Gold reserves can be the bane of Spain

Champions' League: Depor's pass masters provide a formidable barrier but Arsenal's stand-ins hope to stand out
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The Independent Online

There is a common misconception that the Champions' League is a glorious celebration of the élite of European leagues. It is nothing of the sort, of course. In football's pass-the-parcel, cast away the colourful wrapping on the original 32-club package (72 if you include the teams who had to pre-qualify, as Liverpool did) provided by assorted Scandinavian nations and the former Eastern Bloc in the first phase, and you are left with an event which is not much more than an Anglo-Spanish tournament.

There is a common misconception that the Champions' League is a glorious celebration of the élite of European leagues. It is nothing of the sort, of course. In football's pass-the-parcel, cast away the colourful wrapping on the original 32-club package (72 if you include the teams who had to pre-qualify, as Liverpool did) provided by assorted Scandinavian nations and the former Eastern Bloc in the first phase, and you are left with an event which is not much more than an Anglo-Spanish tournament.

Obligatory guest tickets to a very private affair are offered to the Germans, Italians, Turks and Greeks, but inexorably, the field is being reduced to a contest between the Premiership's Manchester United and Arsenal and La Liga's Real Madrid, who have already qualified for the quarter-finals, Deportivo La Coruña and Barcelona. Roma could yet continue the interest of Italy, a nation who have become serial underachievers in this competition, and a stolid Bayern Munich, the holders, will always be an irritating piece of chewing gum on everyone else's shoe.

United are quarter-finalists, surely, barring an incomprehensible decline or further aberrations from a rearguard and a goalkeeper who still offer hope to their opponents with communication that, at times, looks like it is carried out through crystal radio. Yet defeat by those redoubtable foes Bayern Munich on Wednesday night would ensure a nervy final game at Boavista if the Portuguese team also win at Nantes the same night.

Though it would be folly to reject the claims of Liverpool, who are gathering momentum just as they did at the serious business end of last season, three drawn games may have put qualification just beyond them, despite the inspirational match-day words of their still- recuperating manager Gérard Houllier. Elimination, which would follow defeat at Barcelona on Wednesday, would not be catastrophic, though. Houllier is convinced that eight Premiership wins from the same number of games can yet claim them the title.

As for Arsenal, much could hinge on fitness and freedom from suspension. But those factors will be by no means conclusive. Manchester United's sick-bay could comfortably take on some of the NHS overload at present, while Arsenal's is more reminiscent of a MASH encampment. United are virtually clean in disciplinary terms, while Wenger's men are too often handcuffed by indiscipline.

Yet few would dispute that the Gunners are playing the more cohesive, assured football at the moment. Leeds have demonstrated the error of assuming that you play to your optimum only when you are at nominal full strength. As David O'Leary never ceased to preach to us last season, give me the young, fit men and I'll give you the trophies. Then you'll really see something from Leeds. This season, of course, he has them virtually all available.

Sometimes a depleted force, an apparent group of stragglers, can offer more than the crack troops, who can be undone by their own strutting complacency. Hence, this season in the Premiership, Arsenal have struck a vein of gold when, with a team in which players like the wily Sylvain Wiltord and resourceful Igors Stepanovs have become prominent components, their excavations might have been expected to yield no more than tin. "Ee-gor", they chant from the North Bank to acclaim the latter, when their initial natural inclination at a first sight of the Latvian was to bay "Eeyore".

As Sol Campbell, who was prepared to suffer the taunts of the Tottenham faithful to move to Highbury specifically to be part of a team whose naked ambition is to secure the Champions' League and Premiership double, says: "There are enough leaders and quality players in this squad to do a job. We reshuffle a lot but every week we can put a good team out. OK, in some people's eyes we are missing key players, but everyone can be a key player. Igors has come in recently and you have to remember he's a full international with 40 caps. As long as you can communicate well, you can always get through. And don't forget we have a lot of players to come back."

Tuesday night's encounter at Highbury, when Javier Irureta's Deportivo arrive in confident demeanour after their 2-1 triumph over Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey may define Arsenal's season, both in Europe and domestically. Though not the best of travellers, Depor are a magnificent passing team who can unsettle the most composed defences. Lest we forget, they have already defeated Manchester United home and away this season, and accounted for Arsenal 2-0 in the home leg.

They also eclipsed Juventus in their last Champions' League game, one of their goals arriving from that absurdly cheap purchase, Diego Tristan, a mere £8mfrom Real Mallorca. He also scored twice against United at Old Trafford, it will be recalled, and more recently one in the Spanish Cup, and will provide a severe examination for Campbell and Stepanovs, just as that superlative right-midfielder Victor will need to be closely attended.

Campbell was impressed by Depor, but his belief that Arsenal can progress is undiminished by events in Spain. "Out there, we let in two early goals, but as the game went on we could easily have nicked a draw," he says. "We had a couple of great chances. That will give us a great foundation. They're an excellent side, yes. But at home we're playing well and as long as we approach it right, we should be fine."

Though they must beware the counter-attack, Arsenal's brutal efficiency in front of goal at present, with Wiltord, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry (who is only serving a domestic suspension) such willing servants for each other, makes them, arguably, the most potent attacking power in Europe. "It's fantastic to watch," enthuses Campbell, with a smile on his lips. "It's nice to play in a side who can open up people and give teams problems. They've got pace and they're working well together."

As Sky's Andy Gray might growl in the prelude to Tuesday's confrontation: "They don't come any bigger than this." Victory is a necessity. Defeat would not only severely jeopardise the Gunners' Champions' League aspirations, it could dampen their Premiership powder, which is currently tinderbox dry.

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