Football: Europe succumbs to thrust of the rapier: Swashbuckling Newcastle set a superlative standard in a week the best of English are united in putting the continent to the sword

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The Independent Online
IN AN ordinary week, Manchester United's splendid start to their Champions' League campaign, showing a resilience that delivered victory over Gothenburg and promised much, would have been still more lauded for the pace and panache on display even without Eric Cantona. But this was no ordinary week. Newcastle United made 4-2 wins seem a little pale and passe. There may not, after all, be only one United.

You knew Newcastle's display was rare indeed when even the Royal Antwerp support, with a reputation for not exactly churning out the milk of human kindness, gave them a standing ovation after their 5-0 victory. One wonders if Highbury will be as appreciative should Arsenal be similarly swept away today by Newcastle's new broom in a match of appealing contrasts: traditionally the Premiership's best defence against its most coruscating attack; a defence that offers encouragement to a set of strikers still seeking form.

Then again, so much about this embryonic English season has refreshed that perhaps the former North Bank too, will lay down partisanship and get caught up in the cacophony. Well, it is still only September and optimism is pardonable.

It is difficult with Newcastle at present to balance over-enthusiasm with seeing things in perspective, but rarely has an English team so cleanly dissected an opponent in the away leg of a European tie; not even Liverpool in their prime, Kevin Keegan ventured. 'Even the best in Europe would have had a job getting the ball off us,' he said. Nor have English clubs so enjoyed such a week post- Heysel: won four, by margins of two goals or more, with 16 goals scored; lost two, both by a single, retrievable goal.

But perspective must be used. Manchester United's 5-1 victory over Benfica in Lisbon in 1965 should never be overlooked, George Best's hat-trick surpassing Robert Lee's. Besides which, even Arsenal won by 7-0 in Belgium last year, against Standard Liege, on their way towards winning the Cup-Winners' Cup, functionally after the initial exuberance. In addition, Royal Antwerp were a side with a wasteland for a midfield. It remains possible, too, that Chelsea, Blackburn and Aston Villa could be eliminated.

But a journey through the past week, taking in Antwerp, Manchester and London, has revealed an encouraging progress at the top of the English game. Though Blackburn mistook patience for torpor against Trelleborgs of Sweden before resorting to the broadsword, the signs were that more English clubs are becoming acquainted with the rapier as a more effective weapon. They have also more readily adapted to - and thus profited from - the Fifa guidelines on offside and the tackle from behind.

The tried is, rightly, no longer trusted as being sufficient. Character, patience and discipline may have pulled many teams through - serving Arsenal and Aston Villa well last week - but those traditional virtues are now regarded by the best managers as ingredients rather than the dish itself. Should the fluidity of passing and movement match the best Europeans, then the English recipe could be the most flavoursome. Milan's alliance of perspiration to inspiration in defeating Barcelona in last season's Champions' Cup final was the role model.

Alex Ferguson began the process last season; Keegan appears to be enhancing it this. His guru Bill Shankly once decided after a home defeat by Red Star Belgrade that Liverpool must adapt. Duly they did and embarked on a silvery European era. Keegan has absorbed the best of the available evidence and come to new conclusions.

All week, the talk came back to Newcastle; they were supposed to approach Europe with trepidation. But such was their confidence in each other's movement, with several options always available to the player in possession, that not a hint of fear was revealed. The urging by coaches for a team to 'keep its shape', tediously repeated on Sunday morning pitches, is shown by Newcastle to be the braying of the uninventive. There may be worries about the wanderings in defence, of the right-back Marc Hottiger and Darren Peacock in particular, so keen are the men at the back to join in the revelry, but the whirling movement of a front five to pull out of shape an opposing defence more than compensates.

It is the approach that Terry Venables seeks for England and while Andy Cole may have naturally provoked most debate on that subject, Ruel Fox and John Beresford suggest themselves as rivals to Darren Anderton and Graeme Le Saux. Above all, the players' enjoyment of their work is evident. Steve Watson, manacled to the right-back position for England Under-21s a week before, has since danced with delight at the freedom to play he has been given with his club.

In Paul Ince, however, the other United had the individual of the week, his dominance of the midfield a backbone. Ryan Giggs's return to form, meanwhile, was a relief. His continual coming back for more after an error-strewn first half-hour showed a character rare in a 20- year-old and emphasised, as with the team, the year older and wiser. One drawback to United, though, remains Gary Pallister's refusal to fulfil potential as an advancing centre- back to draw out opposing midfielders and create space between them and their defence.

'United's attack is very good, very fast, but in defence they are not so good,' said Thomas Ravelli, the Gothenburg goalkeeper, eccentric on the field but thoughtful off it. 'Nowadays I think they can win against Milan, especially at Old Trafford.' Indeed, midweek evidence suggests that Ajax, 2-0 winners over the injury-undermined holders in Amsterdam, will be as big a threat to United.

Chelsea's European greenness showed when they emerged for their match against the Czechs Viktoria Zizkov at Stamford Bridge and proceeded straight to a kick-about rather than line up for the pre-match formalities. Imbued with the teachings of Glenn Hoddle, though, they proceeded to pass the ball with a crispness to belie it, Gavin Peacock revealing himself as another England rival, to Peter Beardsley. Uncertainty returned with the squandering of a two-goal lead but when Chelsea rediscovered the self-belief they had witnessed in Newcastle last weekend, they ran out comfortable winners.

'It was a learning process for the crowd too,' said the Chelsea assistant manager Peter Shreeves. 'They wanted us to get the ball forward quickly sometimes but you really have to play through the team. Yes, I think it's fair to say that while European teams have improved on the physical side we have also stepped up our technique and tactics.'

English football grounds have risen from the ashes of disaster - and how some others could do with Lord Justice Taylor, with Newcastle fans being moved from a clearly unsafe Royal Antwerp stand cracking beneath their enthusiasm - to rival those of Italy, France and Germany. They even surpass many there. Now the better English teams and coaches are responding to the need for invention and imagination. We await the next instalment with anticipation rather than embarrassment.