Football: England's season to be cheerful

Ian Ridley says that success in Europe depends on clever investment
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The Independent Online
Come spring, Manchester United will be a different team, Alex Ferguson said after the victory in Vienna. They might have to be; they, too, will need to beware the sides of March.

English football's recent history shows that United grow stronger as the season's prizes hove into view, due to an internal resolve that their experience of chasing trophies has instilled. Few can argue domestically, but when it comes to the European game, the case remains open. They are, after all, the first English quarter-finalists since the post-Heysel ban was lifted in 1991.

Ultimately convincing United's qualification may have been, but in keeping with the tradition of their awkward autumns, the Champions' League revealed them to be still a few pence short of a Euro. It is likely that they will need some strength from outside by the time they face an impressive Porto.

The question of a central striker with a cutting edge remains to be resolved. It is surely pinning too much on Andy Cole, who should be fit by then, to expect him suddenly to blend with Eric Cantona, who ended last season sometimes throwing up his arms in frustration alongside.

Availability is the problem, with the European transfer deadline of 15 January a mere six weeks away. The best, such as Fiorentina's Gabriel Batistuta, Barcelona's Ronaldo and Ajax's Patrick Kluivert, are ineligible, having played already in European competition.

In addition, Middlesbrough seem unlikely to part with Fabrizio Ravanelli, but as with Cantona four years ago, Ferguson has experience with rabbits and hats. It is a long shot and would take a huge fee, but the outstanding Croat Davor Suker has not played in Europe this season, as the rebuilding Real Madrid failed to qualify.

At least and at last the United manager can be reassured by the performance of his existing workforce on a big occasion. Cantona finally showed his appetite for one, David Beckham his aptitude. Both supplied passes of the highest quality for the goals. Gary Pallister, feeling his way gingerly after injury, still brought composure back to the defence. Then there was the Ryan of Vienna, Giggs reconfirming a Lofty reputation.

And at least United are better off than Milan, whose exit is painful evidence of decline. It is likely to be only short-term, even though the returning Arrigo Sacchi no longer has the quality of the Gullit-Van Basten- Rijkaard axis to gild his tactical solidity. It could be that the Premiership may soon be benefiting from change at the San Siro, with George Weah and Roberto Baggio likely targets.

Functionally dull as most Scandinavian sides are, Rosenborg's victory over Milan was an affirmation of football's capacity for the upset in defiance of power and wealth. It was all the more laudable coming in a Champions' League whose format was developed to improve the chances of the bigger clubs in the biggest television markets. To take away that and appease the moneyed even further will be to turn off the audience. The lesson was: "Leave room for romance amid the finance."

If the Trondheim team were the pick of the week, then Porto have been the side of the season. Having lost Bobby Robson to Barcelona, the goalkeeper Victor Baia going with him, and Emerson to Middlesbrough, they were expected to struggle this season. Instead, Manchester United are left to hope that Porto have peaked too soon, and that the form of the Brazilian striker Jardel, who was available in the summer but whose proposed move to Rangers ran into work-permit problems, is only the fortunate first flush of youth.

For all that, United can be optimistic, the more so should reinforcements arrive. The shake-up has seen them in the less powerful half of the draw, as Juventus and Ajax, finalists of last season, are on course for a semi- final encounter. The Dutch are also likely to be stronger come March.

Newcastle and Liverpool will take their place in the last eight of the Uefa and Cup Winner's Cups - the draws for which will be made on Wednesday - at the same time. After another autumn of soul-searching, a pause for cautious English optimism before the spring strengthening is in order.