Football: Destiny via the back door

Champions' League: Defensive frailties persist but Citizen Keane has given United the winning edge
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The Independent Online
THAT'S the hard part over, then. Now for the really tricky bit. The Champions' League is all rather reminiscent of Indiana Jones and The Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can escape the "Group of Death", only to stumble into a pit of vipers with Juventus, or about to be struck down by a huge boulder called Internazionale, run down by a runaway truck in holders Real Madrid or frozen out by arguably the most potent opposition, Dynamo Kiev, all of whom might be expected to prove as perilous hazards as Barcelona and Bayern Munich, whom Manchester United failed to overcome.

Survival to this stage, the quarter- finals - the draw for which is made on Wednesday - is everything in a tournament in which there appear no outstanding clubs this season, hence United being quoted at 3-1 favourites by the notoriously jingoistic British bookmakers. Qualification has earned the club around pounds 10m. Winning could double that. Small wonder that the manager Alex Ferguson - somewhat perversely also experiencing a period where he is without an assistant and, apparently, the prospect of negotiations over extending his contract which expires in June 2000 - is not too fussy about what wiles he employs to progress.

Which should cause us to reflect on Wednesday at Old Trafford. Who predicted there would be a problem over European harmonisation? The Germans and the English made a pretty good stab at it here. So much so that what should have been a tense finale was a happy-clappy occasion after which the Premiership runners-up didn't just get in by the back door, but through the bathroom window with the aid of a ladder. But then so did Juventus who won only one match, their last, against Rosenborg, to qualify.

The fact is that, like United, Juventus are also undefeated and from such inauspicious beginnings do finalists emerge. All things considered, Ferguson's team are quite capable of achieving that destiny for the first time since they won the European Cup in 1968, even though a strangely cautious Ferguson considered his squad as merely "not too bad" when asked if he would consider strengthening it. (He may well window shop before the cut-off point of the end of January, but in truth his range of purchases is severely limited by the rule that prevents the signing of players who have already participated in this season's Uefa competitions.)

They will do so because of the Dwight Yorke-Andy Cole combo, even though the latter still manages to confirm Glenn Hoddle's view on his failure to convert sufficient goalscoring opportunities on chances created, while demonstrating that his all-round game will score against any team in Europe.

They will do so because David Beckham is the most savagely effective crosser of the ball in Europe, and Ryan Giggs on his night - which Wednesday wasn't, except for that astute pass with torpedo-like precision and devastation for Keane's outstanding goal - is as menacing to a defender as a back- street robber is in Rio.

They will do so, because of the immense presence of the often unobtrusive and always undemonstrative Jaap Stam, who imparts reinforced steel into central defence. And they will do so because of a talisman named Roy Keane. It is not a matter of what United are with the Irishman, more a question of how impoverished they are by his absence.

Frankly, some of the more gushing homages to his performance following the 1-1 draw were more a result of that subjective condition, red eye, when one considers opposite him the contribution of the omnipresent Stefan Effenberg and his midfield cohort and fellow German international, Jens Jeremies, a man whose physique and long, lank hair reminded you slightly of a Mickey Thomas, though one blessed with a rather more comprehensive range of skills and vision.

It takes genuine excellence from visitors to impress an Old Trafford faithful normally content to luxuriate in their own team's offerings. But one memorable dart across field from Jeremies, followed by an exquisitely weighted pass to Bixente Lizarazu down the left, culminating in a cross which the Bosnian Hasan Salihamidzic dived to head narrowly wide, showed what the Germans could do when they switched out of cruise control into turbo-charged acceleration, was afforded a rare accolade. In such exalted company Keane can appear eclipsed by those around him as a creative force. Yet it is impossible to understate quite what a stimulus the United captain is in adversity. Those 11 months out through injury evidently gave him time for contemplation and from cussed he has become a veritable Citizen Keane in his approach, yet crucially without losing that edge.

Yes, United should progress because although Inter boast Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio, Kiev have Shevchenko and Rebrov, Real Madrid can offer Raul, Savio and Seedorf, and Juventus can name Zidane, Deschamps and Davids, nobody, perhaps, can summon such quality reserves. Keane is adamant that United '98, with 20 goals already in the competition, have a stronger squad if not necessarily a better first-choice team than the one which reached the semi-finals two years ago. Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's manager, whose squad was found wanting, leaving the Gunners drying their powder for a renewed challenge on the Premiership, believes that United or Bayern Munich will make it to the final. Both could still do so.

And yet...

Even on a night when their defence performed with relative cohesion, and young Wes Brown with distinction, frailties still exist. Though Peter Schmeichel's display was sound enough, you detect an element of uncertainty among his defenders, particularly from dead-ball situations.

But of more concern for Ferguson is that his team are deficient in that crucial ingredient, creative midfield assertiveness. For all Keane's aura of invincibility in the midfield skirmishes for possession, and the fact that United's wing-play is at times breathtaking, it was all too evident on Wednesday that Effenberg and Jeremies called the tune through the centre, with United too often obliging choristers.

That is perhaps why Ferguson's men are unable to sustain any period of domination and why you fear that even this shrewdest of strategists may suffer the frustration of elimination yet again.


on the

last eight


Yet to hit peak form but have already shown Teutonic doggedness to qualify as winners of Group D after starting with a defeat against Brondby in Copenhagen and then trailing at home to Manchester United. Played with impressive assurance at Old Trafford, with Stefan Effenberg holding sway in midfield and Hasan Salihamidzic a potent threat. As likely winners as United.


Played like champions-elect at times in qualifying, not least against Arsenal at Wembley. Ukraine's winter break could rust or revitalise. But Valery Lobanovsky has a team capable of eclipsing his Kiev class of '76- 77, led by Oleg Blokhin, who lost to Borussia Monchengladbach in the semis. In Rebrov and Shevchenko Dynamo possess the competition's most dynamic attacking duo.


Inter's quest to reconquer Europe is longer than Manchester United's - stretching back to 1965, when Helenio Herrera's men, Facchetti, Mazzola et al, won the final for the second year in succession. Topped Group C, ahead of holders Real Madrid, with the lowest goals-against record thus far in the tournament. And Ronaldo has yet to spark to inspirational life.


The old lady of Turin tottered into the last eight once again. Like last season, when they progressed to the final, Juve scraped through from the group stage on the final day - with a little help from Julen Guerrero's winner for Athletic Bilbao against Galatasary. Victory against Rosenborg was their one and only in six Group B matches, but still unbeaten.


Uwe Rosler might have been in the Manchester City team shattered 2-1 by mighty Mansfield Town in the Auto Windscreens Shield at Maine Road last week. Instead, the one-time Konig of the Kippax was applying the crowning glory to Kaiserslautern's qualification for the Champions' League quarter- finals, with a headed hat-trick in a 5-2 win against HJK Helsinki.


Into last eight for the third season in a row, Fergie's challengers still have an unproven pedigree. Unbeaten, but they failed to defeat either Bayern or Barcelona, despite taking the lead four times against the Catalans. They may be top scorers, too, but they are the only qualifiers whose goals-against record has reached double figures.


The team every other club wants in Wednesday's draw, but no one will relish playing in Piraeus. The Greek champions won all three of their Group A matches in the 74,767-seater Spiros Louis Stadium. They showed they can survive intimidating trips, too, with a 1-1 draw in Zagreb on Wednesday.


Victory in last season's final was not enough to keep Jupp Heynckes in the Bernabeu's white-hot seat. Guus Hiddink must already be feeling an uncomfortably warm glow, his side having failed to qualify as Group C winners. With Clarence Seedorf in midfield and Predrag Mijatovic up front, though, they are still strong contenders.