English clubs learn their European lessons

Manchester United's Champions' League success highlights the progress of Premiership clubs. Glenn Moore reports
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English football turns back to its domestic competitions this weekend bolstered by the rare satisfaction of knowing horizons will be widened again in March.

Manchester United's 2-0 win over Rapid Vienna in Austria on Wednesday night enabled them to join Liverpool and Newcastle in a European quarter- final. United will play Porto in the Champions' Cup while Liverpool and Newcastle will discover their opponents when the Cup- Winners' Cup and Uefa Cup draws are made next Wednesday.

Not since the 1984-85 season, when Everton, Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United all survived the autumn cull, has the English game retained a post-Christmas interest in all three European competitions.

That season will be forever scarred by the tragedy of Heysel, the repercussions of which led to English clubs being banned from Europe for five years. The footballing impact of that ban became clear only when it was lifted. In the six subsequent seasons the English game provided just seven quarter- finalists - none in the prestigious Champions' Cup. Even Belgium managed nine, while Italy produced 31.

It now appears that English clubs have caught up - at least to the extent where they are competitive. Whether either of the Uniteds go on to win remains in doubt. Liverpool seem the best bet, but the Cup-Winners' Cup is the weakest competition (it produced five of the seven English quarter- finalists and one winner, Arsenal, in 1994).

Manchester United speak confidently of hitting their best form in the spring, but they still have a daunting task. Like Juventus, Porto won five and drew one of their six qualifying games; United lost three. Martin Edwards, the United chairman, confirmed yesterday that money was available to strengthen the side. "It is up to the manager - we are more than capable of supporting him," Edwards said. "We don't budget for cup success so anything we get from it is a bonus. Our concentration is on the football and the pride of doing well. It is wonderful to be in the quarter-finals at last.

"I think this will smash a big psychological barrier. We have gone right down to the wire this time but we have had chances before and not taken them. The fact that we have got through will be a big lift to everyone's confidence.''

Victory on Wednesday was worth at least pounds 3.5m to United. The three points were worth pounds 500,000 each, there was a pounds 1.2m bonus for qualifying and the home tie with Porto will realise about pounds 800,000 in gate receipts. Then there are all the other commercial spin-offs. Clubs like West Ham, United's Premiership opponents on Sunday, can only dream of such figures.

However, having the money is one thing, spending it another entirely. United can add up to two players to their European squad but they must be signed by 15 January and must not have played in any European competition this season. That rules out Barcelona's Nadal and Ronaldo, Milan's George Weah, and many other leading players - but not Fabrizio Ravanelli.

In the light of Wednesday's injury list, Alex Ferguson may wish to spend immediately. United returned to Manchester Airport with Roy Keane on crutches and Nicky Butt and Gary Neville limping. Keane, it emerged, had 19 stitches in a deep cut. Inserting them took nearly an hour.

Butt has bruising to his knee, Neville a hamstring strain. Both could be fit for Sunday. Yet, with Phil Neville and Andy Cole already injured, Ronny Johnsen suffering from flu and Gary Pallister still fresh from surgery, United's resources are stretched.

Though those players should be fit by March, there will surely be new injuries. Suspensions are also becoming a danger. Six United players picked up yellow cards in qualifying and Uefa, the governing body of European football, has resisted suggestions to clean the slate for the quarter- finals.

While ITV was relieved to see United progress, Italian television's biggest mogul, Silvio Berlusconi, was shattered by Rosenborg Trondheim's conquest of his Milan team. The Norwegians upset the mouth-watering (and lucrative) quarter-final pairing of Juventus and Milan. Berlusconi thus loses twice. He owns Milan and has a considerable interest in Mediaset, the television group which has Italy's Champions' League coverage.

Nor were their fans impressed: Milan were imprisoned in the San Siro until after midnight and, despite a police escort, the team coach was stoned when they emerged. The Rosenborg bus had earlier left to applause.

Milan's exit could mean Weah's much-predicted move to Arsenal does come about, and much sooner than expected. It could also lead to Roberto Baggio joining the Premiership. He is one Milan player who would not have welcomed Arrigo Sacchi's arrival. Sacchi dropped Baggio from the national side and his substitution of Baggio at half-time on Wednesday could herald the Divine Ponytail's departure. Baggio, 30 in February, may well be tempted by the Premiership's fields of gold.