Champions Cup: knock-out rounds

Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp (right) scores the match-winner against Blackburn Rovers at Highbury, London. Arsenal missed quite a few scoring opportunities and scraped through with a 1-0 victory in the end. — Pic. REUTERS-Arsenal's Dennis Bergkamp (right) scores the match-winner against Blackburn Rovers at Highbury, London. Arsenal missed quite a few scoring opportunities and scraped through with a 1-0 victory in the end. — Pic. REUTERS

NOW, in February, we will at last come to the knock-out stage of the European Champions Cup, and about time too, you might think. At least one more league-let stage has been eliminated from the competition, but it is still a very unsatisfactory format, poised uneasily between a genuine knock-out cup competition and a series of little leagues. Sometimes getting the worst of both worlds.

Thus, Celta Vigo can count themselves very lucky indeed to be in this round, even if facing Arsenal is hardly the luckiest of draws. I say this because the Spanish team, shipping water this season in their own Primera Liga, came through on the back of a 2-1 win at San Siro against a weakened Milan side which, having already qualified, had no incentive to win. This was deeply unfair to the other group members but heavily emphasises the basic weakness of the tournament's structure. Even it is not as bad as it was when, in the earlier half-baked version, CSKA of Moscow manifestly laid down and died against Marseille who thus qualified thanks to the easiest of dubious victories.

Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United have all survived to represent England. By the same token, Spain, besides Celta, have Real Madrid, who should surely get the better of their old rivals, Bayern Munich, and Deportivo La Coruna, qualified despite that appalling 8-3 defeat by Monaco. You would in the normal way put money on Arsenal to cruise through against Celta were it not for their dismal past European record, their infinite capacity of going belly up against teams you would have expected them to beat with ease.

True, one saw them despatch Lokomotiv Moscow with little trouble at Highbury, thus completing a desperate almost deathbed recovery, following their abysmal beginning to the group phase. But Lokomotiv, with whom they had drawn in Moscow 0-0, hardly put up a fight. There was some excuse in the fact that their season had been over for several weeks, and they were plainly short of match practice, but to deploy throughout, even when they fell a goal behind, a system which left only the hapless Georgian Malkhaz Asatiani up front showed their utter lack of ambition.

Bayern Munich's Roy Makaay takes a penalty kick as RSC Anderlecht's goalkeeper Daniel Zitka tries to thwart the attempt, at Munich. The resultant goal enabled Bayern to advance to the next round. — Pic. AFP-

In the circumstances it was strange to find the Lokomotiv manager, Yuri Semin, in such a relaxed and genial mood. Probably though because he knew that the weird rules of the competition, which involved the results one team level on points with others is judged on its direct results against them, sent Lokomotiv through to the next round. All very unsatisfactory and chaotic.

Arsenal? With Thierry Henry on form, and, let us add, on finishing form, they are a threat to any opposition. But the team suffers, even if they did get those amazing five goals in Milan against Inter, from a periodic inability to take their chances. So after beating the Russians, the Sunday game against Blackburn again at Highbury saw them creating chances galore but missing them time and again. So in the end they could only scrape through 1-0 with a goal by the ever inventive and adroit Dutchman, Dennis Bergkamp. Indeed Blackburn in the closing stages could easily have equalised.

With his superb control and dynamic pace, Henry can destroy a much better defence than that of Celta, which, interestingly, includes the Brazilian international, left back Silvinho. He spent time not long ago at Highbury until, one is told, it was discovered that his "European" origins, which qualified him to play in England, were open to doubt and off he speedily went. He is a lively attacker however and as we know there is an old Italian saying about "the immutable law of the ex," meaning that the former player always scores against his old club.

It could happen; or happen through big Savo Milosevic, who usually plays alone up front for Celta, a Yugoslav of vast experience, though he did fail at Aston Villa. Besides, the Gunners' defence isn't truly convincing. Ashley Cole is, for all his England status, an erratic left back given to positional blunders and the odd spectacular red-carded foul. Pascal Cygan, the towering Frenchman, is back in central defence and hasn't been doing badly but he doesn't convince me yet.

At the Blackburn match, Roman Abramovic, the billionaire Chairman of Chelsea, had the brass cheek to attend and make an alleged �50 million offer for Henry. I have to admit that it amused me to know that the previous day, Chelsea, for all his prodigally spent millions, had contrived to lose 2-1 at home to Bolton Wanderers. Like Arsenal, they had won in midweek, 2-0, against the Besiktas team, which had beaten them by the same score at Stamford Bridge.

When their manager, Claudio Ranieri, made the excuse that his team was tired in the second half, I had little if any sympathy. Not for a club, which has spent so much money that in game after game it leaves an array of star talent on the bench. Could it just be that with all that array of talent, Chelsea simply remain what they have always been since their foundation in 1905, a team of inherent, incurable inconsistency, ever capable of beating the best and of losing to the worst? There is a German word, schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. Such has surely been the general feeling in English football circles outside Stamford Bridge. There is something deeply disturbing about the way Abramovic, one of the so-called oligarchs, who gobbled up oil rights and the like under Boris Yeltsin, has spent so hugely.

Real Madrid and Bayern Munich seem forever to be meeting in this competition, even in the Final. But these are uneasy days for Bayern, who must surely now regret selling the prolific Brazilian Elber to Lyon — they, too, still in the tournament — last summer. Roy Makaay, whose goal against Anderlecht, enabled Bayern to squeeze into the next round, is an accomplished scorer himself but not quite as dynamic.

Real? David Bekham, despite the occasional eruption on the pitch, seems to be settling surprisingly well into a central midfield role and there are the usual glitterati in Zinedine Zidane, Footballer of the Year again, Raul and Figo. But the defence is still far from convincing, as shown by that alarming 4-1 defeat in Seville and there are games when the attack, for all its stars, seems unincisive.

Milan, the holders, have a potent new goal scoring weapon in the young Brazilian Ofieldoon Kaka. Sparta Prague defended well to hold Chelsea 0-0 away but I think they'll find Andrei Shevchenko and company rather too much for them.