bright lights of City shine for Rsler

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The Independent Online

The statistics might argue otherwise, but Uwe Rsler's emergence as a striker of note in England has not been seamless. Take the time his Manchester City team-mates tried to give him the match ball, for instance - he thought he was becoming the victim of a practical joke.

"I asked why I was getting it," he said. "In Germany, there is no tradition of getting the ball when you score a hat-trick." Then, having assured himself the dressing-room smiles were a mark of admiration and not the prelude to a prank, he accepted the trophy. "It'll make a nice present for my family when I visit them next month."

Tradition aside, Rsler could hardly have assimilated himself better in the Premiership since his move from Dynamo Dresden last March. Five goals in 12 matches to help alleviate City's relegation problems last spring have since been garnished by a further 14 in a difficult season. The £750,000 fee seems laughable in the climate of £7m transfers.

The ball was presented to the 26-year-old Rsler after his four goals against Notts County last month, which was the largest haul in an FA Cup tie by a City player since Denis Law hit six (later expunged when the game was abandoned) against Luton in 1961. He has also scored twice this season against Sunday's fifth-round opponents, Newcastle United, which might imply optimism had City not acquired just four points in their last 10 Premiership matches.

"It is a very vital game for us," Rsler said, in his rapidly improving English. "We have had a disappointing time in the League since Christmas, so it is important we do well in the FA Cup. I also want to reward the fans here, who I love."

Few players, even home-grown favourites, have hit it off with the supporters in the way that Rsler has at Maine Road. One elderly man at a recent match said: "He's as popular as Bert Trautmann [City's German goalkeeper of the Fifties], and he had to break his neck in the Cup final to get that way." This inaccurate and unfair comment on Rsler's fellow countryman nevertheless provides a useful barometer of the German's popularity.

It was the City fans who recognised something in Rsler before most journalists, and certainly before his compatriots. "He was regarded as very ordinary," Harmut Scherzer, football correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, said. "In fact, when Jrgen Klinnsman came over to England, most people thought he was the first German to play in the Premiership.

"Uwe himself says it took the transfer of Maurizio Gaudino to Manchester City for people to realise he was there too. But his goals are making people take notice in Germany, and if he continues to score as he has been doing he could be picked for the national squad."

Rsler won four caps for East Germany, but unification brought isolation in international terms. before he began banging in goals for City, he was commonly considered to be well behind the four strikers in Berti Vogts' amply talented pool of Klinnsman, Karl-Heinz Riedle, Ulf Kirsten and Stefan Kuntz. Now the position has changed.

"I would like Berti to come over here and see how he is playing," the City manager, Brian Horton, said. "I know English football gets wide coverage in Germany, but coverage of Uwe's goals does not give the full picture. He contributes far more in open play."

Howard Kendall, the Notts County manager who suffered Rsler's goals, also regards him highly. "He was fantastic," he said. "He makes such intelligent runs into the box, and our defence simply couldn't handle him. When he got into a scoring position, his finishing was lethal."

This all washes over Rsler -if he is not a genuinely modest man then the stage is missing a fine actor. He has found the attention of the Press, particularly in Germany, bewildering. "I can't say what are my good things," he has said repeatedly. "I prefer to leave it to others."

They say he is quick enough to disconcert most central defenders, while his low centre of gravity and physical strength make him hard to knock off the ball. He has become more assertive, too, demanding the ball from his midfield players and verbally fine-tuning their delivery. He is the focal point of a team whose attack has won as much praise as its defence has been pilloried.

As to the FA Cup, he has the sense of wonder that British players long- acquainted with the prospect of Wembley have lost a little. "I used to watch the matches on television at home in Germany, and it is the cup final," he said. "It would be fantastic to be in a winning team."

At the moment, he might get to Wembley either with his club or his country, but there is no contest as which he would prefer. "It is a dream to play for Germany," he said, "but no, I'd like to win for Manchester City for the club and the supporters who have made me very welcome. I'm very happy here."