James Lawton: Robben the artistic apprentice recognises sorcerer's mastery

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Arjen Robben was scrupulously polite but quite firm in the radio interview going out to the nation. No, he did not think he was quite on the level of Johan Cruyff and, yes, astounding though it might seem, he thought it quite possible that he could improve on his current level of form.

Arjen Robben was scrupulously polite but quite firm in the radio interview going out to the nation. No, he did not think he was quite on the level of Johan Cruyff and, yes, astounding though it might seem, he thought it quite possible that he could improve on his current level of form.

Thank heavens for such flashes of perspective from the oldest-looking 21-year-old in the history of the world.

Robben is a brilliant young player and prime candidate, along with his Chelsea team-mates John Terry and Frank Lampard, to annex the Footballer of the Year awards. On his present form, that is. He also pointed out that everything still has to be won this season, a whole lot can happen yet, and if his form could be said to be around 85 per cent of its potential, the next challenge facing him was, logically, to get it up to 95 per cent.

Ah logic! Sweet, elusive logic and some idea of yourself removed at least a little way from the dead centre of the universe.

It is uplifting to see it cut so effortlessly through some of the wilder assumptions of today's football. On the lips of someone so young, but so clearly attuned to the challenge in front of him, it had the force of a gale. Could we not have done with a little of it last season, for example, when Arsenal were being extolled as possibly the greatest club side in the history of English football?

When Robben was born, Cruyff was moving into legend but it was legend that had been recorded on film and so a smart young Dutchman could appraise easily enough the quality of his most famous footballing compatriot.

Robben, like the rest of his generation, could also see the quality of men who came after Cruyff, a striker of the deadly facility of Marco van Basten, a playmaker of sumptuous skill and riveting athleticism like Ruud Gullit. Who knows, he might also have been quite impressed by Dennis Bergkamp.

The Tottenham manager, Martin Jol, remembered such players after suggesting last week that Robben, if not yet on a par with the master, was possibly the best footballer to come out of the Netherlands since Cruyff. With admirable respect for past achievements, Jol quickly qualified his statement.

Here it seems we have quite a bit to learn from the Dutch presence. In giving Cruyff to the world they also gave a superb vision of how the game should be played, and assessed, and it is maybe one of the great sadnesses of the world game that that the total football fathered by Rinus Michels was never rewarded with a World Cup triumph.

But always the Dutch will have Cruyff, whose place alongside such as Pele and Maradona was achieved by a deathless combination of elegant skill and dazzling intellect.

Cruyff could dissect a game more perfectly than any of his contemporaries and if his vain but exquisite brilliance in the 1974 World Cup final against West Germany in Munich is best remembered across the world, in England we maybe saw the defining performance. It was at Wembley when he beat England without crossing the half-way line. He feinted, he swayed, and every pass he delivered was lacerating.

Even without the intervening work of Gullit and Van Basten and, on his very best days, Bergkamp, the ranking of Robben alongside Cruyff would be embarrassing. This is no slight on the youngster. His contribution since arriving in the summer has been marvellous. He is quick, skilled and quite nerveless around the box. He is a winger of the highest class, and that would be true in any age of the game. However, Cruyff was a sorcerer operating in another dimension.

On the Sunday before his triumph at Wembley his dismissal at Nou Camp, during, a routine league match for his club, Barcelona, against Malaga, sparked a riot. A pack of fans ran on to the field. They were led by a large man bounding along on crutches. When he reached the terrified referee he swung back his right hand, thus losing the support of one of his crutches, and slowly toppled back on to the turf. A great roar of laughter swept around the ground, but did not dissipate the pain of losing the play of the great man for just one night. Outside the ground television vans went up in flames.

Such was the impact of the player they called the Golden Dutchman. However he lit up the sky, whether it was with the fire of those rioting fans or the beauty of his play, he was an artist of football, unchartable and unique. Meanwhile, Robben looks at himself with great maturity and sees a young player of daunting ability and tremendous application. Not the least of his glories is that he, apparently better than anyone, sees the distinction.

Benitez needs breathing space to build a new empire

With all respect to the legitimate aspirations of Watford, it is not hard admitting to the hope that Liverpool survive the Carling Cup semi-final tonight.

It is a flimsy trinket, no doubt, but reaching the final will give Rafael Benitez a little breathing space. It is, after a run of sickening misfortune, the least he deserves.

Yes, it is true most of his Spanish legion of signings have failed to light up Anfield. No doubt he miscalculated the level of difficulty presented by the catastrophic FA Cup tie at Burnley. Unquestionably, Liverpool were wretched at Southampton on Saturday, but that was one week in the life of a brilliantly successful football coach - a week that started with a narrow defeat by Manchester United. Gérard Houllier had five years and more than a £100m to work a revolution. Benitez has had barely five months.

Until the injury to his best signing, the playmaker Xabi Alonso, Liverpool were showing some of the quality that had been absent for so long. They beat Arsenal, thrillingly, and had some rough luck, and a refereeing error, in the close-run duel with Chelsea. Benitez, for the moment at least, deserves more than a wolf pack at his throat.

Not even Lewis can fight the cruellest delusion

When Shoeless Joe Jackson, of the Chicago Black Sox, went to court on the charge that he had thrown a World Series, an urchin in the crowd was said to have cried: "Say it ain't so."

That is precisely what you wanted to say to Lennox Lewis this last weekend on reading reports that the former world heavyweight champion had agreed to return to the ring at the age of 40 in exchange for $21m (£11.2m).

Yesterday Lewis issued a formal denial, saying: "I want to reiterate what I said when I retired that I would be one of the few heavyweight champions to retire at the top - and stay retired."

Plainly, Lewis is tempted. He does not have a high opinion of Vitali Klitschko, who is universally recognised as the best heavyweight currently at work. He believes he is infinitely more talented than the big man from Ukraine, and this is no doubt true.

But it is not a question of talent. Back in Los Angeles 18 months ago, there was no doubt Lewis was still much the more gifted fighter. You do not lose your gifts. But the years do terrible things to them, and nowhere do they become more useless than in the ring. Lewis holds on to the belief that though he was losing on every card when the fight was stopped after six rounds, he would have overwhelmed Klitschko in the later rounds. Maybe, maybe not.

The truth that will not go away from that night in California is that Lewis looked terrible. He plainly had not done enough work in the gym but there was evidence of more general erosion. He will be nearly two and a half years older if he does get back in the ring with Klitschko. That alone makes the idea unbridled folly.

Lewis does not need the money and, if he is the man one has always hoped he is, he does not need any reinforcement of the great deeds of the past.

For most of his career Lewis was a shining light of decency in a morally beleaguered business. He did not run away from dangerous opponents. But he may yet be carried out, another great champion caught in the cruellest delusion of sport. You cannot beat age. The best you can do is handle it gracefully.