Football: Barcelona enriched by Rivaldo

Mission Europe: The league of champions is overrun by runners- up as the elite world is turned upside down; Ian Ridley feels a new Brazilian blend will strengthen the Spanish giants
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The Independent Online
Not many people feel for Manchester United these days, apart from their far-flung supporters of course, but they do deserve some sympathy as they embark this week on what is becoming their annual quest to be European champions.

The English champions travel tomorrow to Kosice, an industrial Slovakian town on the Ukraine-Hungarian border and home to some 400,000 people, around 15,000 of whom are expected at the Lokomotive Stadium on Wednesday night to support an emerging team financed by the East Slovak Steel Works.

Meanwhile, the English runners-up Newcastle United prepare to host the match of the week, against one of the world's great clubs, employer of some of its greatest players, in Barcelona - themselves runners-up to Real Madrid last season - at St James' Park. Something does seem amiss here somewhere.

Indeed, in sporting terms, the Champions' League has become a ridiculous misnomer, with second-placed teams from the continent's top television markets having been admitted. One good thing to come out of the expansion to 24 teams is that we will have to call it the European Cup once more.

For those who charmingly cling to the idea that the competition should be for champions, however, it will all appear a perversion of an ethos. In reality, while ethics have clearly been overtaken by football politics and power struggles, the tournament will be stronger than ever. The runners- up of Spain, Germany and Italy are patently superior to the champions of many, indeed most, European nations.

Uefa have been aware of the needs of - and rewards from - television as well as the desire of their bigger clubs for more intense and money- spinning competition and this bloated tournament smacks of halfway-house appeasement of the clubs and TV. A European League is clearly coming; Uefa want to ensure that they administer it rather than the clubs, whose domestic leagues met in London last week to discuss just that idea.

Political expediency aside, Newcastle v Barcelona will certainly stir the passions on Wednesday. Sir John Hall's "Geordie Sporting Club" pays homage to Catalonia and indeed they are at present a junior version; something that may seem difficult to grasp given Newcastle's status in Britain.

Barcelona's turnover of pounds 60m is double that of Newcastle and their Nou Camp Stadium makes St James' seem a quaint little cockpit. Last season, 54 of Barcelona's matches were televised live. In fact, Spanish football's income from television - a total of 724 matches shown live last season, including 22 of Real Madrid's reserve games - has fuelled an expenditure on players that makes the Premiership look cheap.

Last season Barcelona received pounds 23m from TV, dwarfing Sky's new pounds 9m per English club, and they have spent heavily to quell the disquiet of their 103,000 members at the pounds 20m sale of Ronaldo to Internazionale of Milan. His replacement, Sonny Anderson, cost pounds 13m from Monaco while pounds 18m more went to Deportivo La Coruna for another Brazilian, Rivaldo. Barca may even have ended up with a better team.

Under the former Ajax coach Louis Van Gaal, who has supplanted Bobby Robson (the man Newcastle wanted as their manager before Kenny Dalglish), Barcelona have won their first two league matches, against Real Sociedad and Valencia, both by 3-0.

The attacking Brazilian triumvirate, which is completed by Giovanni, has looked especially impressive operating within Van Gaal's trademark 3-4-3 formation, and Rivaldo's left foot has been an eye-catching weapon. Sadly, Giovanni will be missing on Wednesday with an ankle injury, though this is still unlikely to give the French signing from Milan, Christophe Dugarry, his chance.

Compare and contrast with United's opponents Kosice. They have invested in a new goalkeeper Ladislav Molnar from Slovan Bratislava, a libero in Andras Tellek, who has 20 caps for Hungary, and Josef Kozlej, scorer of 22 goals for Viktoria Zizkov last season, but still they remain well adrift of Europe's big buyers.

Victory over Spartak Moscow in the qualifying round suggests that Kosice could prove troublesome but United, who host Juventus in a fortnight's time, should be expected to take a point at least, even without the injured Teddy Sheringham.

Newcastle will do well to achieve as much against Barca, despite home advantage. Much will again depend on Faustino Asprilla, who is fortunate to be playing after his elbowing offence in Zagreb went unseen by referee or assistants, and whether the Colombian can win his personal duel with the rugged Miguel Angel Nadal.

Elsewhere, Leicester City also face free-spending Spanish opposition for their venture into the Uefa Cup. As well as Juninho, who can expect the same attention from Pontus Kaamark he received in last season's Coca-Cola Cup final, Atletico Madrid have paid pounds 12.5m to Juventus for the striker Christian Vieri and Leicester will do well to return to Filbert Street with a two-goal deficit or less.

Also on Tuesday night, Celtic against Liverpool will inevitably attract most British interest while Arsenal take on PAOK Salonika in Greece and Aston Villa, who can only improve on last season's abject performances against Helsingborg, hope to prove the better clarets in Bordeaux. On Thursday, Chelsea are at home to Slovan of Bratislava in the Cup-Winners' Cup.

The progress of the best English clubs last season - Manchester United and Liverpool reaching semi-finals - illustrated a growing familiarity with what is required in Europe these days, following the post-Heysel wilderness years. Notably, that is not conceding a goal at home.

So it will be a surprise if anyone is soundly defeated this week in the way that Blackburn Rovers and Leeds United have been in recent seasons. The hope is that the English game can show a depth which is going to be needed in these days of expansionist European competition.