Football: Real earn praise despite crashing in Kiev

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN Cup holders Real Madrid received bouquets rather than the customary brickbats from the Spanish media despite going out of the competition on Wednesday.

Real, now coached by John Toshack, lost their quarter-final 3-1 on aggregate to Dynamo Kiev after being beaten 2-0 in the second leg in Ukraine.

"The best don't always win," the sports daily As editor, Alfredo Relano, said yesterday. "Madrid had the ball, the pitch, the discipline and the spirit. Kiev had none of those but everything hinged on the two occasions when [Andriy] Shevchenko got the opportunities he required and that was enough," Relano added.

The Spanish sports daily Marca commented: "The champions were the best and leave the Cup with their heads held high," while El Mundo described it as "a downfall with dignity."

However, the Real Madrid coach and players were left to bitterly contemplate their departure in the unfamiliar sub-zero temperatures of the Ukrainian capital. The costly defeat, both in terms of money and morale, leaves Real Madrid having to concentrate on their domestic campaigns. They are sixth in the 20-team Spanish First Division, headed by their bitter rivals Barcelona, and are also in the semi-finals of the Spanish Cup. However, an improvement in their form is vital if they are to claw their way back into the top four and ensure entry into next season's revamped Champions' League.

Meanwhile Shevchenko, a shy 22-year-old, was hailed a national hero by his country. Thousands of cheering fans crowded the streets near the stadium after the game, waving yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags. Yesterday Ukrainian television repeatedly broadcast footage from the game and the post-match celebrations, showing President Leonid Kuchma passionately cheering along with an 88,000-strong sell-out home crowd.

"Never before in our history have we seen so many people in the stadium cheering our team's success," Kuchma said on television inside the Dynamo dressing room after the game. He personally congratulated every Kiev player, kissing the veteran coach Valery Lobanovsky three times on the cheek.

Also celebrating were Bayern Munich, whose coach, Ottmar Hitzfeld, said he believed his men could beat anybody after they demolished Kaiserslautern 4-0 to reach the last four for the first time in four years. "Manchester United and Juventus, obviously, are very strong opponents and Kiev look really dangerous," Hitzfeld said after his team completed their impressive 6-0 aggregate victory. "We're not taking any team lightly but I do believe we can beat anybody."

Bayern, who have not put their hands on the European Cup since the last of three consecutive triumphs in 1976, last appeared in the semi-finals in 1995, when they lost to the eventual winners Ajax. The Bavarians are in a class of their own at home this season, 14 points clear of second- placed Kaiserslautern in the Bundesliga standings. They look too good for Werder Bremen, whom they will meet in the German Cup final on 12 June in Berlin. But although the club president Franz Beckenbauer claims providing entertainment is more important to him that titles, he dearly wants success in Europe's showcase tournament.

It was for that reason that Bayern hired Hitzfeld, hoping he could do for them what he did for their arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, steering them to victory in the 1997 European Cup.

The club's general manager, Uli Honess, like Beckenbauer a prominent member of Bayern's formidable side of the 1970s, says it is their best team in decades. "In my days we had brilliant individualities but today, all the players are strong, even those who are not in the first team," he said.

There were fears that Bayern would be weakened by the absence of the Brazilian striker Giovane Elber, who tore ligaments in his left knee in a league match at the weekend and will be out of action for the remainder of the season. But his fellow striker Carsten Jancker proved hecould be a match winner, scoring two goals on Wednesday and being involved in the other two.

The French World Cup winning wing-back Bixente Lizarazu, asked which team he would like to face next, named Juventus. "They are a great team," he said. "It would be fun."

But when he was reminded that two of his team-mates in that World Cup- winning team, Didier Deschamps and Zinedine Zidane, were playing for Juventus, Lizarazu added: "Maybe it would be a pity to beat them in the semi-finals. Let's have them only in the final."