Football: United need a balanced effort

Champions' League: Nou Camp thriller shows Europe's premier competition is moving in the right direction
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THE METHODS may be clumsy and the motives grubby, but the money men and football politicians intent on revamping European football appear to be heading in the right direction.

Under the old format, Manchester United's thrilling draw with Barcelona would not have happened - United, as English runners-up, would not be in the competition. Yet who could deny their right of entry after Wednesday's glittering 3-3 at the Nou Camp.

The competition's aim is to find the best team in Europe and that was not always the case when only champions were included. The pursuit of excellence is an ongoing quest and, while Arsenal may hold the Premiership title, United, strengthened by Jaap Stam, Jesper Blomqvist and, especially, Dwight Yorke, are clearly now the better team.

This underlines why the major nations should be allowed more than one entrant. Every country deserves some representation, however fleeting, and, obviously, it would be ludicrous to include a dozen Serie A teams, despite the fact that Italy's 12th best team is probably better than Latvia's champions.

With one round of this year's Champions' League group matches to go, 17 teams remain in contention for a place in the quarter-finals. Only 10 of these are domestic champions with both of those in United's group, Barcelona and Brondby, already eliminated.

United must defeat the Bundesliga runners-up, Bayern Munich, at Old Trafford in 12 days' time, to be sure of reaching their third successive Champions' Cup quarter-final. However, given the shape of the other five groups, a draw may be enough.

The best two runners-up go through and, because of their superior goal difference, United, should they finish second with the 10 points a draw would give them, will not be surpassed by the runners-up of Groups A, E or F. Group C is a different matter, United would need either Real Madrid to be held at home by Spartak Moscow, or Internazionale to lose at Sturm Graz, to surpass the runner-up. Which leaves Group B, where the situation is complicated by the postponement of the Galatasaray- Juventus tie. However, United would probably only be surpassed if Juventus fail to win in Turkey, then lose at home to Rosenborg Trondheim.

So a point should do it for United and they ought to be capable of getting at least that, though their commitment to attack, as a matter of need, habit and expectation, will leave them vulnerable. The Munich tie was evenly balanced - though Bayern only gained a point in injury-time they had dominated much of the game.

That goal was one of several that have revealed a defensive frailty that could cost United dear should they progress. They may have scored a phenomenal 19 goals in five matches but only the Austrian whipping boys, Sturm Graz, and the Brondby side ravaged by United, have conceded more goals than the 10 put past Peter Schmeichel.

Not that this is Schmeichel's fault, even if he has made some uncharacteristic errors. While glorious to watch, United's attacking philosophy, which was expressed in the selection of just one defensive midfielder, Roy Keane, frequently resulted in United defending four against four. This is difficult against anyone - against Rivaldo and company it was near-suicidal.

In the two games, Barcelona scored six times against United and, while the results have not been all they have wished for, it was hard to understand how Louis van Gaal, having delivered a domestic double last season, receives so much criticism.

He is undeniably arrogant and prickly and much of it is the result of internal politics, unreasonable expectation and anti-Dutch xenophobia. But, considering their injury problems, his team still put on a remarkable show.

Van Gaal has six years left on his multi-million-pound contract and informed sources in Barcelona expect him to remain a while yet. Indeed, if he does go it is likely to be voluntary, he has clauses allowing his release to coach the Dutch national side after either Euro 2000 or the 2002 World Cup.

United now revert to the domestic game and the visit of Leeds on Sunday.

This is always a passionate match, for which United will be grateful. Having only arrived back at 2.30am yesterday they might be expected to prefer weaker opposition but, after Wednesday night, it would have been hard to lift themselves.

Instead they can follow an advertisement for the European league with one that showcases the continued value of the domestic game. Whatever Uefa and the clubs do, there needs to be room for both.