Rivaldo's worth now has a keener edge

Tim Collings sees Barcelona underline their threat to United
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The Independent Online

Patrick Kluivert may have sported a newly-shaven look, but there was nothing bald, or featureless, about his or Barcelona's performance on Wednesday night at the Nou Camp. The European Cup favourites, without touching their refulgent best, dazzled quite brightly to fire five goals against Sparta Prague and ensure they are on course for a place in the quarter-finals when the Champions' League second phase resumes in earnest, for them, on 1 March next year.

Patrick Kluivert may have sported a newly-shaven look, but there was nothing bald, or featureless, about his or Barcelona's performance on Wednesday night at the Nou Camp. The European Cup favourites, without touching their refulgent best, dazzled quite brightly to fire five goals against Sparta Prague and ensure they are on course for a place in the quarter-finals when the Champions' League second phase resumes in earnest, for them, on 1 March next year.

"We felt we needed a performance after a few not-so-good league games recently," said the dashing Kluivert after his fine leadership of the attack, and two well-taken goals, had inspired Louis van Gaal's team to victory, albeit against a team reduced to 10 men after 38 minutes. "That was more like it. We know what we can do and other people know too. So, it is just a matter of us keeping fit and in reasonable form and then, with luck, the results should follow."

Whatever sums are paid to Roy Keane, Catalansargue that it is not Manchester United's Irishman but Barcelona's Span-iard Guardiola who deserves the accolade of Europe's top midfielder. Kluivert, like the fans, feels much the same. In a team that can also boast distinguished creative forces such as Figo, Luis Enrique and Rivaldo, it is a tribute indeed that he is adjudged the fulcrum of their success.

"When you see Barcelona playing well, you see Guardiola in control of everything," said Barça's former striker-turned-television pundit Hristo Stoichkov. "For me, he is one of the best players in the world, probably the best in his position; so influential. His goal, from that free-kick, was as good as one by Ronald Koeman. This is a brilliant team. It has everything. And, of course, it has Rivaldo."

While Keane celebrated his pay rise and David Beckham presented his own notable credentials to be declared Euro-pean Footballer of the Year, Guardiola and Rivaldo were staking their claims, but in a vastly different atmosphere. Indeed, while the midfielder stamped his authority on the proceedings and swerved a wicked free-kick over the Czech defensive wall to the departed coach Koeman's delight, Rivaldo had to play through spells of intermittent whistling from local supporters unhappy at learning, with questionable accuracy, that he was holding the club to ransom.

Rivaldo, whose four-year-old son Rivaldinho has started to gain as much publicity as his father for various promotional appearances, made it clear afterwards that he has no intention of leaving (Roma are reported to have lodged a bid of £26mand put the cash into a Spanish bank on deposit). But he did little to rebuff the impression that he is not satisfied with his income. "He is the star player and he scores goals," said Stoichkov. "He is the best player in the world. He deserves all he can get."

If these undercurrents of envy and unrest suggest that Keane's deal has begun to unsettle players elsewhere, Rivaldo was not the man to deny it, even though United's bid to sign him last autumn was undone by the board's reluctance to meet the asking price. On the pitch, however, and wherever he was seen around the stadium, Rivaldo looked a happy man, unladen by such problems even if his form was not as stupendous as it has been. Not only did he fail to score, but with his one reasonable opening, he shot against a post. Even Rivaldo is human.

"He played well, well enough for me," Van Gaal said. "It is not easy for anyone to play at the standards he sets every week. The team did very well. It was a great result and a good performance. Now we must sort out our league form a little. It is difficult for us because in the Spanish league we are not as motivated as in the Champions' League, and for the other clubs playing against Barcelona, it is like us playing in Europe." Ask Gianluca Vialli or Alex Ferguson if that sounds familiar...

For Stoichkov, Rivaldo is not only the best player in Europe, but potentially their key to success in pursuit of a second European Cup triumph in the final in Paris next May. "I told him I was voting for him and, as always, he smiled," he said. "He always smiles. Football and his family are everything for him. If he is not troubled by the stories, he can be so great. Already, I know, Ronaldo has told him not to leave Barcelona - he told him he made a mistake when he went to Milan."

For Stoichkov, Barcelona are favourites along with Manchester United and Lazio. Chelsea, he said, did not figure and Real Madrid, the 1998 winners for a record seventh time, have little chance.

To judge from watching Madrid, superbly prompted by Fernando Redondo, overcome Rosenberg on Tuesday and then Barça crush Sparta on Wednesday, the Catalans have the class, cutting edge, strength and temperament to go all the way, as their goalscoring form suggests. In eight European games they have struck 25 goals (including four at Wembley against Arsenal). United, even with Keane settled at their hub, have a challenge on their hands if they are to retain the trophy.

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