Reyes quickens the pace and the pulses

Champions' League: Spanish wonder boy can play countrymen at their own game as Arsenal fight the fallibility
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Only once in either of its incarnations have three English clubs reached the quarter-finals of the European Cup. There is reason to believe that with the run of the ball it might be about to happen again.

For many years, of course, such a feat was a mathematical impossibility. Even in the days when Football League clubs used to win the competition regularly and be invited back as holders, no country could have more than two entrants, and only twice in those days did both of England's make the last eight: in 1982 Liverpool were beaten but Aston Villa went on to take the trophy; and the following year the same two clubs both made it again, only to lose to Widzew Lodz and Juventus respectively.

Once the Champions' (sic) League was established, domination by Italy, Spain, England and Germany became the norm, with three semi-finalists from one country not unheard of. Premier League clubs have not yet achieved that, though in 2001 Leeds United, Manchester United and Arsenal raised great expectations by reaching the quarter-finals; Leeds had their finest hour (or three) in overcoming Deportivo La Coruña, but Sir Alex Ferguson fell victim to Bayern Munich's revenge for the final two years earlier and Arsène Wenger's team were squeezed out by Valencia's away goal.

Now the latter pair are back, and joined by Chelsea as 16 teams this week enter the knockout round that has replaced the second group stage. It is a rare example of a governing body putting footballing criteria ahead of financial ones, welcomed by coaches rather than accountants, though the eight clubs knocked out after the second legs in a fortnight's time may feel they have had the worst of both worlds.

As Wenger put it on Friday, looking ahead to a visit to Celta Vigo before turning his mind back to the more immediate business of yesterday's game at Stamford Bridge: "The level of football in the second group stage was always very high, but emotionally the direct knockout is more interesting. And it was a deep desire from television because the viewing audiences were not high. It will give more interest and more excitement and will ease the fixture congestion, because you play fewer games."

For Arsenal, so often bridesmaids in the competition, there is a more selfish reason to welcome the change: their justified reputation as a good cup team. "I think we can do well away from home and we have good cup experience over the years in direct knockout," Wenger added.

It is a different sort of tradition - his team's fallibility against Spanish opposition - that concerns him in relation to Tuesday's opponents. In the past five seasons Arsenal have lost individual matches to Barcelona, Deportivo (twice), Valencia (twice) and even Real Mallorca.

Despite all the foreign players in the major European leagues, there is still a discernible national style to most, which Wenger characterises in Spain's case as "slow-slow-QUICK!" Highbury is now able to see it demonstrated every week in the lithe young form of Jose Antonio Reyes, whose recent experience of playing against Celta will be invaluable to his team-mates.

The same goes for Cristiano Ronaldo, returning to Portugal with Manchester United for Wednesday's tie against Porto, now established as the dominant club in that country. "I think they bought that championship in Tesco, they get it every year," said Ferguson, claiming with some justification that his team have a harder draw than Arsenal or Chelsea.

Of Ronaldo he added: "It won't faze him playing in Portugal. Big games are in his nature. He was fantastic last week [against Manchester City] in terms of him wanting to take the ball all the time, and it doesn't matter how many times he gets tackled or kicked, he just gets up and gets on with it and wants the ball the next minute. He has been encouraged to come in and do his tricks [like] when he was at Sporting Lisbon, and there is nothing wrong with that. The important thing to remember is when is it useful and to do it when you need to do it.

"Any 18-year-old has to be directed about his game in order to get him to the highest level. It has happened to Giggs, Scholes, all the attacking players we have had, and he is exactly the same. He has displayed that many times in the last few weeks when he keeps his game quick and effective and decisive."

The United manager's main concerns are the pitch - "a mess" - and his defence, to which the same description could be applied in recent weeks. "The defensive part worries me a little, simply because of the numbers," he admitted. "In two or three games Wes Brown will be back at his best, and if we can get through this European round then Wes will be excellent for us."

After losing 2-1 in Stuttgart earlier in the campaign, his advice to Chelsea is not to let the Germans, with their almost Italianate defence, score first. Losing the return match 2-0 at Old Trafford did not matter to Felix Magath's team, of whom the Croatian Zvonimir Soldo is the only survivor on either side from the defeat by Chelsea in the Cup-Winners' Cup final of 1998.

Joe Cole, who badly needs some high-profile performances to convince Sven Goran Eriksson of his ability to produce on the big stage, says: "I've watched them play and they're a young side with lots of strong runners. They're going to make it hard for us, particularly at the Bridge.

"I think that I'd really thrive on playing, the same as I do with England, when the matches are a bit more tactical and open. The Champions' League is like that too."

Comments