Russian bears in the Lions' Den

sees Millwall's new foreign policy suffer a nervous beginning
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The Independent Online
MILLWALL'S audacious attempt to exploit the open market of European football ended in anticlimax at the New Den yesterday as free enterprise was comprehensively outstripped by Port Vale's collective effort as they fought their way to a well-deserved 2-1 victory. Though neither of Millwall's Russian signings, Sergei Yuran and Vassili Kulkov, could be blamed for Millwall's failure to register their first win in 10 league games, the fevered expectation of a swollen crowd - which delayed the kick-off - seemed to unnerve the other nine players who were expected to benefit from the Russians' foreign policy.

Mick McCarthy, the Millwall manager, warned beforehand that Port Vale "had all the incentive to spoil the party", and they duly did, exploiting an anxious Millwall defence to take an early lead from Martin Foyle - before Yuran had even touched the ball - and then holding off a brief Millwall recovery to take the points with a goal just after the hour by Tony Naylor.

It would be unfair to write off Millwall's Russian experiment after just one game, but for long periods yesterday it looked like an organ transplant on a body that was beyond repair. Of the two loan signings, made in great secrecy from Spartak Moscow, Yuran had the greater effect - Kulkov being substituted immediately after Vale's second goal - playing a key part in the equaliser, and making himself busy as his confidence grew.

Against that however, the "boy neurotic" style he shares with, among others, Gabriel Batistuta, of Fiorentina, and David Ginola, of Newcastle, with his socks sagging from the start and the shirt collar up, Yuran went through a whole range of operatic gestures as shots were blocked, colleagues failed to see his run, or the referee decided against his frequent appeals.

His more relevant contributions - good work rate, quick passing and unquenchable enthusiasm - will serve him better once he can form an understanding with his fellow strikers.

Neither Chris Malkin nor Jason van Blerk could link up with him and, with Kerry Dixon promptly exiled to Watford, it was left to Alex Rae to profit from Yuran's determination. His challenge for a high ball so unnerved the Vale goalkeeper, Paul Musselwhite, that he spilled the ball to Rae who turned it home from a sharp angle.

Unfortunately, by that time, Port Vale were a goal to the good, Foyle turning home Steve Guppy's cross in the sixth minute. A replica move in the 22nd minute should have brought Foyle another but he managed to shoot wide from less than five yards.

Nevertheless, a similar sweet passing move down the right in the second half left Naylor space to turn Jon McCarthy's cross home. Kulkov, who had drifted around midfield to little effect, got the nod for the first use of the buff - then his last match had been in early December in the Champions' League.

The Russians' decision to take up the Millwall offer rather than hang on for a glamorous European Cup quarter-final in March against Nantes can only be attributed to money. Spartak, despite their success, never enjoyed the backing from the army, the secret police or an industrial company that their rivals did, so their players have always had an eye on the West. But yesterday's performance must leave some doubt as to whether the two Russian bears can lift the Lions.