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Thursday, September 15, 2011
Champions League Veterans XI

Will Tidey

Andre Villas-Boas will become the youngest coach to conquer Europe if he leads Chelsea to Champions League glory this season. The Portuguese will be 34 when the final comes around next May, making him nearly two years younger than Jose Villalonga Llorente was when he led Real Madrid to victory in the European Cup's first edition, in 1956. Villas-Boas is so young that it's worth considering there are still jobbing players in the Champions League his age (33) or older this season. We're not just talking about faded, bit-part hangers-on either. This XI illustrates not just Villas-Boas' remarkable youth relative to the field he commands, but also the staying power of some of the best players of their generation. Here is ESPNsoccernet's Champions League Veterans XI (aged 33 or older):

Goalkeeper - Christian Abbiati (AC Milan, 34)

This time last year, 40-year-old Edwin van der Sar would have been the obvious choice to set the tone for an age-defying team in front of him. With the Dutchman retired, however, Manchester United have turned to a man half his age to replace him, and the Champions League is now awash with youthful shot-stoppers whose talent seemingly outweighs the need for experience. A notable exception is Milan's Abbiati - a key member of the side that won their first Serie A title since 2004 last season and the man in possession of the No. 1 jersey at the San Siro.

Right-Back - Carles Puyol (Barcelona, 33)

Barcelona's swashbuckling, shaggy-haired captain courageous has enjoyed prolific success for club and country. Injuries have begun to limit his participation somewhat recently, but Puyol remains Pep Guadiola's first-choice partner for Gerard Pique and will fancy his chances of lifting the Champions League trophy once more in May. We're using him as a right-back - where he has played on a number of occasions - to facilitate the two players who follow.

Central Defence - Lucio (Inter Milan, 33)

With over 100 caps for Brazil to his name, Lucio brings a combination of vast experience and immense physical stature to our Veterans XI. A Champions League winner with Mourinho's Inter in 2010, and a World Cup winner back in 2002, Lucio's sheer presence is probably enough to dissuade most young strikers from taking him on.

Central Defence - Alessandro Nesta (AC Milan, 35)

In his pomp Nesta was arguably the best defender in the world, and on the evidence of the partnership he forged with Thiago Silva last season, the Italian was wise to go back on his decision to retire. If this is indeed his Champions League swansong, then who would begrudge Nesta a run deep into the knockout stages?

Left-back - Javier Zanetti (Inter Milan, 38)

Argentina stalwart Zanetti is seemingly impervious to the onset of time. Now 38, the Inter Milan captain has played more than 1,000 games as a professional with around 750 of those coming for the Nerazzurri and 145 for his country. Zanetti played a full part in Inter's run to the Treble in 2010, and remains a key member of a squad in which several members are young enough to be his children.

Holding Midfielder - Marcos Senna (Villarreal, 35)

Senna is the ideal man to serve as a shield in front of the back four, lying deep to bring the ball out of defence and tracking ambitious runs from opposition midfielders. The Brazilian-born Spain international remains an important part of the Villarreal squad in his tenth season with the club.

Right Midfield - Clarence Seedorf (AC Milan, 35)

Seedorf is Champions League royalty, having won the tournament four times, with three different clubs - Ajax, Real Madrid and Milan. The Dutchman remains outstandingly fit and technically proficient and is integral to an ageing Milan side whose experience was key in their Scudetto triumph last season.

Central Midfield - Michael Ballack (Bayer Leverkusen, 34)

In his prime, Ballack was a barnstorming, box-to-box midfielder in the mould of his countryman Lothar Mattheus. Injuries have taken their toll in recent years, but what better motivation for Ballack to prove his worth than in a group containing his former club Chelsea? Twice a Champions League runner-up, this could be his last chance to go one better.

Central Midfield - Frank Lampard (Chelsea, 33)

No midfielder has scored more Premier League goals than Chelsea's Frank Lampard, who was considered by Jose Mourinho the best player in the world during his time at Stamford Bridge. Now 33, Lampard's body is no longer the miracle of science that saw him play 164 consecutive league games for the Blues, but he remains a genuine goal threat at the highest level.

Left Midfield - Ryan Giggs (Manchester United, 37)

When he joined Manchester United as a teenager in 1987, Giggs' natural talent invited a level of expectancy that has seen many a footballer fall by the wayside. Nearly a quarter of a century later, he can look back on a remarkable playing career that has seen him span the most successful period in United's history. While his first-team opportunities may be rationed in this season's Champions League, Giggs remains a player Sir Alex Ferguson trusts to deliver on the biggest stage.

Striker - Didier Drogba (Chelsea, 33)

Drogba is such a supreme physical specimen that it wouldn't be surprising if he played late into his 30s. The Ivory Coast striker possesses a combination of raw power and instinctive finishing that has him closing in on 100 Premier League goals. He will once again be key to Chelsea's chances of ending their quest for Roman Abramovich's holy grail this season.


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