English paper over the cracks

Ian Ridley was not impressed by domestic success in European football
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The Independent Online
THE Arsenal supporters had really enjoyed the match, said it was the best they had seen for years. Paris St Germain 2 Barcelona 1 was indeed an example of the heights of passion and technique to which European football can rise.

The Gooners outside the Parc des Princes in Paris were not looking forward to the next night's match in Auxerre, 100 miles to the south-east, however. Even though you told them that Arsenal just might be bloody-minded enough to go and win 1-0, they were not travelling hopefully.

These were perceptive Highbury observers. They believed George Graham's sin of receiving money from an agent was more cause for dismissal than his failure to change or bring style to the side, unhappy as they were with that. They worried that any victory would merely paper over cracks, as had last season's Cup-Winners' Cup success. Theirs was a team, they said, in need of major surgery, not having progressed since the title year of 1991 nor responded to the defeat by Benfica in the subsequent Champions' Cup.

The evidence bears them out. The victory over Auxerre that earns them a semi-final against Sampdoria, admirably resilient as it was, saw them give the ball away with worrying regularity. But for the heroics of their disabled Seaman in goal and Ian Wright's bolt from the blue, the need for evolution would be more apparent.

"Perhaps this marks the start of a new era for the club," the Arsenal director, David Dein said, but rather it recalled a line from that charming old black-and-white film The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. "That's 1-0 to the Arsenal," said the Mr Cholmondely-Warner of a commentator. "And that's just the way we like it," replied the then manager, George Allison.

The current manager, Stewart Houston is, in his dignified, understated way, addressing the problems even if he has only a couple of months. Which parts of the team need strengthening? "I've got to be looking at all areas. People keep saying we need a midfield player and we do, but there are other positions we have got to look at," he said.

Yes, he was also trying to develop the style. "I want them to try and express themselves. We have people like Glenn Helder and Paul Merson, who are clever enough to hurt teams and you have to play to your strengths. I'm just trying to be a bit more flexible at the front."

Perhaps we were spoilt by the Champions' Cup frolic in the Parc. This was a match in which defenders were the first line of attack, again illustrating that in England we have tolerated for too long the ball being lumped forward to relieve stress. Paul Le Guen moved smoothly between defensive and midfield duties for Paris. In addition, players in flexible systems interchanged intelligently to create space. The ball was rarely surrendered but more often won. The particular virtue of the match was shown in that not one player performed poorly, that everyone produced a cameo of quality.

Houston admitted an interest in David Ginola, who wants a transfer from St Germain. It is more likely after this game of his life that the big man with a surprisingly deft touch - a touch of the Cantona but without his vision - will attract Italian and Spanish gold. PSG's Liberian striker, George Weah, may also soon be requested to take south his silken skills and astonishing capacity for the unexpected.

Technique alone does not always win matches. That was proved by Chelsea against Bruges as they imposed their spirit to secure their semi-final against Real Zaragoza. Their survival to was as unexpected as Arsenal's to this correspondent, for which I must order a large slice of humble pie.

In many ways, Johan Cruyff was doing the same with his Barcelona as Houston is with Arsenal and Glenn Hoddle is as manager of Chelsea: making the most of what they have in the context of mediocre domestic seasons. The raw material was somewhat less raw, however, in Barcelona's case.

Cruyff for Arsenal, now that his relationship with the Catalan club seems to be reaching a conclusion? Not unless he has been seduced by the entertainment Arsenal recently accorded him, or unless he sees the challenge of rebuilding an ageing team on a salary a third of his current £1m a year as appealing.

He will probably not have been fooled by last Thursday night, nor should we be. The domestic virtues will suffice no longer. The fact that Barcelona and Gothenburg, the two teams who eliminated Manchester United, England's best equipped, are now out themselves points to to a gulf. As the watching England coach, Terry Venables, said: "I don't think we can be scratching all the time. We have got to add a little more than that."