Europe: What next?

Published : Jan 11, 2003 00:00 IST


THE European Champions Cup has gone into hibernation till next March, leaving a curiously confused situation. Look, for example, at Barcelona. They've won every single one of their Euro matches so far, the only club to have done so, yet their form in the Spanish Primera Liga has been atrocious. Scarcely it seemed had they disposed at the Nou Camp of Newcastle United in the Euro Cup than they suffered a shocking and almost inexplicable 3-0 home defeat by Seville, one of the weakest teams in the League.

How to explain it? Looking at the team they put out that day, which included such stars as Patrick Kluivert and Marc Overmars, irrepressible against Newcastle, it is so hard to understand. Needless to say their Dutch coach Louis van Gaal came in for some more withering flak, and made you wonder yet again why on earth Barca brought him back, for a second spell in charge. His tactics have been criticised and contested all season, he got rid of Rivaldo, who is now flourishing with Milan and the defeat by Seville put the Argentine coach and former free-scoring Reims centre-forward Carlos Bianchi firmly in line for the post. Though for all his achievements with Boca Juniors et al in Argentine football, it has to be recalled that when last he came to coach in Europe, Bianchi failed at Rome.

Given the six points they have already picked up in their group, it looks as if Barca, for all their schizophrenic form, will at least qualify, with Inter in all probability topping the four teams. Inter's super abundance of strikers, even without Ronaldo, makes them a formidable force. Even though Bobo Vieri is so often injured and, until a four goal jamboree in the Campionato at San Siro, had found it so hard to score, there are Uruguay's left-footer Alvaro Recoba seemingly unsettled and that elegant marksman Kallon, depressingly used this season but on the mark when he is. Plus, of course, Argentina's Hernan Crespo. Hector Cupar's somewhat cautious tactics haven't enraptured public or Press but at least Inter have obtained a certain consistency, so mysteriously lacking to Barcelona. Or for that matter their eternal rivals, Real Madrid.

Real haven't been quite as bad as Barca in the Primera Liga but they've been nothing like as successful in Europe, making an abysmal start to the second phase. In their first match, at San Siro, they went down 1-0 to Milan to a goal by Ukraine's Andrei Shevchenko, fully functional again after weeks away through injury and eager to stay with Milan indefinitely.

Real's extravagant spending seems to be pointing a moral; that even in the football of today, money isn't everything. Immense sums have been spent on Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and now Ronaldo, but where is this getting Real in group phase 2? Defeat by Milan was embarrassingly followed by a 2-2 draw at home to Lokomotiv Moscow, seen as probably the luckiest side to qualify for this stage. James Obiorah and Thabo Mnguni, Lokomotiv's two bright African attackers, got goals at the Bernaben for Lokomotiv. A few years ago, who ever would have thought of African players in a Russian team, but there impressively, they are. Raul scoring his second goal of the game, was obliged to equalise for an astonished Real. Milan will probably win this Group C, and Real would have to battle out second qualifying place with an improved Bayer Leverkusen though a slip up at home against modest Nuremberg in the Bundesliga, following a spirited display at San Siro days earlier against Inter, who won only 3-2, suggests that Leverkusen are still missing Michael Ballack.

What of the English challenge? We can forget Newcastle who surpassed themselves by qualifying for this stage at all after so dismal a beginning. Manchester United and Arsenal however will certainly be strong contenders, with United, rising from the ashes of their Derby defeat 3-1 by Manchester City, reaching their best form of the season, though of course March is a long way ahead.

United comfortably beat the Gunners 2-0 at Old Trafford, where Arsene Wenger's graceless remarks that United had played defensively against his team bordered on the absurd. Reminding me of what was said years ago by the incomparably idiosyncratic Bill Shankly, when manager of Liverpool, after a 5-1 defeat in Holland by Ajax in the European Cup: "That's terrible! A team playing at home, and they play defensive!"

Curiously enough, United seem to have profited from their injuries. Both centre-backs, French veteran Laurent Blanc and �30 million Rio Ferdinand have had to drop out, their places resiliently taken by France's Michael Silvestre and young Wes Brown, a far more convincing pair. While at left-back, John O'Shea, the young Irish international, a right-footer who'd never played there before is hugely enjoying himself playing behind Ryan Giggs. Even David Beckham and Roy Keane have not been missed.

Two matches against Juventus are in prospect — these teams seem forever to be meeting in Europe — but even with David Trezeguet back, Juve's domestic form has been strangely erratic. Lazio, in endless financial crisis beat them 2-1 in Turin, then they lost to Reggima, that struggling team, in the Italian Cup.

Arsenal should qualify, too good for inconsistent Roma in the Stadio Olimpico, held 0-0 by Valencia at Highbury, a game I saw. True the Gunners had much more of the play and the chances, but if Thierry Henry is going to miss when one on one with the admittedly impressive goalkeeper so early in a game then things are bound to get difficult. And the defence, in which the lanky Frenchman Pascal Cygan looks so vulnerable and far less reliable than veteran Martin Keown, had its serious problems with the big Valencia striker, Norway's Jon Carew.

The following Sunday, I saw Arsenal very lucky to hold Spurs to a 1-1 draw in the North London derby at White Hart Lane but this was perhaps a special case, Spurs, plainly fired up for the occasion, playing an all out physical game which few Continental teams would emulate. Pascal Cygan was injured, Keown took his place and did well. But Ajax are in group B and they are an improved team, not least since they brought back that clever Finnish forward Jari Litmanen, giving shrewd support to Sweden's quick striker, Ibrahimovic.

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