Petit cast as the gold reserve

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The Independent Football

It is common in English football to hear commentators pondering whether a player who has been successful in club football has what it takes to succeed "at international level". In Spain the question never arises and the reason why is contained in the predicament of one of Barcelona's summer recruits, Emmanuel Petit.

It is common in English football to hear commentators pondering whether a player who has been successful in club football has what it takes to succeed "at international level". In Spain the question never arises and the reason why is contained in the predicament of one of Barcelona's summer recruits, Emmanuel Petit.

There are only half a dozen players worldwide who have been as successful as Petit "at international level" in the last couple of years: those who, like him, were first choice for France in the last World Cup and in Euro 2000. Yet "Manu", mightily admired as he was during his three years at Arsenal, cannot make it into the Barcelona side.

Not yet, anyway. His time may come but Barça's new coach, Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, has made it plain that for now he sees the Frenchman as a substitute either for Philip Cocu in midfield or for Frank de Boer in the centre of the defence. Unless either of the Dutchmen are injured Leeds United will not have to contend with the pony-tailed midfielder when they run out at the Nou Camp on Wednesday night for the Yorkshire club's first game in the European Champions' League.

Moral of the story: playing for your country is one thing, playing for the World Stars XI that is Barcelona is something else altogether. Moral number two: a camel will go through the eye of a needle before Leeds, ravaged by injuries as they are, can possibly achieve the heavenly objective of defeating Barcelona this week.

There again, in football, camels have been known to go through eyes of needles. It happens fairly often - maybe the main reason why the game is so universally compelling. And, vastly disadvantaged as David O'Leary's infants are in almost every department, they do have a couple of things going for them: Barça's engine is cold, the Spanish season having begun only yesterday, and a number of its critical components are untested at the Nou Camp.

The goalkeeper, Richard Dutruel, is new, and hardly a household name, even in his native France. Marc Overmars is freshly arrived from Arsenal, in a £30m package with Petit. Gerard, whom Milan tried to lure, signed from Valencia in the summer, having once played for Barça's youth team.

Ivan de la Peña played successfully for Barça under Bobby Robson three years ago, was let go by Louis Van Gaal and, having failed to live up to expectations both at Lazio and Marseille, returned home last month. Overmars will start on Wednesday, if he is fit - a significant "if", as he has already shown signs of the injury-proneness that, among other reasons, has convinced many Arsenal fans that Wenger did well to sell him at the price that he did. Barça fans, on the other hand, have convinced themselves that Overmars will fill the gap left by Luis Figo, who calamitously left for Real Madrid six weeks ago for £40m.

What the Barça faithful have yet to grasp is that the speedy Dutchman lacks either Figo's talent for scoring goals or his genius for seizing command of the midfield. Serra Ferrer seemed to be straining for consolation when he ventured the thought that Figo looked "sad" in the white Real shirt.

Serra Ferrer himself, the former Betis coach who has emerged from three years in the Barça backroom into the bright glare of maybe the toughest job in football, is enjoying a honeymoon with the fans. Mainly because he is not Van Gaal, from whose didactic, dictatorial approach he has sought to distance himself, repeating over and over that he believes "more in players than in systems".

That said, he has identified an extraordinarily attacking formation: 3-2-3-2. A back three, consisting in the best of cases of Frank de Boer and the Spanish internationals Abelardo and Sergi; a defensive midfielder, Cocu (or Petit), alongside a creative, back-lying midfielder, Guardiola (or Gerard); three attacking midfielders, Overmars, Gerard (or De la Peña), and the Portuguese winger Simao; two out and out forwards, Rivaldo and Kluivert (understudies: Dani and Alfonso).

The stylish Guardiola is out injured for three months following a knee operation and Gerard will take his place. This will be of no great comfort for Leeds. Gerard, at 21 generally regarded as the most exciting prospect in Spanish football, will take Guardiola's place as the creative link man. Big, tough and skilful, Gerard is a regular and often spectacular goalscorer who will play further forward when Guardiola returns.

As for Barça's appointed goalscorers, Leeds can only hope and pray that Patrick Kluivert will not play as imperiously as he did in Euro 2000 and that Rivaldo, freed of the Van Gaal shackles and told by Serra Ferrer to play his game, will fail to recover the form that earned him the title of the world's best player in 1999.

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