Football: Italian barrier on two battlefronts

The initial skirmishes over, United must begin to win.
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The Independent Online
DENNIS WISE, for once planting a kiss on the head of Gianfranco Zola instead of causing his team-mates to bang theirs in exasperation, may have been somewhat precipitate with his words when he said of his fellow diddy man: "He's on fire. When he's like that we can win the championship." But for once you couldn't fault his logic after the Italian striker's nimble-footedness through the Manchester United defence, like an expert safecracker picking a lock, had rewarded Chelsea for their ambition on Wednesday night.

Not since Arsenal's visit last April can a team have burgled the Old Trafford stronghold so effectively and left such tell-tale evidence of their expertise, with Zola in his pomp, and his team-mates' passing and control so refined and movement so adept. The real crime was that they did not get away with their deserved swag, that of three points rather than one, but it was confirmation enough that, come March, United are likely to be facing an Italian challenge, of sorts, on two fronts.

If it was daunting enough to learn on Wednesday morning that they had been drawn against the Group C winners Internazionale in the quarter- finals of the Champions' League over two legs in March, there came the reminder for Alex Ferguson, a matter of a few hours later on Wednesday, that Gianluca Vialli's Chelsea, the west London Azzuri, will be challenging his club's title aspirations, too.

Vialli, with his continued rotation of a healthy crop of players, who should find the Norwegian part-timers Valerenga an easily assailable obstacle in their Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final, exposed United's rearguard once again, although Jaap Stam proved himself a tour de force and Gary Neville not far behind amid an air of uncertainty. On three occasions in seven days Alex Ferguson's men had allowed teams to recover to secure a draw after establishing a lead, and while his defensive reserves are plentiful enough, no particular formation renders real security for Ferguson. In their last eight European and Premiership games, for instance, while United have netted 16 goals they have also conceded 17. There always appears a skylight left ajar to permit entry, and that will be all that intruders like the 1997 world player of the year Ronaldo, and the 1993 recipient Roberto Baggio, Youri Djorkaeff, or Ivan Zamorano need to steal through and exploit United's shortcomings.

Yet Ferguson will be aware that Inter are vulnerable on a number of fronts. Not least, they have only recently installed new coach Mircea Lucescu to replace the sacked Gigi Simoni. Although the former Romanian national coach arrived with a glowing reference from Rapid Bucharest he has only a seven-month contract. There is much speculation in Italy that unless last year's Uefa Cup victors achieve a much overdue national championship - they have not won the Serie A title since 1989 - he may not have that agreement extended. Significantly, the present Juventus coach Marcello Lippi is likely to be available in the summer, a fact which will not be ignored by the Inter president Massimo Moratti.

And what of Ronaldo, who has been waging the battle of wounded knee? Inter have constantly complained that the Brazilian's recovery from a "chronic" condition was worsened by playing in the World Cup final under painkillers. Whatever the truth, the record signing from Barcelona has not presented the threat he did last season when his tally was 25 goals from 32 Serie A games.

Whether Ferguson's team can capitalise on such uncertainties will largely depend on the continued proficiency of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole, and the providers/executioners Ryan Giggs and David Beckham, the latter of whom is likely to be confronted by his Argentinian France 98 antagonist Diego Simeone. United remain a potent force without one or other of Giggs and Beckham but, as was graphically demonstrated for an hour against Chelsea, not without both. Their presence, and in Beckham's case, his ability to withstand the inner demons, will be essential. Against United's group phase opponents, four draws sufficed to ensure qualification. Now the winning has to start.

EUROPEAN CUP DRAWS

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE

Real Madrid v Dynamo Kiev

Manchester Utd v Internazionale

Juventus v Olympiakos

Bayern Munich v Kaiserslautern

Ties to be played on Weds 3 and 17 March

CUP WINNERS' CUP

Chelsea v Valerenga

Lokomotiv Moscow v Maccabi Haifa

Varteks v Real Mallorca

Lazio v Panionios

Ties to be played on Thurs 4 and 18 March

UEFA CUP

Marseille v Celta Vigo

Bologna v Lyon

Bordeaux v Parma

Atletico Madrid v AS Roma

Ties to be played on Tues 2 and 16 March

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