Bergkamp confounds his rivals, then consults the atlas
Sunday 22 September 2002
Such was the velocity with which Arsène Wenger's Arsenal careered through Borussia Dortmund's rearguard on Tuesday night that the garish yellow-clad visitors were reduced to motorway cone-men transfixed by life in the European fast lane. You half-expected the flash of a police traffic camera.
These north London joy-riders are stopping for no one. Suddenly the Gunners have the appearance of serious contenders for the Champions' League trophy as well as the Premiership, a team who can overcome the physical demands of the domestic season but who, on a midweek European night, have shown that they can adopt that continental style which demands patience and attacks launched on the counter.
There is a joie de jouer about them epitomised by Dennis Bergkamp, whose appreciation of the movement of a team-mate and ability to release the ball with supreme finesse does not decline with the passing of years. So great has been the gorging on the patterns and instinctive inter-passing, the Highbury faithful are in danger of becoming aesthetically obese. Unlike Manchester United, whose critics blithely ignore the fact their midfield was deprived of Roy Keane, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt on Wednesday, Arsenal are ominously approaching full strength again, with only Robert Pires and Giovanni van Bronckhorst yet to return.
Even when injuries present themselves, Wenger has the uncanny knack of producing alternatives magician-like, like so many doves from a hat, and somehow ensuring that performers like Jérémie Aliadière and Kolo Touré are assimilated into his teams, with barely a seam visible in his carefully sewn cloth.
But let us dwell a moment. We have witnessed similar home displays before – Arsenal's 4-1 eclipse of Bayer Leverkusen last season comes to mind – to warn us of the perils of over-estimation. Arsenal were defeated in no fewer than five of six away fixtures in Europe last season – they drew the other against Leverkusen – which made for distinctly unpalatable viewing for Wenger.
Liverpool, fortunate to return from Valencia only lightly scathed after the Argentinian Pablo Aimar had demonstrated what he might have inflicted on England had he enjoyed 90 minutes this summer, and an anaemic Newcastle in the Ukraine reminded us just what a hostile environment travels in Europe can produce.
That is why a more accurate meter of Arsenal will be provided by Guus Hiddink's PSV Eindhoven on Wednesday. And, as much as the Gunners' attackers may have us salivating, it is prudent to remind ourselves that, if they are to progress beyond the Champions' League quarter-finals, much will hinge on the defensive resilience of the England pair, Martin Keown and Sol Campbell.
The lesson should not be ignored, as Liverpool taught English teams bearing European aspirations in the Eighties, that defensive security away from home is paramount. It still applies in today's prolonged competition.
To some Highbury watchers, the former captain Tony Adams' retirement has destroyed the foundations of that once-formidable back-four wall. But there has been sufficient evidence this season, and particularly on Tuesday, to refute that argument. Keown's often belligerent manner is not always appreciated by his opponents, but confronted by the towering menace of the 6ft 7in Jan Köller he demonstrated what he still offers Arsenal, despite being a few months older than Adams. Indeed, after a World Cup in which he warmed his backside on the bench, he approaches his responsibilities with an ever-more demonic zeal.
Campbell, of course, did see action in Japan, but his performances tended to suffer in comparison with Rio Ferdinand. He, too, is a man with a mission and demonstrated his value against resourceful opposition.
Unlike Freddie Ljungberg's smart new haircut, Matthias Sammer's team were not exactly short, back and sides. The talented young defender Christoph Metzelder and goalkeeper Jens Lehmann summoned an impressive resistance, and there was sufficient wing service for Köller to keep Campbell and Keown occupied. It explained why they are German champions, albeit of a Bundesliga which suffered excruciatingly in the Champions' League last week.
While the victories of all four Spanish clubs confirm La Liga's predominant status in Europe, there were dark expressions in the vicinity of the Rühr, the Rhine and in deepest Bavaria as Sammer, Klaus Toppmöller and Ottmar Hitzfeld contemplated a hat-trick of German defeats. However, Manchester United, who travel to Toppmöller's Bayer Leverkusen on Tuesday, will be wary of basing any assumptions on their 6-2 away defeat by Olympiakos. True, last season's defeated finalists have lost Michael Ballack and Ze Roberto to Bayern Munich (much good that it did Hitzfeld's team, beaten at home by Deportivo La Coruña), but United themselves are indifferent travellers in Europe. Last season, they won only two of their six group stage away games and were, of course, eliminated in the semi-final in the German chemical city. It remains a bitter pill for Sir Alex Ferguson, one that he will be pleased to spit out in this rematch.
Meanwhile, England's defeated Champions' League teams, Liverpool and Newcastle, will relish respective home games against Christian Gross's Basel on Wednesday and Feyenoord on Tuesday.
But eyes will be principally on the big two after a week of direction-finding, one in which Bergkamp consulted his route-planner for the quickest road and sea journey to Eindhoven while Diego Forlan's lengthy spell of orienteering finally found him the back of the visitors' net.
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