World Cup countdown: Silk road for iron man Hierro

Andrew Longmore fears that Europe's abundance of riches is a worry for England
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The Independent Online
IT was a sobering thought, sitting high up in the pleasuredome of the self-styled capital of football last week, that way back in the bright days of autumn Manchester United were considered favourites to lift the European Cup. The memories of such flights of fantasy were fleetingly rekindled on the video screen by the goals of Andy Cole and Ryan Giggs, both considered sweet enough to merit a place in the tournament's top 10.

Giggs' incisive run through the inside left channel and emphatic shot past Angelo Peruzzi, the Juventus goalkeeper, summarised the joys of ambition just as effectively as the next clip - David Trezeguet's bullet for Monaco after six minutes at Old Trafford - rammed home the realities of failure. Arsene Wenger computed information for Arsenal's European campaign from a seat in the stand; Alex Ferguson, the old campaigner, had gone on holiday. Europe can wait a while.

United paid for their passive performance in the away leg of their quarter- final against Monaco, who were subsequently dismantled by Juventus, but Ferguson will take heart from the comment made by Jupp Heynckes in the aftermath of Real Madrid's deserved and long-awaited return to the pinnacle of European football.

"We did not have enough balance throughout the squad to compete in both the League and the Champions' League," the German said. "That is my opinion, others may not have noticed it." The Glaswegian equivalent of a hearty "hear, hear" would surely echo down the corridors of Old Trafford as United's accountants at last start to untie the purse strings. United were caught short at a critical moment in the season.

The view, volunteered rather than prompted by Heynckes, might be just another shot in the continuing war of attrition between him and his disgruntled president, Lorenzo Sanz, who dispatched his coach to the most important match of Real Madrid's recent history with the following vote of confidence: "He [Heynckes] will not be here next season, even if we win the Cup. I am sick of the attitude of the players and sick and tired of having to sort things out on the training ground." Heynckes gained his revenge, not just in guiding Real to their first European Cup (aka Champions' League final) for 32 years, but in sending on every available substitute in the closing minutes bar Fernando Sanz, the president's son who had been dropped.

"I must be the first coach of a European Cup winning side to be asked whether he is leaving," Heynckes said afterwards. "The question is better directed at the president." Ferguson does not have his ultimate prize yet, but he still has a wage packet. Deportivo La Coruna is likely to be the next stop for Heynckes.

Though the comparison was essentially unfair, the neatness of the European Cup final contrasted with the litter of our domestic offering four days before. With 18 potential World Cup participants and a conservative pounds 180m worth of talent crammed on to the Yorkshire-grown turf in the Amsterdam ArenA, this was impressionist masterpiece set against Wembley's blotting- paper doodle. Inevitably, expectations were left unfulfilled. Too many of the matchwinners were below par - Alessandro Del Piero ("La Grande Delusione" as La Gazetta dello Sport, the Italian sports daily, put it alongside a desultory mark of five out of 10) and Zinedine Zidane for Juventus, Morientes and Raul for Real - to divine any logical portents for the World Cup.

Instead, the tifosi were given an extraordinary exhibition of the art of modern defending by Fernando Hierro, the Real centre-back who missed a vital penalty against England at Wembley in Euro 96. Imagine Tony Adams with a more subtle footballing education and you have Hierro. The video should be shipped to Messrs Adams, Keown, Campbell and Southgate as a practical illustration of the points made by the World Cup referee Paul Durkin to the England squad at Bisham last week. Hierro's dominance of Filippo Inzaghi and Del Piero, the scorers of 16 goals in the Champions' League this season, was based on the essential defender's weapons of anticipation and timing, on speed of thought and action, not the lumbering charge from behind which has too often characterised English notions of defence. Winning the ball back, so much part of the fun of the Premiership, will be a complex art in France; the premium will be on keeping it in the first place. Hence Durkin's acute assessment that the team who win the fair play award - England in 1990 as it happens - might well win the tournament.

For all their attacking prowess, Real conceded just one goal in the five matches of the knockout stage and only five overall. Juventus too defend instinctively in numbers, a relationship of roughly one new defender for every second of an opponent's possession in critical areas of the field. As Morientes twisted and turned on the edge of the penalty area in the second half, seven Juventus players converged like corpuscles to a cut.

The danger for the game is that in anaesthetising the tackle, the authorities will encourage excessive caution rather than fluent passing and free thinking. Whether Juventus were inhibited by tension for the second year in succession or, as coach Marcello Lippi suggested, merely beaten by the better side on the night, the truth was that too many of their creative players failed to throw the dice. Zidane, in particular, was a disappointment. For the first 20 minutes, he threatened to turn the game's designer collection into a personal catwalk, but once the admirable Redondo - inexplicably discarded by Argentina - had anchored the midfield and Raul had finished his argument with Heynckes over where he should be playing, Zidane was gently ushered down deadend street, conjuring neither telling cross nor decisive strike from a hatful of possession. With his influence stifled, Juventus waned.

In calculating England's prospects next month, it would be wise to note that while we try to prop up the one-man vice squad known as Paul Gascoigne, Aime Jacquet, the coach of France, is scratching his thinning grey hair and wondering whether to leave out Vieira, Petit, Karembeau, Zidane or Deschamps. And Seedorf and Davids, the Surinam twins who just about cancelled each other out on Wednesday, will be paired in the Dutch midfield behind Bergkamp. And Hierro, whose name means "iron", will be marshalling the Spanish defences.

If Real's victory over Juventus took the competition back to square one, to the great hegemony established by Di Stefano in the Fifties, it also emphasised the ephemeral nature of modern club football. In the first 25 years of the European Cup, only 11 teams won the title. On Wednesday, Real became the 11th different winner in the last 13 years. Only Milan (champions in 1989, 1990 and 1994) have bucked the trend. Juventus, finalists for the past three years and the 1996 champions, have come close. The roulette wheel spins faster each season, the stakes get higher and all manner of temptation will be put in the path of those who shine in the shopwindow of France.

The matchwinning goal by the Montenegran, Predrag Mijatovic, can be calculated in multi-millions by the Spanish accountants who are trying to salvage something from the financial wreckage of a footballing superpower. Victory makes the re- purchase of the club's marketing and merchandising rights, planned for the close season and already approved by the members, even more of a priority. No wonder Mijatovic was feted throughout the city. Wisely, he dedicated his goal to the club president, also to his six-year-old son, who is seriously ill with a brain tumour. "I will have to explain it to him later," he said. When he does, it will be a tale worth telling.