The Brazilian master classes

The gifts of Rivaldo and Silvinho have lit up a belittled competition
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The Independent Online

It will take much to restore the severely diminished standing of the dumbed-down European Cup, a competition which has now come to be regarded as the Chumpions' League. Two Brazilians just about achieved that last week as they decorated the competition with a veneer of eminence that it scarcely deserves.

It will take much to restore the severely diminished standing of the dumbed-down European Cup, a competition which has now come to be regarded as the Chumpions' League. Two Brazilians just about achieved that last week as they decorated the competition with a veneer of eminence that it scarcely deserves.

Uefa should be thankful for the outrageous skills of Sylvio Mendes Campos Junior andRivaldo Vito Borba Ferreira, whom the public will remember long after they have forgotten the paucity of the early stages of the 2000-01 version of this once elite event. The wiles of the latter, who fully justified his epithet of World Player of the Year with his embarrassment of Leeds at the Nou Camp on Tuesday night, are only too familiar. But not so the former, who through last season and this has demonstrated yet again what an astute prospector of talent Arsÿne Wenger has become. And how intelligently he deploys it.

Silvinho arrived at Highbury from Corinthians of his home city, São Paolo, last June for a relatively modest £4m in a summer import consignment that also included Oleg Luzhny and Stefan Malz. Yet, instead of immediately immersing the defenders Silvinho and Luzhny into the maelstrom of Premiership activity, at the expense of two stalwarts of that redoubtable Arsenal back four, Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon, the Frenchman has introduced them with commendable patience.

In the Brazilian international Silvinho, whose urchin features belie his 26 years, he has unearthed a left-sided defender capable of accurate crosses and who also possesses all the craft of a midfielder, and the predatory attributes of a born striker. It evoked the touch of another South American - Ricky Villa scoring for Tottenham in the 1981 FA Cup final - in the manner that he beguiled three Sparta Prague defenders after a vapid half hour before almost nonchalantly prodding the ball past goalkeeper Tomas Postulka.

That moment, entirely at odds with what had preceded it, was all about delicacy of control after goals in the preceding Premiership games against Charlton and Chelsea had represented the harnessing of remarkable power in that wiry frame. On a night when Thierry Henry lacked his customary executioner's edge, Arsenal were indebted to the defender's intervention. "I know my first job is to defend, but the manager encourages me to go forward when I can and that is what I have tried to do," said Silvinho, who is anticipating that his form could result in selection for Brazil in their World Cup qualifiers.

Lazio's 3-0 triumph over Shakhtar Donetsk places them top of Group B. Arsenal face the group outsiders at home on Wednesday, expecting to win as convincingly and maintain pressure on the Rome side, whom they face next.

Donetsk are one of several clubs whose presence in such a competition is questionable. Despite that stirring theme, Tony Britten's "The Champions", which accompanies the emergence of teams into the stadium, many of these first-phase fixtures have proved themselves to uncompetitive, notably Rangers' destruction of Sturm Graz and Manchester United's facile defeat of Anderlecht. As United's Gary Neville declared: "No disrespect to some of the clubs in the first group stage, but there is no point them being there. We have to make sure the competition is not over-exposed."

Unfortunately, it is already too late. The financial benefit of creating a 32-club contest - which means United or Arsenal will play 17 games if they reach the final - has outweighed all other considerations, to the palpable detriment of quality.

From a British perspective it has, of course, given Leeds the opportunity to tread hitherto unexplored roads. However, in a group containing Barcelona and Milan what the psychological effect such defeats as Tuesday's 4-0 reverse will have on their domestic campaign remains to be seen. European experience is one thing; being punished and belittled by the behemoth of Barcelona is quite another. They are not the first club to discover that attempts to inhibit the influence of Rivaldo, either by studious man-marking or over-zealous tackling, is futile. Having attempted, in vain, to put his mark on Rivaldo in only the first minute, and later being cautioned for a two-footed challenge on Philip Cocu, the darker side of Alan Smith's nature was, disappointingly, the talking point afterwards. It should have been his snake-like ability to wriggle free of his markers.

As for midfielder Olivier Dacourt, the closer he got to his prey the better Rivaldo relished it, such is the languid Brazilian's perception and majestic agility. As for Rivaldo's "dummy" of Michael Duberry in scoring Barcelona's first goal it was so audacious even the most avid visiting supporter could only have been filled with admiration. Having changed to a central position behind Patrick Kluivert under new coach Llorenc Serra Ferrer after being forced to play on the left by Louis Van Gaal, the Brazilian's gifts are even more visible this season. "Everything is different because of the new coach," said Rivaldo. "Now I am happy with my position. It is where I always wanted to play."

Meanwhile for Leeds, this inaugural Champions' League season will almost certainly be no more than an education. They would find it a daunting environment even if they weren't desperately weakened by injuries. It is to be hoped that this first year at the school of hard knocks doesn't conclude in too many thrashings.

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