Back to the blackboard for United

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE: Italians make football look a foreign language to Ferguson's men. Glenn Moore reports
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The Independent Online
It seems it is no longer just the children who go back to school every September. Footballers, too, resume their education each autumn, in European studies.

"We will learn from that," Alex Ferguson said of Manchester United's Champions' League defeat by Juventus on Wednesday. Now where have we heard that before?

The problem, it seems, is that the syllabus is changing each year. No sooner do we absorb the lessons of last season than there are new ones to deal with.

Juventus, on Wednesday, showed the blend of British and European qualities which our sides have been aspiring to achieve for years. They were physically powerful and technically adept. They were capable of playing just as quickly as Premiership teams but possessed an ability to slow the tempo that is largely absent from these shores.

If that were not enough, the back four was as well drilled as George Graham's Arsenal and their forward movement was worth recording on video for use in coaching seminars. It was certainly more fluid, inventive and sharp than United's defenders usually experience.

Even the short cut of using foreign players does not appear to have helped our development. Manchester United and Rangers each had seven overseas players in their 16-man squads on Wednesday, yet both were not so much beaten as dismissed.

In Turin, the swaggering champions of the English Premiership started so nervously they barely got the ball out of their own half until they were behind. According to reports, Rangers were no better in Zurich, and that against much lesser opponents.

By the end, both clubs were reduced to seeking consolation in the failings of others. The stalemate between Rapid Vienna and Fenerbahce gives Manchester United hope that they may still qualify for the quarter-finals of the Champions' League. Rangers were equally relieved that Ajax won in Auxerre. Should the Scottish champions win their home games against Auxerre and Grasshopper - and do no worse against Ajax - they, too, could qualify.

What humiliations might then await does not bear thinking about - though there was a further bonus for United in Porto's win over Milan. The runners- up in United's group play the winner of Milan's. Porto will not be easy opponents but, that result notwithstanding, they are not Milan.

First United have to qualify. There is hope in the news that Roy Keane is back in training. His drive was badly missed. But what is to be done about the attack? United managed two shots in 90 minutes on Wednesday, a tame, wide effort from 25 yards by Ryan Giggs in the first minute, and a volley well over the bar by Brian McClair around the hour - this from a team who score from their own half in the Premiership.

Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky contributed little on the flanks, in defence or attack, but the most obvious problem was the lack of a leader of the line. Eric Cantona was clearly uncomfortable in that role. Cantona's best work is usually done through prompting from midfield, or arriving late in the box. When played at centre-forward, he is too easily marked and his creativity is emasculated.

Nor is he a holder of the ball; he prefers the quick flick-on. Without a Mark Hughes-figure to hold the ball up, the defence was placed under intolerable pressure. Andy Cole, even when fit, does not appear the part and neither, yet, does Ole Solksjaer. Maybe Ferguson - who pursued both Alan Shearer and Alen Boksic in the summer - will be forced into the market again, though any signing cannot now play in Europe until after Christmas.

If Ferguson does buy, he is likely to go continental again. It will not have escaped the watching Glenn Hoddle's notice that Juventus used 10 Italians on Wedneday, whereas United used five Englishmen (of whom only Gary Pallister emerged with credit).

There was one aspect of the night in which the Italians were found wanting. A noticeable section of the home support booed Cole after he came on as a substitute each time he came near the ball. Since he had barely managed a tackle, let alone a foul, it could only be racism. Such collective, systematic racist abuse has virtually disappeared from English grounds but is a growing problem in Italy.