Something for everyone in Europe's new order

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The Independent Online

The European is, say its critics, not what it used to be, the adoption of the Champions' League format leaving it debased and overblown. No less a judge than Gary Neville, usually an acute observer of the game, declared before this season's start: "No disrespect to some of the clubs in the first group stage, but there is no point in them being there."

The European is, say its critics, not what it used to be, the adoption of the Champions' League format leaving it debased and overblown. No less a judge than Gary Neville, usually an acute observer of the game, declared before this season's start: "No disrespect to some of the clubs in the first group stage, but there is no point in them being there."

Events, and not just Manchester United's defeat in Eindhoven this week, have proved this view to be myopic and falsely romantic. The first group stage, which now enters a three-week hiatus, has already offered much, not least in the matches involving British clubs. Manchester United, Rangers and Leeds United have each scored five or more goals in one match, yet also suffered disturbing defeats, while Arsenal fans have endured the agonies of a late win over Shakhtar Donetsk and the ecstasy of Wednesday's comfortable dismissal of Lazio.

There really is something for everyone - even hapless Helsingborg. They may fail to win a single point but they will make plenty of money, gain the club and the players European-wide exposure, and learn from the experience. The memory of their qualifying-round defeat of Internazionale means it will have been worthwhile for them.

Perhaps what Neville and company mean is that clubs like Helsingborg add nothing to the competition because they cannot win it. This is fundamentally wrong. The likes of Helsingborg confer legitimacy on the competition, providing a link with its famed past which would otherwise be severed by the inclusion - to forestall a breakaway - of non-champion clubs from the powerful leagues of western Europe. Helsingborg are in the Champions' League by right, as champions of Sweden. Two seasons ago, when Manchester United won the trophy, they were there by virtue of Uefa's extended invitation, having failed to win the English title.

This year's non-champion clubs include Barcelona, Juventus, Milan and our own Arsenal and Leeds. All contribute greatly to the competition's allure, with Arsenal on Wednesday matching Leeds' exploits of the previous week in dethroning a Serie A aristocrat.

The Gunners' victory over Lazio was thoroughly deserved with credit due to both the players and Arsÿne Wenger, their manager. Lazio's high-class team rarely threatened to score and could have been beaten by a greater margin. As well as showcasing the renaissance of Dennis Bergkamp and Fredrik Ljungberg, whose goals were his first since March, the match underlined Tony Adams' importance to any team. If a timely challenge on Marcelo Salas was typical of his traditional strengths, a smart piece of covering which foiled a moment of trickery from Simone Inzaghi highlighted his defensive intelligence.

Victory put Arsenal within a result of qualifying for the second group stage, where they could be joined by Manchester United, Leeds and Rangers. Alex Ferguson's side are third in their group but, like the better-placed Rangers, have already played the tougher half of their programme. Leeds know a return victory over Besiktas in Istanbul on 18 October, coupled with a Milanese win over Barcelona in Italy, would leave them requiring just a draw from their fifth match, at home to the Catalans, to qualify.

Barcelona are the most vulnerable of the big clubs, though Bayern Munich, like Manchester United, have work to do. That such clubs could be knocked out so early shows the greater strength of the revamped competition compared to the glorious past. Look at last year's quarter-finalists: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Manchester United, Chelsea, Lazio, Bayern Munich and Porto. Compare that with the final octet from 20 years ago, during the middle of English hegemony: Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Internazionale, Liverpool, Spartak Moscow, Red Star Belgrade, CSKA Sofia and Banik Ostrava.

Last year's eight were both better and more glamourous. The real difference is seen, however, at this stage. The last 32 in 1980-81 included such luminaries as Apoel Nicosia, Dinamo Tirana, Jeunesse Esch, IBV Vestmannaeyjar and Linfield. Esbjerg, Basle and Szombierki Bytom even made it to the last 16.

To win the competition that season Liverpool played a mere nine matches, defeating OPS Oulu, Aberdeen, CSKA Sofia, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. This year's winner will have played at least 17 matches against generally stronger opposition. Real Madrid's early triumphs may have provided the legend upon which the lustre of the European Cup is based, but none of their eight victories was more hard-earned than that last year.

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