A tremor for the old order

Week of shocks promises months of intriguing competition
Click to follow

It was a week for coaches and players to delve into that hefty and well-thumbed volume Football's Thesaurus of Mitigation Pleas as the grand European order was seriously disturbed.

It was a week for coaches and players to delve into that hefty and well-thumbed volume Football's Thesaurus of Mitigation Pleas as the grand European order was seriously disturbed.

As if it was not perplexing enough that Arsenal should bring a hushed disbelief to a Highbury full house which had arrived in expectation of lauding their pass-masters once again, who would have imagined that Manchester United would yield to Olympiakos two goals that would have shamed many a Third Division side?

Elsewhere, could this be Real Madrid – arguably the most talented side in Europe – being held to a draw by Genk? And what of Bayern Munich, who claimed the Champions' League trophy itself only two years ago? Despite the luxury of summer signings including Michael Ballack, Ottmar Hitzfeld's team are in jeopardy of being ignominiously discarded at this early stage, barring mathematical miracles.

For Arsène Wenger's team the 2-1 loss to Auxerre will be considered a mere European aberration. Surely Arsenal's honour will be restored on Wednesday at Dortmund, when they need only a point for qualification. Won't it? Well, possibly, but they disconcertingly revealed a hitherto well-concealed vulnerability when confronted by a deep-lying, fast-breaking team.

True, it was a night when Arsenal sorely missed the wiles of Dennis Bergkamp, a performer who may have contributed that extra dimension with his passing and perception during a contest in which the Gunners forwards continually foundered on the twin rocks of Auxerre's young centre-backs, Philippe Mexes and Jean-Alain Boumsong. Wenger conceded that his side were "not as fluent and mobile as we are used to", while Thierry Henry and Co blamed fatigue. Auxerre's coach, Guy Roux, contended that "Arsenal's continental style, with ball to feet, seemed to have left them."

Yet, the cunning, venerable coach knew that it was rather more than that. His men had outmanoeuvred Arsenal at their own game by sitting deep, counterattacking swiftly and striking with venom.

Freddie Ljungberg, the Arsenal midfield player, admitted: "Of course, we're feeling very down, but mostly we are irritated. Auxerre played very intelligently and frustrated us. They tried to stop our midfield from playing – and they succeeded. Their players dropped back and invited us to hit long balls. It meant that I did not receive many chances to use my pace. But we are still confident that we can win at Dortmund."

The Swede himself appeared decidedly off the pace, and although that can partly be attributed to an ankle injury received against Everton – he claimed that earlier in the week "it was swollen like a tennis ball" – which nearly prevented him playing at all, there is a suspicion that he has still to regain his full effectiveness after his surgery in the summer.

The same applies to Robert Pires, who offered the Highbury faithful much cause for optimism with his 20-minute appearance as substitute on Tuesday night. Yet, after such a lengthy absence, a retrieval of his excellent form of last season will take time.

It was also a night on which Patrick Vieira was not the imperious midfield custodian with whom we have become familiar. He blamed the momentum lost by the international break, but it is difficult to comprehend that rationale. It was only a week away and France were hardly confronted with the most onerous of challenges in their European qualifiers.

But clearly something was amiss with too many of the Arsenal personnel. The defenders were sluggish and accident-prone. David Seaman had to rescue Ashley Cole's reputation after the left-back missed a clearance in a fashion reminiscent of a golfer striking an air shot. Even Wenger conceded that "we did not have our usual defensive stability". And though Thierry Henry toiled valiantly, Mexes and Boumsong restricted him to the chance he fashioned for Kanu to prod home.

As for Sir Alex Ferguson's men, they have still gained 12 points in their group – without Roy Keane, it will be stressed – by dint of a 3-2 victory achieved by a late Paul Scholes strike, albeit with the complicity of goalkeeper Dimitrios Elef-theropoulos. Anyway, it will be contended, when David Beckham and Ryan Giggs are replaced by Luke Chadwick and Quinton Fortune, as they were on the hour, it deprives United of two of their strongest veins of quality.

Nevertheless, the manner in which Lambos Choutos and Predrag Djordjevic forged through the visitors' rearguard will give heart to all of United's second- stage opponents in what is promising to develop into an intriguing and open Champions' League.