Giants with feet of clay

AS the latter phases of the European Cup approach how strange it is to see not a single major contestant in sight. Certainly not the holders, Bayern Munich, who fell away so badly in the latter weeks of 2001, their manager Ottmar Hitzfeld somewhat unconvincingly putting the blame on the number of matches they'd had to play. Barcelona? Such impressive winners against Liverpool at Anfield in the Euro competition, only to slide severely away in ensuing weeks, and by the end of the year going down to defeat by minor opposition, their manager Carlos Rexach, once their fair-haired winger and for so many years at the club as a coach, hanging by a thread.

In the Premiership of England, much fuss has been made about the closeness of the race, the infinite possibilities of success in a tournament dominated for so long by Manchester United. United, indeed, have been through an alarming period of domestic failure, badly beaten at home by Chelsea, away by their main rivals those other Londoners, Arsenal. Only for Alex Ferguson the United manager supposedly in his last season though no one seems sure - belatedly to come to his senses, deploy two men up front instead of just the highly accomplished, incisive but much put upon Ruud van Nistelrooy, and proceed to make up the leeway apace.

The return after yet another period of injury of the supremely accomplished Ryan Giggs, first in his familiar position of left wing, then as a second striker alongside Van Nistelrooy, gave the team at last the balance it should have had all the time. Yet Ferguson's folly in discarding Jaap Stam (whatever may have happened between him and nandrolone since his departure to Lazio) and placing his faith in France's 36-year-old Laurent Blanc has meant the defence is still anything but solid: even when Fabien Barthez in goal doesn't indulge in inexplicably made moments.

In my mind I have the astonishing left wing run by the Fulham left back Ryfus Brevett at Craven Cottage on a late December Sunday when he went past one United defender after another, Blanc among them, more like a Paco Gento or a Tom Finney than an overlapping full back, to set up the easiest of goals for Steve Marlet.

The previous day, Arsenal, supposedly strong candidates for the championship, had made astonishingly heavy weather of squeezing a 2-1 win at Highbury out of humble Middlesbrough. Sol Campbell, the centre back, praised to the skies for his previous performance against Chelsea gave away a goal with an abysmal miskick. The Gunners equalised only because an inept referee failed to spot a clear foul on Boro's Paul Ince. Only when subtle Dennis Bergkamp came on did the Gunners' wheels truly start turning. It was his glorious long pass from right to left which enabled the young left back Ashley Cole to head the winner. Afterwards Bergkamp's colleagues eulogised him and the difference he had made. As indeed he had in a notable European Cup win against Juventus at Highbury.

That evening, he fashioned a goal superbly for Frederik Ljungberg, holding the ball, taking 11 touches, before playing it skilfully through for the Swede to score. And here we come to the crux of the matter. Without Bergkamp Arsenal tend to look a pretty brainless team. True, he is not the playmaking inside forward Arsenal boasted for so many years - Alex James, Jimmy Logie, Jimmy Bloomfield, George Eastham, Liam Brady - but rather a creative frontrunner. But without him the central Arsenal midfield is all power and drive rather than subtlety. I see Patrick Berger as essentially an attacking wing half rather than an inside forward, for all his qualities; and I insist there is a real difference, there is no such thing as a simple midfield man.

Liverpool: Will they be less reliant on the prolific Michael Owen now that, for better or for worse, they have acquired, albeit it on loan, the eternally dissident wanderer, France's Nicolas Anelka? Plus the lively promising Czech striker, Milan Baros? They remain in contention in Europe, but with the ageing of Gary McAllister, they too tend to lack true invention in midfield; for all the power of Steve Gerrard.

Bayern have much ground to make up in the Bundesliga, though it must be admitted that the long absences of those crucial though very different midfielders, subtle Mehmet Scholl and combative Jens Jeremies has been a burden. Yet with such South American attacking talent as the Brazilian Elber, the youngsters Bizarro and Roque Santa Cruz, with Alexander Zickler and Carsten Jancker, German internationals both, as back up, surely they should be doing more.

In Italy, the continued success of tiny Chievo - conquerors at San Siro of Inter, unlucky to lose as badly as 3-0 at home to Rome - is of course a tremendous tribute to them and their bargain price team, yet it surely says much about the quality of the Campionato, the vulnerability of the big boys. Shown quite embarrassingly at Highbury, when Arsenal beat Juventus 3-1 for all the presence of such as Alex del Piero and David Trezeguet. Inter aren't in the European Cup, have a superabundance of strikers, especially now Ronaldo can partner the incisive Bobo Vieri, but their defence has conceded far too many avoidable goals.

In Spain, Real too have a cornucopia of stars - Raul, Figo, Zidane - and on their day can look dazzling; and yet they have dropped an infinity of League points to lesser teams. While Barcelona's parts seem so much greater than the whole. Riquelme, Rivaldo, Kluivert: and then what?