Mediocre Europe?

Looking back on the season in Europe, disappointment, even mediocrity, abounds. How else could such a modest team as Bayern Leverkusen, thrashed at Highbury by Arsenal, stride all the way to the Final, humiliating Liverpool in Germany and almost comfortably getting the better of Manchester United? How could Real Madrid, whatever their glorious European Cup record and their progress to Hampden Park for the first time since that amazing 1960 Final (yes, I was there!), let the Spanish Liga slip away from them and into the hands of Valencia where they'd spend such almost insane sums of money on the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo? They may have won in some style at Nou Camp against Barcelona for the first time almost in memory in that first leg Euro semifinal but some of the defeats they suffered this year in the Liga were breath-takingly embarrassing. And in the Final of the Spanish Cup, even though it was played on their very own Bernabeu Stadium, they even contrived to lose at home to Deportivo La Curuna.

As for the Italians, once again they failed to get a single club into the semifinals of the European Cup and fared little better in the UEFA Cup though the club's President and owner Massimo Moratti did publicly express his scorn for that competition. True, the Italian Campionato was immensely exciting going right down to the wire when with Inter just a point in the lead at the last hurdle, both Juventus, the eventual winner, and Roma were still notionally in the running. And if Inter were so unconcerned about the UEFA Cup, in which they were well and truly knocked out by their Dutch opponents, what had Moratti to say after their truly inept defensive performance in that last match in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, against Lazio?

Twice ahead, they would eventually be eliminated from the title running by a 4-2 defeat, inflicted by a team which had disappointed for most of the season and didn't even have two of its star strikers in the two Argentines, Hernan Crespo and Claudio Lopez. Lazio didn't in the event, need them. Twice in arrears and with seemingly most of their own supporters cheering on Inter because, in their perversity, they didn't want city rivals Roma to win the Championship, they eventually dominated the game and even through the Brazilian sub Cesar hit a post in the bargain. The slumped and tearful figure of Brazil's Ronaldo on the bench when substitutes told the whole sad story.

Still, at least Inter very nearly turned the trick, which is a great deal more than could be said of their own city rivals Milan which, though they too had spent large sum of money, could do no better than a far distant 4th place in the Championship. True, they lacked Pippo Inzaghi their international centre forward for many weeks but on the face of it they had plenty of players in reserve. As for Juve, who'd actually written themselves off a few weeks earlier, they made a pitiful show of it in the European Cup even if in their final game their reserve team embarrassed Arsenal by beating them, in Turin.

Fifth in Serie A were little Chievo, the amazing club from a suburb of Verona (themselves doomed to be relegated) who found themselves against all probability and logic in Serie A for the first time even though their population is not much more than 20,000. All credit to the superb way they acquired and revitalised players like the winner Heriberto to build an astonishingly effective team, and for the way they often took on and beat the best, but what does their success tell you about the level of the Italian Campionato at large?

Roma, eliminated from the European Cup by Liverpool, should surely have done far better and their Championship slipped away from them, into the bargain. A crushing 5-1 win over Lazio in this year's Roman derby was scant consolation in the end.

As Arsenal approached their glittering prizes in England at the climax of the season, their French manager Arsene Wenger seemed to succumb to a sharp attack of triumphalism, previously affecting his compatriot at Liverpool, Gerard Houllier, who'd been talking about Liverpool entering on a period of greatness, before Bayern took them apart in Leverkusen. True, when the Gunners beat the Germans in London, the Bayern manager Klaus Toppoller raved about Arsenal's irresistible all-round strength and superiority, but overall in their European endeavours, the Gunners were as disappointing as ever, especially away from Highbury and that defeat by Juve reserves was a true humiliation.

How good were they? Certainly good enough to beat a diminished Chelsea in the FA Cup Final in Cardiff in a truly mediocre game; how different might it have been had Jimmy Floyd Hasselbank been fit for Chelsea, or even, as he should have been, omitted completely, when so clearly in difficulty? And how often can stars like Patrik Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp play so poorly? Previously, Arsenal had toiled through the semifinal versus Middlesborough. Not the stuff surely that great teams are made of. Manchester United? Sadly inconsistent, dreadful in Leverkusen, misusing Veron too often.

If I had to pick my European Player of the Season it would be the astounding 35-year-old striker Dario Hubner of little Piacenza for whom he scored 24 Serie goals, finishing equal top with the far more powerful David Trezeguet of Juve. Hubner rose steadily from deep obscurity; he never played a Serie A game till 1997 with Brescia and promptly scored twice at Inter on his debut. He says he never had any ambition to play for a major club. What a tribute to perseverance, patience and unbroken morale!