A game holed below the waterline

Ian Ridley sees Chelsea and Arsenal outshone by superior technique
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The Independent Online
IN Dublin, the England fans sang "Britannia rules the waves". It made you wonder, looking at a group of distinctly seasick Chelsea supporters on a choppy Channel crossing back from the Bruges bruising last week, just as you wondered about some Anglo-Saxon attitudes to Europe.

A French friend in London, for example, tuned into BBC Breakfast News on Wednesday morning trying to get the previous night's Uefa Cup results. He eventually found them on CNN, the American news channel. Later that night, he would have to wait up for some brief highlights of Europe's match of the week, Barcelona v Paris St Germain, ITV having upset Uefa by spurning live Champions' Cup coverage since Manchester United's demise.

Either side of it we had, in Chelsea and Arsenal, local angles televised live - and somewhat obtuse they proved to be. Both may yet reach the semi- finals of the Cup-Winners' Cup but on the respective evidence of a 1- 0 defeat by Bruges and a 1-1 draw with Auxerre, more probably they will not. On top of the early European exits of United, Blackburn and Newcastle - the country's three best teams - these are days that compound concern.

"You're getting severe now," the Chelsea captain, Dennis Wise, said, a smile showing the side of his personality hidden from cabbies, when asked to compare his side's technique with that of Bruges. "I don't really want to answer that. They were OK, a good solid side. They have got good technique but ours isn't bad either."

In fact, the control and passing of a side placed third in the Belgian league were manifestly better. But for a pudding of a pitch that hindered them more as the side taking the initiative, Chelsea could already have been out of contention. And but for Kevin Hitchcock's goalkeeping, they would have been anyway.

"I would say their technique was superior," admitted Chelsea's assistant manager, Peter Shreeves, who once lost 2-1 in Bruges when manager of Tottenham, then won the home leg 3-0. "But it will be interesting to see if it still looks better at our higher pace at Stamford Bridge."

With Lorenzo Staelens, Franky van der Elst and Gert Verheyen, however, Bruges have more possibilities of scoring on the break than Chelsea did last Tuesday. "The 20 per cent of our game we weren't happy with was in playing on the break," Shreeves said. Indeed, it was the lack of support for Paul Furlong that made the lone striker look inadequate, though Chelsea's management were happy with him.

Wise and Gavin Peacock took on wide roles - restraining attacking instincts too much - in a five-man Chelsea midfield modelled on the Arsenal formation that won the competition by beating Parma 1-0 last year. But Furlong is no Alan Smith. His touch and control did not stand up to such isolation; hard work is minimum requirement at this level, not a maximum.

The Chelsea manager Glenn Hoddle is clearly an astute coach but his thoughts were not always matched by those of his players. The jury is still out on Hoddle as a manager, however. The £2.3m he paid for Furlong seems an inflated sum.

Neither did Arsenal's players display the nous required at European level two nights later. They also did not have Chelsea's excuse of inexperience. You felt a little for Stewart Houston, George Graham's immediate successor as manager, who seemed to be seeking to bring a little more sophistication to his side, but received little encouragement. Houston, we gotta problem.

Ian Wright, Chris Kiwomya - chosen for their mobility - and Paul Merson failed to pull their efficient man-markers around sufficiently and Arsenal, with their instincts still in the power game, reverted to stereotype: hitting high balls into the channels. Without the injured Smith, it was destined to be fruitless.

"The front players have got to realise that when you have a gorilla up your backside for 90 minutes you have to be able to handle it," Houston said. "I saw Auxerre at Lille, and when one player was carried off his marker went with him."

Auxerre were slick on the counter, absorbent in defence. Franck Verlaat was an elegant sweeper, Corentin Martins reassuring in midfield and Lilian Laslandes an example to Furlong of how to lead from the front. They were clearly better than Arsenal expected, matching the English in the area of the physical and surpassing them in the tactical and technical.

There was a humility - not often found in the English when it comes to Europe - in the Auxerre coach Guy Roux, the man who first tutored Eric Cantona. He had been forced, because of injuries, to field a young, weakened side "but it is a speciality of this club to deal with young players and form them". They had had a lot of luck, he said; he had feared a "spanking"; they tried to play with the same relaxed qualities of the English. It was charming kidology. "Arsenal played like we expected, with great power and expansively. You never get a minute's rest with them," he added. He mentioned nothing about subtlety.

It is an old chestnut for Arsenal, but they clearly lacked a passer able to change game and direction, to play the incisive, unexpected ball. The irony is that should they survive - and as encouragement they are more comfortable away from home - they may well improve under Houston and they have the promisingly perceptive Dutchman Glenn Helder available for a semi-final.

At least there was one area in which the English showed a superiority. Safety standards at Bruges's Olympiastadion left much to be desired, with some aisles being dangerously blocked throughout the match, and it is rare to see men urinating against the walls of domestic stadiums. In addition, Belgians can be racist, making "monkey" noises at Chelsea's black players.

The cavalier treatment of many innocent Chelsea fans, deported under little-known Belgian by-laws concerning dressing in an Anglo-Saxon manner and treading on the cracks in the Bruges cobbles, was another sad element of the European experience. After Dublin, however, there was little sympathy for them and much for the Belgian police. The image of the seasick English abroad, on and off the pitch, sank a little lower still last week.

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