England United in week of glory, but now's the time for winners

Fantastic three give Premiership a boost but Operation Europe needs a finishing touch
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Amid all the warm compliments showered on the three English teams reaching the Champions' League semi-final last week came one bucket of cold water. Oliver Kahn, the goalkeeper-captain of Bayern Munich, sent an icy reminder that there is a rather distinguished fourth club intending to do more than make up the numbers when he said of Bayern's conquerors, Milan: "They're probably the best team in Europe right now."

Howls of protest from Manchester might well be echoed by Roma, sitting well clear of Milan in Serie A, but humiliated so badly at Old Trafford they could reasonably have quit on their stool at half-time. It was a useful reminder, however, that the most important date in this season's competition is 23 May in Athens. Greece is not yet the word for either Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool.

On each of the two previous occasions that one country supplied three-quarters of the semi-finalists, one of their representatives did the hard part and won the final, against their own countrymen. In the case of Real Madrid seven years ago, it was their eighth European Cup success (subsequently increased to nine) and three years later Milan themselves won for a sixth time. The Italian aristocrats might also point out they have competed in more finals (10) than the three English contenders put together.

History, if not current standing, is on their side. "In Istanbul/We won it five times," Liverpool supporters like to crow, to which United's respond, with a cruel and even less grammatical reference to the horrors of Heysel: "Without killing anyone/We won it two times." Chelsea's Jose-come-latelys are forced for the moment to keep a reluctant silence.

So there is still work to do if the current debate over whether the Premiership is now the strongest league in Europe is to reach a firmer conclusion. Even if Chelsea impressively added Valencia to a list of victims already including Barcelona, Thursday's Uefa Cup offered support for the depth of the Spanish League, three of whose clubs are in the last four.

Yet it was understandable that victorious Premiership players should offer their support for the English League (not to be confused with the England team)after a remarkable couple of days. After the astounding 7-1 dismissal of Roma, United's Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand offered a highly relevant perspective, having been team-mates in the Leeds side who reached the last four in 2000-01. It was a period in which Spain regularly provided more semi-finalists than any other country and one of them, Valencia, duly beat Leeds after drawing the first leg at Elland Road.

"I just said to Smudger [Smith], 'semi-final again, let's not have a repeat of the last time we were there'," said Ferdinand. "I remember the time and the place, every single minute of that game, and I don't want to feel that again."

His former team-mate, now reunited with him and thrown into the Roma match in his proper position at centre forward, added: "I think this team has more experience. The thing we will look back on at Leeds was that we drew 0-0 at home in the first leg. We are at home again in this semi and a clean sheet would be a good result against Milan. But the way this team are progressing and getting better and better, if we are not in that final we will be disappointed. An all-English final would be unbelievable.

"But it's no good getting up for Roma and not doing it against Sheffield United at home on Tuesday. As quickly as you get up there, you can fall back down. We saw that against Portsmouth. The way we react is the most vital thing."

Roma felt the full force of that reaction on an extraordinary night, while Chelsea were pulling off a very different but equally characteristic performance to eliminate Valencia. Jose Mourinho had every reason to be proud of another inspired rabbit-out-of-the-hat substitutions in bringing on Joe Cole, but even a man never accused of lacking confidence acknowledged the superior traditions of the remaining rivals. "We're competing with three teams with 13 [European Cup] wins," he said. "Chelsea is out of that habitat." Or as the Kop will surely put it at the semi-final, "Chelsea's got no history".

While there are many survivors from the previous set-to between the clubs at this level, a number of new faces have been added on both sides. One of them, Peter Crouch, Liverpool's goalscorer last Wednesday, turns out to be a boyhood Chelsea fan, whose father regularly took him to watch his idol Kerry Dixon but is now a devoted Liverpool follower "home and away". That will mean being at Stamford Bridge for the first leg, where Rafael Benitez's side find difficulty in scoring but have twice kept important Champions' League games goalless.

"We seem to enjoy playing in the Champions' League," Crouch said after drawing within one goal of Milan's Kaka as the competition's leading scorer this season. "I do think that we seem to be happier playing in Europe. Chelsea have been so consistent in the League over the past few seasons and that is where we want to be in the Premiership. But certainly in Europe we feel that we are up there with the best. We have beaten them at Anfield in the Premiership this season and I believe that we have the capabilities to beat them. But I'm sure they feel the same."

Chelsea's results may be less spectacular than United's, with Liverpool's less consistent than either, but Crouch feels there is a grudging respect for the champions and lessons to be learnt from them. "You have to respect them because they have been so consistent in the League. In Europe you do have to grind out results sometimes and in the Premiership as well, and maybe we have to look at that."

He has also been made well aware, since joining Liverpool immediately after their Istanbul night, of what the European Cup and those five times mean to the club; so much so that the golden rule of taking one game at a time can be broken without undue guilt when a final is within reach: "It's always at the back of your mind, you can't not think about it. It's something I dream of playing in. I was watching [the Milan final] in England with a few of the Chelsea boys, who weren't too pleased. The boys still talk about it now, you can't escape it in this city, they say what an amazing final it was and I'm gutted I wasn't involved."

As Crouch walked off the Anfield pitch last Wednesday, the PA announcer was giving out Milan's result and musing on the possibility of a repeat. Whatever he and Kahn may believe, Chelsea and Manchester United will have much to say about it over the next potentially thrilling fortnight.

Heavenly Nights: Four European highs to match super Tuesday

15 MAY 1968

European Cup semi-final: Real Madrid 3 Manchester Utd 3 (3-4 on aggregate)

Fairs Cup semi-final: Leeds 1 Dundee 0 (2-1)

Two English clubs reach a European final on the same night. United seemed doomed when Real led 3-1 at half-time (3-2 on aggregate) but defenders David Sadler and Bill Foulkes were unlikely scoring heroes. Eddie Gray was the Leeds scorer in a third successive win against Scottish opposition.

21 MARCH 1984

European Cup quarter-final: Benfica 1 Liverpool 4 (1-5); Dundee Utd 1 Rapid Vienna 0 (2-2)

Cup-Winners' Cup quarter-final: Manchester Utd 3 Barcelona 0 (3-2) Aberdeen 3 Ujpest Dozsa 0 (3-2)

Uefa Cup quarter-final: Austria Vienna 2 Tottenham 2 (2-4); Sturm Graz 1 Nottm Forest 1 (1-2)

All six British teams make the semi-finals of their respective cups, though only Liverpool and Spurs would reach the final (both winning). Bryan Robson scored twice on one of Old Trafford's great nights against Maradona's Barcelona.


Champions' League: Newcastle 3 Barcelona 2; Kosice 0 Manchester Utd 2

In their first match at this level, Kevin Keegan's exciting Newcastle side produced a characteristic show, leading the Catalans 3-0 with a hat-trick by Faustino Asprilla, then hanging on for the win. United had an easier night in Hungary.

4 APRIL 2001

Champions' League quarter-final: Arsenal 2 Valencia 1; Leeds 3 Deportivo La Coruña 0

Leeds were living the dream, racing into a first-leg lead with goals from Ian Harte, Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand. They would survive in La Coruña, just, then go out to Valencia, who recovered from defeat at Highbury to make the last four thanks to John Carew's late goal.