Beenhakker's bouquet for Luca

Nick Townsend talks to the Dutch master chasing a final dream
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The Independent Online

Leo Beenhakker has the driest of humours and one of those booming laughs that seemingly emanates from the belly to accompany it. Broaching the name of the Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli, whose team the Feyenoord coach endeavours to overcome at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, causes it to rumble. "Of course," he says. "When Vialli started his coaching career he wasn't thought of so good in Holland." And why might that be? "Because he took Ruud Gullit's chair at Chelsea, of course."

Leo Beenhakker has the driest of humours and one of those booming laughs that seemingly emanates from the belly to accompany it. Broaching the name of the Chelsea manager Gianluca Vialli, whose team the Feyenoord coach endeavours to overcome at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday, causes it to rumble. "Of course," he says. "When Vialli started his coaching career he wasn't thought of so good in Holland." And why might that be? "Because he took Ruud Gullit's chair at Chelsea, of course."

The Feyenoord coach pauses, allowing the volcano to subside. "That's a joke," he adds gravely, although it is also a pointed observation. The decline of one of their icons in England has not gone unremarked in Holland. "We all know how it works in football," says Beenhakker. "But it is clear from what we have seen of Chelsea's Champions' League matches that Vialli is doing a very good job. No doubt at all."

It is an impressive endorsement of the progress of the Italian who would be the first to concede that he is still dipping his toes in the waters of management, particularly as it is delivered by Beenhakker, at 57 one of the great survivors on the treacherous sea of European club and international football.

The former amateur player took Real Madrid to a hat-trick of championships in two terms there, led Ajax to two national titles, has twice been caretaker-coach of the Dutch national team and has also worked with Real Zaragoza, Grasshoppers Zurich, Istanbulspor and Guadalajara in a career that extends back to 1965. In that time he has prepared teams for around 60 European ties. "I have been five times to the semi-final of the European Cup, once with Ajax and four times with Real Madrid, but never the final," he recalls. "That's tough, yes?"

He is unlikely to improve on that this season, having already achieved above expectations by galvanising Feyenoord to become last season's Dutch champions by 15 points. Yet Vialli will be aware that this first game of the Champions' League second group phase may yet prove an exasperating night. During Beenhakker's two-year tenure of his home-city club Feyenoord have become a byword for durability. They may have won only one of their first group phase games, a 1-0 victory at home to Rosenborg, but they were also unbeaten, and that without the support of their notorious travelling fans, who the club have banned from all away games after riots which led Uefa to threaten them with suspension from Europe.

"This is a very tough group, but you'd expect that," says Beenhakker. "The Italian, French and English football is, for us, fantastic. Lazio will be favourites. They are the most complete team. Behind them, we can fight it out with Chelsea and Marseilles for the second place."

Three of Beenhakker's most influential players have been injured this season, and much will depend on the match fitness of his Argentinian striker Julio Cruz, the Dutch international midfielder-turned defender Kees Van Wonderen and his captain Jean-Paul Van Gastel, a fine passer, who can shoot from distance.

"We have a team who, even last season when we won the championship, had to work hard for a win. But also we are very hard to beat," says Beenhakker. "We are a team to force a result in the last few minutes."

Three of his squad have had experience of British club football, the strikers Jon Dahl Tomasson and Peter Van Vossen, who played for Newcastle and Rangers respectively, together with the defender Ulrich Van Gobbel, who had a season with Southampton. But the venerable coach maintains that it is of no particular significance these days. "It was useful when British football was British football," he says. "But little by little, every country is losing a bit of its own football culture. You can't talk about Chelsea or Arsenal as being typical of British football now. Also, football has no secrets any more. We all have TV, we all have video, we all travel to watch our opponents."

Beenhakker is a study of insouciance; a character who has only turned his thoughts to the challenge of Chelsea since Friday night's domestic fixture, when Feyenoord threw away a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 at Maastricht. He has no plans to counter specifically any of Chelsea's principal threats, even Gianfranco Zola. "With all respect to Chelsea, I will not be looking to give special attention to any of their players," he says. "In the past, say 15 years ago, one player could win a match, a Maradona, whoever. But now more than ever football is about teamwork. Only when a team is playing well can a player with special qualities demonstrate what they can do."

Similarly, even at Stamford Bridge, Feyenoord will not radically alter their adventurous policy of deploying Jon Dahl Tomasson behind two forwards. "For us, there is little difference playing away and playing at home," Beenhakker insists.

"We are not a team that start a game looking for a draw and defending. We play our own match. Up to now, there has been no reason to change that."

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