needed for an ideal "thought that counts" present. A perfectly mixed collection of downloads handed over on a computer memory stick just seems cold by comparison.

Then, there's the 'don't get me anything' request -- a trap into which many fall in the way Arsenal's defence used to catch out centre-forwards. If this instruction is followed exactly, there's no quicker way at getting offside.

But for anybody struggling to come up with a gift for a football-loving house-mate, a present (in the absence of a ticket) of the remote control and a guaranteed uninterrupted few hours tomorrow and Wednesday evening should do the trick better than any emergency trip to the local shop.

While the Champions League group stages regularly resembles a slow bicycle race, the sound of Handel's theme-tune in February to herald the knockout stages brings a sense of genuine anticipation which rises way above the staple diet of Super Sundays, Magic Mondays or whatever other hyperbolic headline is attached to the Premier League.

With marquee players either threatening to leave clubs (Rooney/Tevez) or actually leaving (Torres), it's been a bad season for anybody still looking for some warmth in the game. Fittingly, two fine cities of romance, Milan and London, provide succour in the coming days.

On Wednesday, Barcelona travel to the Emirates to play Arsenal in a match full of players barely tall enough to go on the dangerous rides at a funfair, but who look after the ball like a loving partner. "I'm a romantic," said Barcelona midfielder Xavi at the weekend. "I like the fact that talent and technical ability is valued above physical condition now ... There's something greater than the result, more lasting. A legacy. Inter won the Champions League last year but nobody talks about them."

Arsene Wenger seems similarly idealistic but without the trophies to match Barcelona's haul since Pep Guardiola took over. And yet, as Xavi put it, there is something more lasting about this philosophy that, in 20 years' time, will be recalled with a far greater fondness than the bulldozing, yet successful, Chelsea of Jose Mourinho.

For people of a certain age, the legacy created by AC Milan in the late '80s and early '90s still resonates. The weekly highlights on Irish television gave many their first experience of European football allowing them to witness the intoxicating spectacle of Rijkaard, Gullit and Van Basten in their pomp. If the red and black shirt wasn't for you, there was Inter with Brehme, Matthaus and Klinsmann; Sampdoria had Mancini and Vialli; Napoli had Maradona and Careca; Roma had Voller and Aldair. There was no argument about the world's best league.

Serie A might not be as strong as it once was, yet for all the talk of crisis in Italian football and how far it has fallen behind, its teams have still won three out of the last 10 Champions Leagues, the same number as Spanish teams -- with two from England and one each from Portugal and Germany.

All of which makes it a little disconcerting to see Milan spoken of in the same breath as Tottenham when it comes to winning the Champions League ahead of their meeting at the San Siro tomorrow. This, after all, is the Milan team who have eight Champions League finals in just over 20 years and have had some of the greatest players of their generation in their ranks. The problem now is that many of those players are still there while their generation has moved on.

The jerseys of Franco Baresi and Paulo Maldini may have been retired with the player but such is the age profile of the squad that it wouldn't be surprising to see somebody ruled out because they need a hip replacement.

Five years ago, had Nesta, Zambrotta, Van Bommel, Gattuso, Pirlo, Seedorf, Inzaghi, and Ibrahimovic been at one club, it would have been difficult to choose a favourite name to put on the back of the jersey. Now they should be on the retro version.

For all that, the ghosts of their past greats means there's still a soft spot for Milan even though their opponents tomorrow night have been the ones turning heads throughout Europe with a virile, swashbuckling style.

Long-term class versus short-term satisfaction is a battle that's always tough to call.

Once the roses, chocolates and candlelit dinners are out of the way tonight, the true romance of the week can begin.

Irish Independent