Isolated amid an embarrassment of riches

Following the defeats of two champions, Glenn Moore assesses why British football is the poor man of Europe
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The Independent Online
It is just under a year since Manchester United stumbled out of the Nou Camp after being humbled by Barcelona, a damning indictment of all that was wrong with British football.

On Wednesday, an estimated 100 million television viewers may well have concluded nothing has changed and nothing has been learned. The island which gave the game to the world remains cut adrift from its modern practice.

Rangers were humiliated by Juventus in Turin just as utterly as United had been in Barcelona. Yet both teams had gone into the games on a high. Last year, United had just beaten the then leaders, Newcastle, and would be top within three weeks. This year, Rangers are already on target for an eighth successive domestic title.

They were, therefore, the best these isles had to offer. Blackburn, as they showed again on Wednesday, are simply not functioning at present. Under the current philosophy, they are even less equipped for Europe than Rangers.

Yet neither United nor Rangers made any impression on their opponents. Even taking the debilitating effects of injury, suspension and the three- foreigner rule into account, the gulf in quality was enormous. Technically and tactically, the Continental sides were so far ahead it was embarrassing.

To make things worse, their opponents were not even the best in their respective countries. Barcelona had begun slowly in Spain last season and never did catch up. They then went out in the quarter-finals of the Champions' Cup and Johan Cruyff has since dismantled the team. Juventus were well-beaten by Milan in Italy on Sunday and although favoured to reach the European Cup final, they will probably have to beat the resurgent Real Madrid in the quarter-finals first.

Blackburn, meanwhile, cannot even beat middle-ranking teams like Rosenborg Trondheim and Legia Warsaw. Their probable failure to qualify for the last eight is the fifth by English champions since the ending of the European ban. Rangers have fared little better, although they did make the equivalent of the semi-finals in 1992-93.

Paul Ince said earlier this week that the Italian game was "not as aggressive as people in England kept saying". Who? A cursory glance at Channel 4's coverage shows calcio to be far more sophisticated and less overtly aggessive than the Premiership. Now Ince, at 27, says it is too late to change his game.

In one way he is right, technique is instilled at seven, not 27. Instant cures are impossible. Some clubs are trying to bridge the gap. Manchester United are attempting to adapt their style to place greater emphasis on possession, Liverpool already do so.

Rangers began Wednesday's match with a European approach - three at the back, five in midfield. But they do not have the personnel. Until the three-foreigner rule is lifted, or Scottish football revives, they never will.

The Bosman case offers hope for the former, the latter is a more distant prospect, despite the success of the Scottish Under-21s. Of Rangers natives, only Andy Goram, Richard Gough, and possibly Ally McCoist and Alan McLaren are of European standard. Charlie Miller will be, but who else?

It is no wonder Rangers pine for a British league. For although Ajax have proved that total domestic dominance need not hinder success in the wider arena, the Dutch game is more compatible with European football as a whole than the Scottish. To pick just one aspect, the tackling allowed in Scotland bears no resemblance to that permitted in Europe - as Alex Cleland found.

Cleland and Gordon Durie (who was booked again) will be suspended from Juventus' visit to Ibrox in 12 days time. Paul Gascoigne will be fit - but so will Gianluca Vialli.

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