Football: Barca beware Suker trump card

Norman Fox hears the warnings as Champions' League hots up
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The Independent Online
JOHAN CRUYFF'S opinion that the Champions' League has become a "decaffeinated" competition with money the only reason for its expansion would not find much support among fans anticipating the coming week's rich brew of Barcelona playing Arsenal at the Nou Camp and Manchester United entertaining Olympique Marseilles. But he also suggested that the big clubs were becoming desperate to hold something back for the real tests, which would not come until the new year. That struck a chord with all three Premiership managers involved.

Arsene Wenger admitted after Arsenal's lax performance at Southampton last weekend, and again following their misleadingly comfortable 3-1 scoreline against AIK Solna at Wembley on Wednesday, that many of his players already wanted to negotiate this period of congested fixtures at minimum cost in physical and mental stress. "They know that the biggest tests will not come for many more months. I would not say that we are holding back, but even using a stronger squad than last season, having the European matches all together like this gives us a lot of pressure in both halves of the season."

Gianluca Vialli admitted that his Chelsea team had gone "from hero" (the impressive performance against Milan) "to zero" (the defeat by Watford followed by another against Hertha Berlin). He accepted that players who had already enjoyed successful careers elsewhere found it troublesome to motivate themselves against inferior but obstinate sides now given places in the Champions' League which they would not have achieved in the past.

Even Sir Alex Ferguson made it clear that while Manchester United did a professional job in beating modest Sturm Graz in Austria, successive midweek European games at this stage made him wonder about the longer- term effect on his players, especially those with repetitive injuries, notably Roy Keane. He might have added that there are also problems for those who repeatedly risk long-term suspension by their acts of spitefulness, specifically David Beckham.

While United's victory was confidence boosting, it was largely irrelevant in terms of assessing their chances of retaining the European Cup, whereas Arsenal were under severe pressure to win against a tight, counter-attacking AIK side full of players for whom giving a good account of themselves was a higher priority than swapping shirts with their famous opponents - something other Scandinavian sides seem to believe is the purpose of playing.

"It was a very important match for us to win. We now know that we can go to the Nou Camp with the knowledge that a draw would not be a bad result for us," Wenger said. Neither he nor the Croatian former Real Madrid player Davor Suker, who scored the third of Arsenal's goals on Wednesday, believe that the Nou Camp will be as intimidating as its reputation. "I have been there myself with Monaco," Wenger said. "The atmosphere is not hot like it can be at Wembley. Barcelona like to play a good, passing game. It can even create a quieter atmosphere than at some other grounds... but they do have Rivaldo, one of the top goalscorers in the world."

Suker, the top scorer in the last World Cup finals, was particularly optimistic about the chances of winning against Barcelona. He is obviously keen to promote his own position in Wenger's thinking, but his earlier career suggests he has something to offer in Spain. "I have played against Barcelona many times, for Seville and for Real, and I always play well. I think I have scored five goals against them at the Nou Camp. Arsenal now have a lot of experience, so I think this is a good time to go there. I don't think the Barcelona fans will be a problem for me. I want to make up for not playing many matches for Real when they won the Champions' League. I love to play these big games."

All confident stuff, and as Lee Dixon remarked: "We realise how many of these matches are won in the last few minutes, and we're getting good at that." But two in injury time against Solna was cutting it fine, and it would not have been necessary had the famous, veteran defensive line been as dependable as you would have expected against an attack of no consistent threat nor at full strength.

Naturally, Martin Keown and Tony Adams dismissed the number of times they directed passes to oncoming opponents as "one of those things" yet there was an uncharacteristic carelessness which Rivaldo would have relished. Did Adams have a premonition when, as they walked out on to the Wembley pitch, he remarked to Dixon: "Make the most of it, we might be playing golf this time next year"?

The combination of those errors and the fact that Suker and even Dennis Bergkamp wasted several goalscoring opportunities made it seem a wise move by Wenger to suggest that a draw rather than victory would be a satisfactory outcome in Spain.

Defensive uncertainty is also undermining Chelsea's European campaign. Some of the mistakes in Berlin could be compared with those that Sturm Graz offered United. "It doesn't concern me too much that we have not been scoring enough goals. That will change," Vialli said. "But when you are giving them away at the same time you need to work on the problem as quickly as possible."

Cruyff was right. Constant sipping from the decaff cup in these early stages of the over-sized competition leaves too little time to put things right.