Where are the great club teams?

WE hear so much about incomparable Real Madrid, mighty Arsenal, grand Juventus, glorious Manchester United, yet look at these teams more closely and where indeed are the great club sides of today?

WE hear so much about incomparable Real Madrid, mighty Arsenal, grand Juventus, glorious Manchester United, yet look at these teams more closely and where indeed are the great club sides of today? Real Madrid would, I assume, be the leading candidate not least for the manner in which they slaughtered Manchester United at the Bernabeu Stadium in the first leg of the European Cup quarterfinals, though the trip to Old Trafford promised to be more difficult.

Real Sociedad's captain Agustin Aranzabal (right) tackles Real Madrid's Claude Makelele during their Spanish league match in San Sebastian, Spain. Sociedad shocked the star-studded Real Madrid 4-2. — Pic. AP-

That evening in Madrid, Real looked indomitable. They simply played United off the park, and the 3-1 margin hardly told the truth. They should certainly have had a penalty, and the eccentric United 'keeper Fabien Barthez should unquestionably have been sent off for so abstractedly handling the ball outside his own penalty box. Zinedine Zidane was impeccable, gloriously adroit and inventive. No distance behind him was one of those rare figures in the Real team, a home grown talent in the shape of Raul; who actually joined them as an adolescent when their fierce rivals Atletico Madrid crazily aborted their youth scheme. On the flanks, scoring from the left, dazzling on the right, was the Portuguese international, Luis Figo. Irresistible? No, not quite.

For, just four days later, what should happen but that Real Madrid should travel North to San Sebastian to be well beaten, 4-2 by Real Sociedad; the team, which had led the Primera Liga for much of the season. What Sociedad showed and what Manchester United never exploited was the palpable weakness on the right flank of the Madrid defence. Michel Salgado is not the safest of right backs and he isn't helped by the fact that Figo for all his attacking brilliance tends not to bother to drop back.

So it was that the exuberantly overlapping Sociedad left back Aranzabal and the Spanish international left flanker Javier De Pedro simply romped through the vulnerable Madrid defence, setting up at least two of the four goals. So much for the myths of Real Madrid's invincibility. How can the prowess of this Real Madrid be compared with that of the great teams inspired by Alfredo Di Stefeno, five in a row times winners of the first European Cups. I'm not saying that Real Madrid team would have stood up to the present one, given the physical evolution of the game. But it was dominant in its time in the way that the present one is not. Note too that it had earlier a string of disappointing results in Europe; and did not start too well in Spain.

Barcelona? A team aglitter with stars yet pitifully adrift in the Primera Liga although a long majestically unbeaten run, a string of victories, ran side by side in the European Champions League. Eventually Louis Van Caal, the Dutch coach who years ago survived in the job despite crushing defeats in Europe and was at Barca the second time around was sacked. In came the Yugoslav Radi Antic and things quickly improved; only to slip and slide again in the Primera Liga. As a recent 4-2 defeat in the Nou Camp by Deportivo La Coruna showed.

With such campeones as Luis Enrique, Marc Overmars, the young Argentines Riquelme and Saviola, the prolific striker Patrick Kluivert on top, surely results should have been so much better. Hard to explain the apparent paradox. At least Real recovered to make a powerful thrust for the Liga. Barca by contrast lapsed so deep into the shadows that they seriously risked no Euro football at all next season for the first time in memory unless they could actually win the European Cup.

Arsenal? Did their French manager the sophisticated Arsene Wenger make the mistake of counting his chickens before they hatched? He even early in the season speculated on the possibility of the Gunners going through the whole of it unbeaten. Well of course things fell apart as in soccer they mostly do. Arsenal, having long shown their permanent rivals Manchester United a clean pair of heals, lost to them in the League though they beat them at Old Trafford in the Cup. What might almost be called a death wish seemed to afflict the usually shrewd Wenger when, with veteran centre-back Martin Keown injured, he sold his capable young centre-back Matthew Upson to Birmingham City, where he proceeded to flourish, and kept using the towering, clumsy, accident prone centre-back, his fellow Frenchman, Pascal Cygan, frequently with disastrous consequences.

And when it came to the semifinal of the FA Cup, at Old Trafford, what a hard job and a lucky one at that the Gunners made of getting past Sheffield United, from Nationwide Division I. Just a 1-0 win on a fiasco of a goal.

First it looked like a foul on United's Wayne Allison by Sol Campbell but as the striker lay prostrate, referee Paul Durkin didn't give it. Worse still as United's Michael Tonge shaped to clear the ball, Durkin, poorly placed, clumsily got bang in front of Tonge, who himself was knocked down. So Arsenal took possession, went up the other end and scored the decisive goal. A fragile victory.

Manchester United? What more was there to say after their humiliation in Madrid? True they swiftly followed that up with a massive 6-2 win away to Newcastle United who themselves had gone out of the European Cup to Barcelona, but what did that 6-2 win tell you about the quality of the Premiership? United indeed have plenty of stars but their tactics can go awry and when one of those stars, David Beckham, plays as limply as he did at the Bernabeu, what can be expected?

Italian clubs have done immensely better this season than they have in recent years, the big three, Juventus, Milan and Inter all reaching the quarterfinals, no mean achievement, equalled only by the Spanish clubs. Yet, previously in the competition Juve had crashed 3-0 at home to Manchester United. Though it was they who set the pace in the Campionato, Inter and Milan having some strangely spotty results. Such as, in the run in, Inter going down 2-1 at modest Udinese and Milan days before their return quarterfinal in Barcelona losing 1-0 at home to little Empoli who played part of the match with only 10 men. Valencia, the other Spaniards? Too good for Arsenal, yet another big club which shed points surprisingly in their own league, and in between their quarterfinals with Inter, they lost to a truly humble team, Villareal, at home into the bargain. May be they weren't flat out, but surely this was a game they should have strolled through. Plainly we don't any longer live in a time of giants.