Football: Houllier wary of the verve of Vigo

Simon Turnbull assesses the European threat to Liverpool of a new Spanish power
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LIVERPOOL will be breaking appropriately new ground on Tuesday night when they venture into Europe under the sole managerial stewardship of Gerard Houllier for the first time. In 34 years of continental campaigning, the Anfielders have never dropped anchor in Vigo, the north-west Spanish fishing port described by one recent Anglo visitor as "the Grimsby of Galicia".

Not many European clubs have. Indeed, while the Estadio Baladios is not to be confused with Blundell Park (it does not have a Findus Stand, for one thing), the home of Celta Vigo has staged no more European ties than the Cleethorpes home of Grimsby Town, though Aberdeen, in 1971, and Arges Pitesti and Aston Villa, in the past two months, were visitors in the Uefa Cup rather than the Anglo Italian Cup.

Tuesday's third-round first leg is only Celta Vigo's seventh match in European competition at home or away. Number seven for Liverpool was back in March 1965, a European Cup quarter-final replay against Cologne in Rotterdam won for Bill Shankly's Reds by the toss of a coin. Though Liverpool are now veterans of 172 continental contests, it's a fair bet Houllier would happily settle for a heads-or-tails chance of making it to the 175 mark in the spring. Celta Vigo may have the European pedigree of minnows but, as Aston Villa discovered to their cost in the second round, the Galicians are enjoying a whale of a time at present.

A 2-1 victory against Real Madrid last weekend, their first success in the Bernabeu for half a century, put Celta top of the Primera Liga. They have never won the Spanish title but their unbeaten start to the domestic season has earmarked them as serious challengers to Real and Barcelona.

As well as that historic win away to the European champions, they have also emerged unscathed from a trip to the Nou Camp, snatching a 2-2 draw against Louis Van Gaal's title-holders with a 92nd-minute equaliser by Alexandre Mostovoi. Celta are not top of the pile by accident, according to Van Gaal's predecessor, Johan Cruyff. "They are playing the best football in Spain," the old Dutch master proclaimed last week.

They are not unbeatable, as Villa showed in the last round, winning the first leg in Vigo 1-0, thanks to a Julian Joachim goal. But, as John Gregory's Premiership pace-setters found out on their home turf, they can be a formidable force. Despite playing for 33 minutes with 10 men at Villa Park, after the dismissal of Rafael Berges, Celta had too much pace and movement for Gregory's Villans. Prompted in midfield by the elusive Mostovoi, a Russian with Portuguese citizenship, and by the assured Mazinho, a World Cup winner with Brazil in 1994, Celta were worthy 3-1 winners. "They certainly have a lot of pace and inventiveness, Gregory remarked. "They move the ball around very efficiently."

They do so under the direction of Victor Fernandez, who already boasts one successful European campaign on his personal cv. He was coach of the Valencia team that famously Nayimed David Seaman from the half-way-line in the 1995 Cup- Winners' Cup final at Parc des Princes. The Valencians of '95 had the Argentinian Fernando Caceres in defence, the Uruguayan Gustavo Poyet in midfield, and Juan Esnaider, another Argentinian up front. The Vigoans of '98 are a similarly cosmopolitan bunch.

Fernandez, who arrived from Tenerife in the summer, has Caceres at the centre of his defence and the Russian Valery Karpin and the Congolese Claude Makelele alongside Mostovoi and Mazinho in midfield. He also has, up front, the Bulgarian Luboslav Penev, the old school target man blessed with a deceptively subtle touch, and the one-time Celt Jorge Cadete, of Portugal.

Richard Dutruel, Celta's French goalkeeper, has long been on Liverpool's wanted list. And there is one member of Fernandez's squad who has already made his mark at Anfield. Dan Eggen played for Brondby against Liverpool in the Uefa Cup two years ago. Indeed, the Kop will need no reminding that it was Eggen whose late winner left Liverpool with egg on their faces that night.