Football: English clubs still playing catch-up

Alex Ferguson must think about buying if Manchester United are to make their presence felt in Europe. By Glenn Moore
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The Independent Online
THE FATUOUS suggestion that the Premiership is "the best league in the world" took its annual dent this week. December is culling season in European football's club competitions and, once again, when the quarter- finalists were counted it did not take long to add up the English contribution.

As usual Manchester United will be joined, when the competitions resume in the spring, by the Premiership's European Cup-Winners' Cup entrant. This is one competition English clubs have got to grips with, achieving six-quarter-finalists - and two wins - in the seven seasons since the Premiership began. Not a bad record, but it is no coincidence that it is the weakest of the competitions. This year's last eight includes, for example, such internationally renowned clubs as Valerenga, Varteks Varazdin, Panionios, Maccabi Haifa and Real Mallorca.

In the two other competitions England have managed six quarter-finalists between them. This compares to 15 French qualifiers, 13 Spanish, 19 German and a staggering 24 from Italy. Indeed, during this period the Italians have had at least one quarter-finalist in every competition, every year, winning a third of the trophies.

Thus Internazionale and Juventus will be high among the teams Manchester United wish to avoid in the quarter-final draw though not half as much as Chelsea will be eager to avoid Lazio in the Cup-Winners' Cup. Should these teams stay apart they seem certain to meet in the Villa Park final come May.

United have a more daunting task ahead. An optimist will note that they were unbeaten in four meetings with Bayern Munich and Barcelona, a pessimist will point out they also failed to beat either side. Similarly they qualified by the back door but were the highest goalscorers and one of only two unbeaten teams (the other are Juventus).

Now there is a lull during which manager Alex Ferguson will consider whether he needs to strengthen the squad. "Why do you always ask that?" was his response when his intentions were enquired of on Wednesday night. The reason is that last year United were the only quarter-finalist not to strengthen and they went out straight away having had to field an injury- hit side against Monaco.

Ferguson suggested that Juventus, whom he holds up as a European benchmark in much the same way domestic rivals regard United as their guideline, had merely added depth to their squad but they did sign Edgar Davids as well as two supplementary players. Real's spending was even more influential as they invested more than pounds 10m in Christian Karembeu of France and the Brazilian, Savio. Though Savio suffered injury Karembeu scored important goals in the quarter and semi-finals and played in the final.

The deadline for new signings is 31 January and only players who have not participated in any of the three European competitions this season will be eligible.

Given that United had a full squad to choose from yet failed to defeat Bayern at home on Wednesday, strengthening may be required. The team do not convince defensively and that would appear to be the area to invest in.

However, as Liverpool have found, it is no easier to buy top quality defenders or goalkeepers than it is to acquire forwards.

The extra worry for Ferguson, given the intensity of the English game, is the problem of injured and jaded players. It is this that might force him into the market.

"They have the ability, it is a question of whether they will still be fresh come March," he mused. "While teams like Kiev are having a break we're battling through winter. They will go on a nice trip to the Canary Islands, while we are battering through the winter. I think we should take a leaf out of Scotland's book and take a January break. We have seven games this month. It taxes you.

"I thought Arsenal would go through but they suffered with injuries, that is what can happen. That is why you need a big squad. I'll be delighted if I can pick from a full squad come March but a lot can happen before then. I would be delighted if I were in that position because it is so important to have all your players." To underline Ferguson's concern, Denis Irwin, injured against Bayern, is doubtful for tomorrow's trip to Tottenham.

Ferguson has been linked with a fresh move for Lens midfielder Marc-Vivien Foe, who was set to move to Old Trafford until he broke his leg before the World Cup, but when pressed if he would be bringing in any new faces, Ferguson replied: "It's difficult to say, but I think our squad is not too bad."

In a vindication of Uefa's expansion of the competition, United are one of three domestic runners-up to make the last eight, a threefold increase on last season. Five of the octet were among the 16 clubs selected by Media Partners in the summer to be in the putative European SuperLeague. Of the three that upset the commercial order, Kaiserslauten, Olympiakos and Dynamo Kiev, the Ukrainians look best-placed to go all the way.

Ferguson said he wished Arsenal had gone through as they would then have suffered the same conflict of interests as United will. That Chelsea, whose squad strength is the only one to match United's, also remain involved means European competition may have the same impact on the Premiership as a handicapper at a horse track. Just as long as nobody thinks the race is a classic, compared to Serie A it is more like a selling plate.

EUROPEAN CUP QUARTER-FINALISTS

BAYERN MUNICH

Best performance: Winners 1974, 1975, 1976

Qualified: German runners-up

Formidable pedigree and one of only three teams (along with Ajax and Juventus) to win all three European competitions. The key influence is coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, a 1997 winner with Borussia Dortmund.

DYNAMO KIEV

Semi-finalists 1977, 1987

Ukrainian champions

Stylish and well-organised dark horses. Long winter break should leave them fresh for spring but may disrupt rhythm. Rich enough to hang on to to Andrei Shevchenko, Sergei Rebrov and co - if the players want to stay.

INTERNAZIONALE

Winners 1964, 1965

Italian runners-up

Already on their second manager and yet to integrate Roberto Baggio, who is playing well, and Ronaldo, who is not. Abundance of talent, possibly too much. Poor domestic start means they are likely to concentrate on Europe.

JUVENTUS

Winners 1985, 1996

Italian champions

Struggle to qualify matched disappointing domestic season. How much of this is due to Marcello Lippi's impending departure as coach? Alessandro Del Piero should be fit for later stages but odds against fourth successive final.

KAISERSLAUTERN

German champions

Making a habit of defying pundits having been first club to secure place in last eight just months after being first newly-promoted team to win Bundesliga. Uwe Rosler, in particular, would love to be drawn against United.

MANCHESTER UNITED

Winners 1968

English runners-up

Probably the most attacking team in the competition but also one of the most vulnerable defensively. Will hope to avoid the injuries that have undone the last two campaigns. Much depends on Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Dwight Yorke.

OLYMPIAKOS

Greek champions

Look to be the weakest quarter- finalist but will be difficult to beat at home where they defeated Croatia Zagreb, Ajax and Porto while conceding just one goal.

REAL MADRID

Winners 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998

Holders

Patchy season which has already put new coach Gus Hiddink in jeopardy. His predecessor, Jupp Heynckes, was sacked for poor domestic form despite ending a 32-year wait for this trophy.

The draw is on Wednesday 16 December in Switzerland. Manchester United, who cannot be drawn against Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, will play their first match at Old Trafford.

COUNTRY BY COUNTRY

Total number of teams left in the three European club competitions

Italy 6

Bologna*, Internazionale, Juventus, Lazio, Parma*, Roma*

Spain 4

Atletico Madrid*, Celta Vigo*, Real Madrid, Real Mallorca

France 3

Bordeaux*, Olympique Lyonnais*, Marseilles*

England 2

Chelsea, Manchester United

Germany 2

Bayern Munich, Kaiserslautern

Greece 2

Olympiakos, Panionios Athens

Croatia 1

Varteks Varazdin

Israel 1

Maccabi Haifa

Norway 1

Valerenga

Russia 1

Lokomotiv Moscow

Ukraine 1

Dynamo Kiev

* Uefa Cup; Cup-Winners' Cup

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