Football: Inexperience of youth proves costly

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ONE THING he had learnt, John Gregory reflected after a night when Liverpool emerged as the lone representatives from these islands in tomorrow's draw for the third round of the Uefa Cup, was that British is still best.

Sadly for the European aspirations of Gregory's Aston Villa side, like those of Leeds United and Celtic, he was referring to refereeing standards. Liverpool's joint managers may agree, having seen a French official dismiss Steve McManaman and Paul Ince in Valencia, although after progressing in the competition with a fortuitous 2-2 draw they might be advised not to push the point.

Not that Gregory blamed the Belgian referee who presided over Celta Vigo's 3-1 victory at Villa Park, any more than his Leeds counterpart, David O'Leary, or the beleaguered Jozef Venglos, of Celtic, looked for excuses following their exits against Roma and FC Zurich respectively.

To have done so, after the Premiership leaders were outplayed and their reputedly watertight defence holed by the side lying fourth in Spain, would have been tantamount to Gregory sticking his head in the sand.

Typically, the Villa manager preferred to focus on Saturday's visit from Tottenham rather than indulge in soul-searching over the state of English football. "We mustn't lose sight of the progress we've made this season," he said. "This game's gone and it's just a reference point now. What's important is that come the weekend we get back to winning ways."

Nevertheless, Gregory admitted Villa were now under "a bit of pressure" after two successive defeats (they lost 4-1 in the Worthington Cup at Chelsea last week). "That's a position we haven't been in since I came in February," he said.

In looking forward, Gregory must not lose sight of the flaws exposed by Celta's polyglot band. Even in the final half-hour, after Rafael Berges was sent off, the visitors appeared to have more men.

Superior movement off the ball explained that illusion, but Celta also highlighted flaws in Villa's 3-5-2 formation and individual failings. Gary Charles and Alan Wright, starved of service in the wing-back roles, could not impose themselves in an attacking sense, yet with Villa forced to chase the game they often left the defence vulnerable to Celta's wide men.

The creative onus weighed heavily on Alan Thompson. The pounds 4.5m signing from Bolton has an adhesive touch and a sweet left foot. However, his inability to move up a gear made him look one-paced compared with the Russian international (now a naturalised Portuguese), Alexander Mostovoi.

As a result, Lee Hendrie had to shoulder too great a responsibility for a 21-year-old. The time may also be approaching when Gareth Barry, who was playing for his school team 18 months ago, needs a respite from the treadmill of top-class defending.

Similar themes emerged from the goalless draw at Elland Road, where a Leeds team with five players aged 21 and under were unable to force a single serious save from Roma's goalkeeper in the 46 minutes the Italians played without the banished Pierre Wome.

Leeds, like Villa, also surrendered possession far too easily. No wonder both clubs have shown an interest in David Batty: for all his limitations, the Newcastle midfielder seldom gives the ball away.

George Graham's defection has seriously affected Leeds' season. They have now won just once in the 10 games since the saga started, against Bradford City in the Worthington Cup, during which time Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink has scored only one goal.

Last season's top scorer, with 22, the Dutchman is missing the clever support play of Rod Wallace, who joined Rangers under the Bosman ruling, more than he could have anticipated. He cut a sulky figure against Roma.

Liverpool's advance on away goals earned breathing space for Roy Evans and Gerard Houllier, who now have successive home fixtures in which to arrest their domestic decline. But it was more backs-to-the-wall than the former European champions would have wished, and Ince's red card revived questions about his problems with red mist as well as weakening their options for the next round.

Celtic, the first British club to win the Champions' Cup, were eliminated from a second European competition this season when their weakened line- up lost 4-2 in Switzerland. The sheer scale of FC Zurich's win is certain to increase the pressure on Venglos, the veteran Slovakian coach, although he can hardly be blamed for the damaging delay in finding a successor to Wim Jansen.

It was left to one of Dr Jo's latest successors at Villa to lighten the mood of a generally gloomy evening. It was not so much the referee who had annoyed John Gregory as the "over-zealous" Uefa jobsworth who robustly restrained him from encroaching near the pitch.

"If I'm reincarnated," said Gregory, "I want to come back as a fourth official."