New faces in Europe

THE European Champions League is in full swing now, with its habitual share of surprises, and some powerful performances from the likes of Real Madrid - even when without Ronaldo - Arsenal and Valencia. New faces are appearing, new reputations being made. Such as that of the still only 19-year-old Nigerian striker, Yakubu Ayegbeni. His goals last season and in the preliminary rounds were decisive in his club's successes even though obliged to play their home games not in Israel but in neutral Cyprus. You do wonder whether Maccabi might have built on the early lead they gained and lost in their opening league game at Old Trafford had Ayegbeni only been playing. And how much better Nigeria might have done in the World Cup had he only been there with his pace, athleticism and exuberant finishing. Olympiakos, having thrashed Bayer Leverkusen, last year's finalists, first time out, 6-2, couldn't contain him in Cyprus; he scored all the Haifa goals in their 3-0 victory.

Julio Hernan Rossi is no youngster. The Basel striker, who has scored such important European goals for them this season, is in fact 25, an Argentinean who joined them from rivals Lugano in the summer. Celtic found him much too hot to hold in the preliminaries, as did Spartak Moscow in the first game of the competition proper. Then came the visit to Liverpool who certainly had enough chances and near things to have won with some comfort, even if Michael Owen at Anfield that evening was firing blanks.

Rossi certainly wasn't. When Liverpool seemed to have the game in their pockets, Rossi raced after a shrewdly struck through ball and coolly shot between the legs of the Polish 'keeper Dudek into the net to give his team a draw. Which would be preserved by another name new in European competition, as indeed is that of Basel themselves. The 31-year-old 'keeper Pascal Zuberbuhler performed prodigies to keep Liverpool in general and their Czech striker Milan Baros in particular at bay.

Baros, now still only 20, did strike a fine goal but twice he was frustrated by Zuberbuhler who turned two of his searing shots on to the bar. Baros has been a revelation this season after waiting some months to secure a place in a Liverpool attack where there are so many contestants. The problem was slimming him down and getting him fully fit and quick. This has now happened and he is shining for both club and country.

Another accomplished 20-year-old is Philippe Mexes of Auxerre though he is a centre half; for some time coveted it is said by Manchester United's Alex Ferguson. Perhaps he will end at Old Trafford but, modest and sportsmanlike, he seems quite content where he is. He received the monthly Fair Play award for August after stopping while the game was still on to assist a Troyes opponent who had collapsed after a violent collision.

Mexes, chosen this season for a French squad which could well have used him in the World Cup finals, was born in Toulouse and began his career there. He has from boyhood, he says, been fascinated by the European Cup and still watches every game he can. European football he thinks is a big step up from the ordinary league games; woe betide any one who makes a mistake. Concentration must be complete. Under the shrewd aegis of that amazing veteran manager Guy Roux, he has made steady progress but even so he found the preliminary games against the far from invincible Boavista of Portugal very demanding.

The other French entrants have their own Nigerian attacker, signed last summer, in the shape of 20-year-old John Chukwudi Utaka. Out of Africa, in the old Pliny saying, always something new! Such as the Zimbabwean striker, 24-year-old Benjani Mwaruwari, another African who came to France in the summer, and quickly settled into the Auxerre attack, a scorer in Europe.

Arsenal, who set a devastating pace at home and abroad at the start of this season, and at long last won a European away game when they thrashed PSV 4-0 in Eindhoven, have also done well with a new African player though in this case he is an adventurous midfield in the Ivory Coast's 21-year-old Hebib Toures, last summer, adept at popping up in the penalty box to score, as he dramatically did when the Gunners overplayed Leeds United at Elland Road. His was the ice breaking goal.

Pascal Cygan is 28 but Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger well knew what he was doing when he bought the lean centre-back from Lille. I spoke to Cygan, an amiable and unaffected figure, at Arsenal's training ground shortly before the season began, asking him how it felt possibly to step into the defensive role left by the formidable veteran, Tony Adams. Cygan elegantly replied that while Tony was irreplaceable as a figure, he wasn't as a player.

Initially Cygan was kept on the bench by the veteran English international, Martin Keown, but when Keown was injured in September, he stepped into the breach with cool aplomb. When the pressure was for a time on in Eindhoven by PSV despite the Gunners' devastating 20 second goal, it was Cygan's long legs which several times intervened in the penalty box at crucial moments.

Manchester United, who have had so much trouble with their back four, and have now shelled out a massive 30 million for Leed's Rio Ferdinand, have a versatile young home grown defender in the 21-year-old Irish international, John O'Shee, who can operate either at centre back or right back. He is not quite the finished article as one saw recently at Charlton when he mistimed a long cross from the right wing, giving away a shooting chance which could have meant a goal. But later in the match his admirable cross from the right flank gave Ryan Giggs a heading opportunity which so nearly brought a goal.

Bayer Leverkusen have placed much hope in the 24-year-old Czech playmaker Jan Simak who comes to them from second division football where he gained a reputation for technical accomplishment and a somewhat inflammable temperament. No easy task to step into the shoes of Michael Ballack now at Bayern Munich but Simak is hardly lacking in self confidence. He may well have been capped by his country before this season is over.