Football: Blomqvist plays waiting role in wings

Glenn Moore talks to the Swedish left-winger who has provided vital cover during United's treble-chasing bid
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The Independent Online
WHEN NELSON Vivas was caught napping at the far post on Tuesday night, allowing Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink to score Leeds United's winner, David O'Leary's pre-match assessment of the title race rang a resounding bell.

Manchester United, said the Leeds manager, would finish ahead of his old team because, although Arsenal could field a first XI to match anything United put out, they were unable to match their depth of squad. This has been the crucial difference between United this year and last.

The signings of Jaap Stam, Dwight Yorke and Jesper Blomqvist, the retention of players like Teddy Sheringham and Henning Berg, and the emergence of youngsters such as Wes Brown, has given Alex Ferguson the options and numbers he has needed to maintain a three-pronged campaign. "Without such a deep squad," admitted Alex Ferguson yesterday, "we would never have got to this point."

Blomqvist, a pounds 4.4m signing from Parma in the summer, has been a key element in this policy. Last season, when Ryan Giggs was missing, United looked unbalanced and suffered for it. This year they have had the perfect cover and have also been able to play Giggs in other roles knowing the 25-year- old Swede was taking wing on the left.

A foot injury, which affected his fitness and training, has hampered Blomqvist but he has still played in 37 of United's 58 matches to date this season, and is likely to play a role in the vital final three starting with the visit of Tottenham to Old Trafford tomorrow.

What sort of role only Ferguson knows. After starting the previous seven matches Blomqvist was left out against Blackburn on Wednesday. He did not like it but, being a modern squad player, had to accept it.

"It can be difficult," he said as we met up at Old Trafford the following morning. "Blackburn was hard as I had been playing regularly and was not even on the bench. You can get a bit upset but you have to think `it is not my time this time', that is life.

"Being a squad player is part of the game if you want to play for a big club. They want to play in all the competitions and it is too many games to manage with 13 players, they need a big squad and everybody must accept that. It means that apart from a few players like Keano [Roy Keane] and Jaap no-one is missed, we can have four or five injuries and still be very competitive."

Keane, of course, will be missing from the European Cup final and one option for Ferguson is to play Giggs in midfield with Blomqvist wide. "It is a possibility," said Blomqvist, "though he could play Ronnie Johnson or Phil Neville in midfield too."

Such caution is typical of Blomqvist's outlook. Unusually for a United player he is prepared to publicly contemplate failure in Barcelona.

"I'm very confident that we can win and put up a really good performance but I can't say we will win," he said - fortunately Keane was not listening. "Maybe I am a little bit more careful than the English players in that, maybe it is the Swedish mentality, but they [Bayern Munich] are a world- class team and they are winning the German league very easily. It is a good team we are playing.

"We can beat them, I have no doubts about that, but we can also lose to them, that is football. My biggest worry is that they will gain so much confidence by doing so well in Germany that they may be even more confident than us, especially if we don't win our domestic trophies."

A lively contest with Wimbledon's Ben Thatcher earlier this season showed Blomqvist does not lack bottle but, maybe because of his slight figure, his body language does not exude confidence. Appropriately enough for a winger, Blomqvist had a childhood ambition to be an air steward though his employment, when he became a semi-professional player, was as a bank clerk, then as a student studying maths. He came to United's attention with a sparkling performance as they lost to IFK Gothenburg in the Champions' League in 1994, but his star waned during two difficult seasons in Italy with Milan and Parma. From the outside he still appears to be regaining his confidence.

"My own performances can still improve quite a bit," he admitted, "especially the last part; the shooting and crossing. There is a big difference in approach between playing in the part-time Swedish league and in Italy and England. There is no real pressure there, most Scandinavian players struggle for the first one or two years when they move. I think my best years are still to come, it is up to me to prove it."

Steve McLaren, the United coach, said of Blomqvist: "I've found Jesper to be a very amiable person since I've been here. He works very hard on his game, thinks a lot about it. He's typical of a player who has played in Italy, very professional, always practising.

"He's very quick, very direct and positive, he can take opponents on and delivers a good cross. He could score more goals [he has one this season], maybe come inside and get more shots in. His biggest quality is he is a team player. He defends very well, he helps out in midfield and doubles up with full-backs. When you are talking about squad players he is ideal and when he comes in the team he does very well.

"Like any other player he is a confidence player. They always need building up, given a little boost every now and again. It is not a case of encouragement as much as giving them all the help you can to stay confident and be a good player."

Blomqvist's defensive qualities, which he acquired in Italy, could earn him a place against Barcelona. After that there is another important date, the Euro 2000 qualifier between England and Sweden at Wembley in June, when he could find himself up against Gary Neville. Again there is that reticence - or realism - as he says: "We are not confident of winning but we are confident knowing there is no particular pressure on us. Even a loss is almost like a win because we will still have qualification in our own hands."