Football: English observers admire Real thing

Real Madrid's European Cup victory had much to savour. Glenn Moore reports
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The Independent Online
HOW was it for you? Did Wednesday's European Cup final leave you drooling with anticipation for the World Cup, or did you resort to channel flicking during the slower periods?

Those representatives of the English game at the Amsterdam ArenA had no doubts. The media assessment accorded with that of Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, who said: "This was a match played at a very high level." Brian Kidd, the Manchester United coach who attended the match in the absence of the holidaying Alex Ferguson, agreed though, like most people, he was surprised that Real Madrid had beaten Juventus.

The Dutch players wandering through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport yesterday morning, en route for a training camp in Switzerland, saw it differently. Marc Overmars spoke for most when he said: "It was not a great game, not even a good game." Erwin van der Sar, the Ajax goalkeeper, had been at the stadium but found his attention drifting.

Could it be that they saw nothing exceptional in defenders who pass their way out of danger, midfielders with instant control and vision, strikers with quicksilver feet? Perhaps to them there is nothing strange in a game in which each side played just one hopeful long ball forward and there was only one "hoof" - and that, by the commanding Fernando Hierro, as a statement of intent as Real, having gone ahead through Predrag Mijatovic's nonchalant goal, battened down the hatches.

Not that the game was perfect. There were a lot of mis-placed passes in the middle period and the finishing, Mijatovic's goal apart, was poor. There was, however, a finesse of touch and awareness of space rarely seen in the Premiership and much of the defending was of the highest order.

Though English football has come on considerably in recent years, it is still played with an imprecision that allows players of poor technique but big hearts to thrive. This is one of the reasons it can be so exciting - Wenger now finds Italian football boring - but it is also a reason for our moderate European record. Chelsea, who now meet Real Madrid in Monaco in the European Super Cup on 28 August, may have won the Cup-Winners' Cup, but their often pedestrian midfield and indisciplined defence would have been punished in the other European competitions.

Gianluca Vialli, as his move for Marcel Desailly demonstrates, is aware of this. Arsenal and Manchester United, next year's Champions' League entrants, are also seeking to strengthen their team for the demanding challenge ahead.

One of the new recruits was at Schiphol, Jaap Stam, United's new pounds 10m defender. He stressed the first aim was the domestic title but was optimistic about Europe. "United proved last year they are a very good side," he said. "No one expected them to lose to Monaco - they had a better team but much depends on injuries and luck. They are a young team and can improve every year as they get older and more experienced."

Certainly, at their best, Manchester United played as well as any in a competition without an outstanding team - Juventus lost four times in 11 European matches while Real Madrid have not won on any opponent's ground for six months.

There is one area where England already lead the way. With an eye on Manchester United's example Real Madrid, already massively in debt, approved further loans last Sunday which will take their account close to pounds 100m in the red in order to buy back the club's marketing and merchandising rights.

This may lead to further restructuring, probably involving a change in constitution allowing a stock market flotation. The members would only cede control, however, if the club remains committed to the pursuit of glory. Senior Manchester United officials privately confide that they would have been better off entering the Uefa Cup than the Champions' League as they can sell their own television rights rather than having to be part of a package. But, as every Madrid fan can now boast, only the European Cup is the Real thing.

l Fighting between fans and riot police in the Spanish capital soured the celebrations that followed Real Madrid's victory. Over 200 people were injured as police used rubber bullets.