Football: Lizarazu pursues more days of glory

European Champions' League: Bayern Munich's World Cup winner switches his sights to success at Old Trafford
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The Independent Online
IN MUNICH last Saturday afternoon, the snow was falling hard enough to muffle the sound of the church bells. On the heated surface of FC Bayern's training pitch, small groups of players jogged around the perimeter with varying degrees of enthusiasm, swaddled in gloves and bobble hats. An hour earlier they had arrived on a delayed flight from Dusseldorf, where they had stayed after the previous night's league match, a 2-2 draw with VfL Bochum. Now, before making their way home, they were having a gentle stretch, maintaining the muscle tone required of players whose schedule involves two top-level matches a week.

Giovane Elber, the Brazilian striker, was the first to reel off his laps and slip away through the snowflakes past a gaggle of fans. A tight-faced Lothar Matthaus led the second group at a pace that was more deliberate but still impressive for a man in his 38th year. The remaining bunch circulated more slowly still, but included one man who received special cheers each time he passed by from a gaggle of French schoolgirls, on a visit from their home in Lyons.

``Liza! Liza!'' they shouted, holding out pens and paper and receiving a cheerful wave in response from the muffled figure. But, for Bixente Lizarazu, the events of July 12 were far away.

Of all the distinguished players due to participate in tomorrow night's Champions' League showdown between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Lizarazu is the one who might conceivably be excused for downplaying its importance. At his home in the small town of Hendaye, close to the Spanish border, the vivacious little defender has a freshly minted World Cup winner's medal. But his attitude to its significance is instructive.

``To be champion of the world when you've had the dream for so long,'' he said, "and to win it in France and to share it with your friends and your family - the emotion was something incredible. You know, in the whole history of France, not just in sport, it was the first time this had happened, with the people going out into the streets of the cities, singing and dancing.''

And afterwards, naturally, he went home to celebrate. ``There was time then to think about it for a moment, and to enjoy it. But I don't think about it any more because I know I have the videos and the books and newspapers at home, and one day I will have time to look at these things. Now is not the moment.''

Now he has other things on his mind. And whereas Emmanuel Petit complained last week of the mental and physical strains experienced by last summer's World Cup stars, Lizarazu has simply set his sights on further trophies.

``I would say that I had no problem of that kind,'' he said, ``because after the World Cup my ambition was to have a very good season with Bayern. It was easier to forget the title of champion of the world because the objectives for Bayern were very high. Last year we were second in the Bundesliga, and this year we want to be champion. Last year we lost in the quarter-final of the Champions' League and this year we want to do better. So it was not so difficult. Between every match I am thinking about making a good physical regeneration because I know that when you're always playing, if you don't do that you can have problems with injuries. And this season my physical condition is very good.''

Which makes a pleasant change for this exceptionally gifted player, whose place in the World Cup squad was in doubt after several seasons disrupted by a deep-seated groin injury. After serving his apprenticeship from the age of 14 with Bordeaux, where he made his reputation and won the first of his 30-odd international caps, a transfer across the border to Athletic Bilbao appeared to represent a perfect move for the young Basque. But the injury wrecked his time there under the French coach, Luis Fernandez, and there were no happy memories to take with him to Munich when he was transferred at the start of last season.

At Bayern, too, he missed many games, appearing in only 19 of the 34 Bundesliga fixtures and registering just 12 minutes on the pitch in a Champions' League which ended at the quarter-final stage. But his trouble was eventually sorted out by Dr Hans-Wilhelm Muller-Wohlfahrt, who is the club's doctor as well as a freelance consultant, whose list of clients outside football includes Linford Christie, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Steffi Graf.

Now Bayern are coached by the man who masterminded both their own removal from last year's Champions' League and that of Manchester United the previous year. But Ottmar Hitzfeld, who took Borussia Dortmund to the European Cup in 1997, has changed little about the team's tactics, despite bringing the controversial Stefan Effenberg back from Monchengladbach to run the midfield. Hitzfeld has maintained the German preference for a sweeper, two centre-backs, and a pair of wing-backs, which is not necessarily Lizarazu's own ideal formation. The Frenchman, after all, is a man whose partnership with Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram breathed new life into the concept of the back four, as long as it received protection from a couple of strong midfield players, such as Didier Deschamps and Petit.

``I prefer a four-man defence,'' he said. ``I think now in modern football it's the best system. Because it's not only the job of four defenders and a goalkeeper. It's the job of those two strong midfield players - and it's also the job of the strikers, who must come back when it's necessary. They too have a defensive role, a little bit. You can't score a lot of goals if all the team don't help, and the defence is exactly the same.''

In Germany, the legacy of Franz Beckenbauer, the prince of sweepers, endures - and nowhere more explicitly than at Bayern, where Beckenbauer is now the president. Giovanni Trapattoni, Hitzfeld's predecessor, briefly tried to switch to a back four, but the experiment foundered on the ingrained habits of the German players. ``It was impossible. Really. The players were not used to it. For me, it was fine. Perfect. But now I've adapted, and I'm used to their system, so there's no problem.''

In fact, he added, Hitzfeld had also briefly experimented with the back- four system earlier this year, but soon reverted to the old shape. ``When the team has a libero and two stoppers, the stoppers can sometimes move laterally when we have the ball, leaving the libero in the middle. But when we play with only two central defenders, they must not go wide, they must stay. But sometimes...'' He moved his hands apart, looked at the gap between them, and laughed. ``It's funny when you see they are used to playing like this and they cannot change.''

Tomorrow night's match at Old Trafford has a similar significance for two clubs who are prone to view the European Cup with a special yearning. Whereas Manchester United won the trophy once, 30 years ago, FC Bayern captured a hat-trick of victories, starting in 1974, with the team that included Beckenbauer, Gerd Muller, Uli Hoeness, Sepp Maier and Paul Breitner. It is a club very conscious of history, and seriously keen on dynasties. Below Beckenbauer in today's administrative hierarchy come Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, a vice- president; Hoeness, the general manager; Maier, an assistant trainer; and Muller, whom the club helped to recover from alcoholism, now a youth coach.

``Our president wants us to win the trophy,'' Lizarazu noted. And whereas United need a win to ensure qualification, Bayern require only a point. ``Manchester will have to be offensive,'' Lizarazu said, ``so maybe it's easier for us. If they're too offensive, we'll try to use all the space they give us.''

In the first match between the clubs, at the Olympiadstadion, United were deprived of a win only in the last minute, when Schmeichel failed to intercept Lizarazu's long throw and allowed Elber to equalise with his second goal of the night. ``The first match was a little strange, I would say, because we saw a good Manchester in one half and a better Bayern in the second half. So I would say that there was a balance between the teams.''

Tomorrow marks Lizarazu's 29th birthday, and he's hoping for a celebration. ``Manchester have a good collective way of playing, offensively. The relationship of Beckham, Yorke and Cole is good - and now they have Giggs back. But after that I think there's some possibility in defence. Sometimes they don't have... what's the word in English, rigeur?'' Rigour. Discipline. ``Yes. So that's my way of thinking. Most of the time they score a lot, but in the same way the other team can score, too. So we will try to play thinking of this.''