The European Cup picture

ACQUIRING Ronaldo from Inter just before the Euro transfer deadline, and even if it wasn't quite met - Real Madrid seem to have built an unassailable team in their quest to retain their European Cup title. Ronaldo, Brazil's hero, didn't in the event even cost as much as the two sensational acquisitions of the last couple of summers, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo, but with all three of them in the team, it is hard to see who can withstand them.

The sadness of it is that Real Madrid's own youth scheme has for years been turning up exceptional talent when it comes to centre forwards. There was Emilio Butragueno, alias El Buitre, the Vulture. Who could be more deeply a Real Madrid man than he, registered as a club supporter by his impassioned father, almost as soon as he was born? Raul also grew up through the club's youth and reserve teams, to become one of the finest strikers in Europe. And so did Fernando Morientes, who has been sadly and shamefully set aside both by Spain and Real, though in the recent World Cup he was a salient success.

Now, doubtless to his deep frustration, there is the teenaged Javier Portillo. When he came on at the Bernabeu as a late substitute in the so called Super Cup game against Feyenoord, it was to a heart round of applause. The fans plainly knew all about him, as well they might, given that he had scored over 400 goals in the junior teams. Yet, what chance has he now at Real? Probably he will be lent out, even transferred, to another club, which goodness knows has happened often enough, across the years.

The other teams in the group are Roma, AEK Athens and Genk, of whom only Roma, though they have been disappointing in recent European seasons, seem a real contestant. We can, I feel, be pretty sure that they will come second to Real. With Francesco Totti fit, which he wasn't at the start of this season, they will have one of the most effective attackers in Europe, and there still seem to be goals in the feet and head of Gabriel Batistuta even if his powers are somewhat waning. Not to mention the support of such lively Italian strikers as big Marco Delvecchio and little Vincenzo Montella. While the Brazilian Emerson, who put himself out of his country's midfield so bizarrely, hurt while going into goal in a training session, will no doubt be hoping for compensations. Not to mention the vigorous overlapping of his fellow Brazilian Cafu, and France's Candela.

Manchester United? One way and another in their group they seem likely to have to do without Roy Keane, both because his outrageous behaviour on and off the field - that appallingly tactless book with its admissions, that disgraceful foul at Sunderland against his fellow Irish international, Jason McAteer, must carry their suspensions. Plus the fact that he so badly needs, and has for a long time, an operation on his knee. But this is a team which sparkles with stars.

Not least the two flankers, David Beckham, clearly at full pelt again after bravely slogging his way through the World Cup, after that shocking assault at Old Trafford by an Argentine thug, playing for Deportivo La Coruna, which left him with a damaged left foot.

On the other flank, Ryan Giggs of Wales still seems to me one of the finest, most elegant and elusive forwards in the world. And the absence of Keane should have one major plus for United; it will give more scope to run the game, occupy the space he wants and exert his natural authority to the highly gifted Argentine playmaker, Juan Sebastian Veron.

By an irony, United's group pits them against the German team which put them out of the last European Cup, Bayer Leverkusen, but this doesn't by any means seem as powerful a side. Not least because hardly had they lost by a whisker the European Cup Final in Glasgow, than they also lost two of their key mid-fielders, Germany's Michael Ballack, probably their World Cup player, and the left-sided Brazilian, Ze Roberto, both snapped up by those inveterate monopolists, Bayern Munich.

True, Leverkusen showed plenty of summer enterprise in the transfer market adding one Brazilian international centre-back, Juan to the other, a World Cup winner, Lucio, and another Brazilian international in the centre-forward, Franca. But an early 4-2 home defeat by little fancied Bochum was hardly a good portent. At least they retain two excellent World Cup midfield players, each of whom did well in the tournament, in Germany's Bernd Schneider, he of the curling right-footed free-kicks, and Turkey's playmaking Yildiray Basturk.

Group E should be lively, with Juventus the favourites, Feyenoord strong contestants - even if Real Madrid did make them look second class in that Super Cup game - and Newcastle United, whose attacking play has looked impressive. Not least with the antics of Lua Lua, picked up from little Colchester United, unorthodox, fast, incisive, an excellent finisher, who seems to play profitably off the veteran Alan Shearer, still a potent force up front. Supported by Kieron Dyer, who should probably not have been taken to the World Cup by Sven Goran Eriksson given his injury, but who now seems fully restored to lively, dynamic form, ideally in a more central midfield position than the one in which England used him on his wrong foot. The left.

Juve have added the new Italian international, the midfielder Matteo Brighi, from Bologna, to their strength which was already notable. Alessandro del Piero is there again to work his wiles and though David Trezeguet was injured pre-season, we can assume he will be fit to play a role upfront in this group. The ever abrasive Edgar Davids seems to have stayed, despite rumours of departure, and his commitment in midfield will continue to be valuable.

Feyenoord? A solid rather than an effervescent side, with a strong right-flanker in Australian Brett, though centre-forward Jon Dahl Tomasson of Denmark will surely be missed now that he's joined Milan, who have also acquired from Lazio Italy's main central-defender, Alessandro Nesta. They figure in Group G, with powerful opposition from Bayern Munich and Deportivo La Coruna.

Will Arsenal at last make proper progress? They are forever competing, but always disappointing not least away from home where their domestic form is so good. I still feel they need a playmaker, even if Brazil's Gilberto Silva has fitted so well into central midfield. And Thierry Henry must keep his temper.