Ajax and Rangers fail to raise the roof at home

Glenn Moore looks back at mixed fortunes this week for Europe's elite in the Champions' League
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The Independent Online
As one roof opens, another one shuts. While the sky is again the limit for Manchester United's aspiring fans, the heavens closed on Ajax and Rangers on Wednesday, literally and metaphorically.

In Amsterdam, Ajax began a new epoch by closing the roof on their new stadium to host the first major indoor football match in Europe. However, after years of playing progressive football in antiquated grounds, they found themselves playing a dated game in a high-tech arena.

Rangers' home defeat to Auxerre was not as startling as Ajax's loss to Grasshopper Zurich but it was still surprising. In its wake Rangers, like Celtic, are contemplating the tartan ceiling - the invisible, but very real barrier to their dreams.

Walter Smith, the Rangers manager, spoke of dominating the game and putting in lots of effort but, tellingly, he also agreed that Rangers struggled to break Auxerre down and gave away bad goals. Not half. The first was down to lazy defending.The second goal was diabolical, headed in from a corner by the only Auxerre player in the six-yard box. There were five Rangers men and a goalkeeper near him, not one defender marked him.

It was unforgivably sloppy, the product of poor concentration brought about by the Glasgow pair's domestic superiority. Rangers have won every game this season - except the two in the Champions' League. Celtic are unbeaten in 36 league games - but lost home and away to Hamburg.

In Scotland, they stroll through every match except the Old Firm derby - and these rumbustious affairs are hardly preparation for European cat- and mouse. Having won eight titles in a row, and spent millions on foreign players, Rangers must wonder what more they can do to improve the team within its present confines. They will now redouble their efforts to create a British League, or a European one.

One might contend that Ajax, too, have had little domestic opposition - until this season. But the Dutch game is not so different from the pan- European one, and the bulk of their players have had the benefit of playing together under the guise of the national side.

Now, however, they have been hit by the Bosman effect. Michael Reiziger, Edgar Davids, Finidi George and Nwanku Kanu were sold - the first two on free transfers - during the summer. Patrick Kluivert and Peter Hoekstra are injured and the goals have dried up - just six in nine domestic and Champions' League games.

Even then they could field five core members of the Dutch Euro 96 side, plus Mark Overmars, Brazil's Marcio Santos and Jari Litmanen. Yet, bemoaned Ronald de Boer, "we started to play in an un-Ajax-like way, with the long ball''. Ajax now meet Rangers, under the roof, on 16 October.

Europe's other aristocrats, Milan and Juventus, were happier. Milan, with Roberto Baggio on the bench, crushed Rosenborg Trondheim away with the white- booted Marco Simone scoring three and making one. Juventus eased past Fenerbahce - though not without alarm, the Turks hitting the post late on.

The most impressive performers so far have been Porto, a side largely built by Bobby Robson before his summer move to Barcelona. Having won in Milan they dissected IFK Gothenburg on Wednesday, winning 2-1 but dominating the match. They are in line to face United in the quarter-finals - if United qualify. That looks more likely now than it did a fortnight ago. The swagger returned to United's game on Wednesday. Restored to their customary shape, and willed on by Old Trafford, they had Rapid Vienna beaten inside half an hour.

But there were still enough nervous moments at the back to justify Alex Ferguson's continued pursuit of Miguel Angel Nadal. In attack Ole Gunnar Solskjaer missed too many chances - compare his strike rate to Alen Boksic. Yet the Norwegian is young, and learning fast. Ferguson admitted he has been a bonus. With a centre- forward needed to bring the best from Cantona and his midfield cohorts, and Andy Cole as inept as ever, Solskjaer could have a crucial role to play.

"He has such quick feet,"Eric Cantona said , adding: "he reminds me of Jean-Pierre Papin. It is important to have a player like that. The result in Turin [the 1-0 loss to Juventus] was not good - but the performance was not as bad as some people have said. Tonight we showed we can play very well at this level. If we play like we know nobody can follow us.''

Mais non, monsieur. What Wednesday actually showed was that United are extremely powerful at home - but we knew that. Now they must repeat Wednesday night's performance away - possibly without Roy Keane - in Istanbul, against Fenerbahce, on 16 October.