A victory for true heroism

Lessons in technique are handed out by Europe's elite, but Arsenal give a masterly display of courage ... Ian Ridley discusses a night in Genoa when virtue had its reward
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The Independent Online
IT was a week when the top technocrats of Europe again showed themselves to be playing on a higher tactical plane than the British. Then came Arsenal: cussed, magnificent Arsenal.

Football at its most attractive, as demonstrated by Milan and Ajax in reaching the Champions' Cup final, is about style, grace and ingenuity. But there will always be scope for simple, raw heroism to triumph. And Arsenal drew on all of theirs to reach their second successive Cup-Winners' Cup final.

While the Italians and the Dutch displayed their erudition, Arsenal supplied the emotional appeal. Their movement may not have compared, but they moved you nevertheless. It was impossible for even the neutral in the vibrant Luigi Ferraris stadium not to warm to their tireless, virtuous endeavour. This after the Paul Merson heart-searching, the George Graham revelations and dismissal. Any sourness felt towards the club was lost in the dank Genovese night.

At first, the problems on the field which have undermined them in league competition were apparent. Attilio Lombardo was indeed offside as Roberto Mancini ran on to score but, arms aloft as of old rather than reacting to the new relaxed interpretation, Arsenal's back four were caught out.

What followed was the inspiration that experienced legs can still summon on rare, heady cup nights but lack on frequent, routine league afternoons - as similarly ageing, domestically fading Sampdoria are themselves encountering.

Battered, bruised, never bowed, Ian Wright pounced. Then, seemingly out to two strikes by the 19-year-old Claudio Belluci, Arsenal were in again thanks to their man of the match, Stefan Schwarz. The English had muscled in on what everyone expected to be another Italian week in Europe. "Adams and Steve Bould give Arsenal four or five attackers," lamented the Sampdoria coach, Sven Goran Eriksson.

A penalty shoot-out seems always to mitigate against the more gifted. The blaster usually beats the placer. Merson was offered the valuable lesson in his recovery from alcoholism of treating disaster and triumph as equal impostors and Attilio the Pen was turned back from the gates. "I always dive low," said the final hero, David Seaman, quietly, hinting at a trade secret that helped Arsenal to a 3-2 win on spot-kicks. He had once saved three in a shoot-out against Sampdoria in a pre- season tournament.

One felt a little sorry for the upright Stewart Houston, who seems, even given this success, unlikely to assume more permanent charge. "We've finished with you now, Stewart, we just want the players," came a journalist's voice in the chaotic press conference in which Houston's comments about being comfortable for most of the first 90 minutes were forgivable in the euphoria.

Now the dominant voice was Tony Adams's. "Good answer," the captain said to Schwarz after the Swede had talked of this being a team game, individual highlights being less significant. It was a sign that this remains George Graham's assembly, Adams his persona on the pitch.

Though this may be a glorious end to an era, rather than a new era, Adams will be there for the transition, the Arsenal vice- chairman David Dein insisted. "We are going to make sure of that," he said. "The papers may say he is going to Manchester United or Arsenal but there is not one ounce of truth in that. He is not just the backbone of this side but of future sides as well."

The urbane Dein permitted himself one concession to the euphoria by announcing that the Arsenal fans who had been detained for up to six hours before the game by the Genovese police - sensitive after the stabbing to death of a fan in the city recently - would be granted a half-price trip to the final against Chelsea's conquerors Real Zaragoza in Paris on 10 May.

Thereafter it was realism. "The truth is always what happens in the league. We need fresh blood, we admit that," he said. They will also need another tune if their new song is to scan: "3-2 to the Arsenal (on pens)". "We have to be up there challenging," Dein added. "We cannot be prepared to allow Manchester United or Blackburn to run away with things."

The change in emphasis in the English game was a theme explored by the David Platt when he met the English press as they arrived in Genoa last Wednesday. It was a neat public relations gesture from a man who has been civilised by Italy, removed from the paranoia often surrounding the domestic game. Precluded by suspension and injury from playing for Sampdoria the following night, the England captain dwelt to discuss his new one- year contract, the weakened knee that he insisted would not keep him out of the national team's summer tournament, his notion that he would like to become a player-manager back home one day, and why there might be a shift discernible in Europe's balance of power.

"The Italian League is still the strongest," he said. "You can see that by Juventus and Parma reaching the Uefa Cup final, and all the best players still wanting to come here. But I do see more English teams playing a European game and they are the ones with the money now. The days of the big money transfers in Italy are over." He added that Milan's £13m fee for Gianluigi Lentini, which included a wage reported to be £40,000 a week, had prompted alarmed club presidents to meet last year to impose some self-regulation.

Indeed, Manchester United - with Eric Cantona, that is - Liverpool, Newcastle, Nottingham Forest and Tottenham have offered us flexibility of motion and passing this season. A worry is that the huge sums in the English game will go towards creating a Lentini - an expensive disappointment.

Should BSkyB be willing, as they were reported last week, to double the Premiership TV deal to £600m, it is to Ajax's example rather than that of Milan - backed by Silvio Berlusconi - that England should look.

Ajax rarely buy polished stones, instead preferring rough gems from the cheaper nations, such as Finland and Nigeria, whom they can develop alongside their home-grown, which are produced by a school of excellence unrivalled in the world. To their credit, Newcastle United, though no slouches in the market, have seen the sense with heavy investment in their own centre.

All the Ajax virtues were evident in their 5-2 humbling of Bayern Munich. Watching a delayed transmission of the whole match on Italian television (are you watching ITV?) barely did justice to the fluidity of movement, something Terry Venables is seeking to bring to England but which is stubbornly taking time to hit home. Indeed, it bore echoes of the Ajax of Johan Cruyff winning three successive European Cups in the early Seventies and Holland's total football of 1974.

Three men patrolling the back line when the side was attacking was deemed sufficient; it quickly became four, even five, when Bayern threatened. The teenager Clarence Seedorf moved from midfield to left-back effortlessly. Frank Rijkaard was the bonding agent. Further forward, the Finn Jari Litmanen and Frank de Boer rotated effectively around the assured central striker Nwanko Kanu. The Nigerian is 19. The average age of the side, despite the presence of Rijkaard and Danny Blind, is 22.

The final will be a fascinating contrast of good husbandry versus opulence; flexibility versus solidity. That said, while Milan retained the back four honed by Arrigo Sacchi, there were signs in their comfortable 2-0 defeat of Paris St Germain of an intelligent adaptability.

Marco van Basten, who has a long-term injury, has never been adequately replaced; rather, it often falls to the breathtaking Dejan Savicevic, a midfield player by nature and scorer of both goals, to compensate.

The overall lesson of both victorious sides, under their respective coaches, Louis van Gaal and Fabio Capello, was invention of movement, especially in Ajax's case. You are unlikely to hear in their school: "That's your position, son, and you stick to it."

Arsenal's position remains in question. The turbulence that has surrounded the club this season may not quite be over, depending on what Graham has to tell a forthcoming FA hearing concerning his dealings with the Norwegian agent Rune Hauge in the transfers of John Jensen and Pal Lydersen. But if pain really does inspire gain, then Arsenal will end the season in some profit.

Money will then be available, says David Dein. It is investment in future mobility rather than a headlong treasure hunt that Arsenal need. Though often ignored, the lessons of victory can sometimes be as informative as those of defeat.

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