English clubs seek to consolidate good Euro start
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English football, at least in terms of European competition, has rarely had it so good. Admittedly the draw was sympathetic, but a record 10 points between the Premiership's four clubs in the Champions League from the first round of games is still a notable haul.
Even better, there is little reason to suppose this week's second set of fixtures will undermine that start. Liverpool look to have the trickiest task as they face Olympiakos in Athens on Tuesday night, but the Greek runners-up are in such decline that they have turned to a supposedly refreshed Rivaldo for inspiration. That is refreshed in the sense of not having played in Europe for a year because nobody would take a punt on him.
Away games are never bankers, but it is all but unthinkable that Arsenal, unbeaten in 47 in the Premiership, should slip up in Norway on Wednesday. Their Trondheim-based opponents Rosenborg have, quite apart from losing their opening Champions League match to Panathinaikos, recently suffered three-goal defeats to Valerenga and Odd Grenland in the league.
Chelsea's home fixture against Porto on Wednesday may be a requiem for football's innocence. Since winning the Champions League and alerting Europe's wealthier clubs to the seam of talent to be exploited at the Dragao, the Portuguese team have lost Deco, Pedro Mendes, Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Ferreira and José Mourinho but it is unlikely to cause too many sleepless nights among the Stamford Bridge hierarchy either from a footballing or a philosophical point of view. “You have to try to be professional,” said Mourinho. “You have to forget these emotional links.”
That leaves Manchester United, the only English side not to win their opener, although their recent resurgence suggests that coming from 2-0 down to force a draw against Lyon probably had the psychological effect of a victory. Ruud van Nistelrooy scored both that night, and the indications are that he is returning to form after his hernia operation. Rio Ferdinand's return from his eight-month suspension for missing a drugs test equally has done much to lift the cloud that hung over Old Trafford in the early weeks of the season.
With Wayne Rooney set to make his debut for the club against Fenerbahce on Tuesday having recovered from a broken metatarsal, it may soon have dissipated altogether. United trained on Monday with only Paul Scholes missing, a welcome contrast to the situation a month ago when as many as 11 first-teamers were absent.
“With the players returning, we're finally ready to progress as a team,” Sir Alex Ferguson said on Monday. “It's taken 10 weeks to get to what we envisaged this season to be. If we can get continuity among the back four, then with the four forwards we've got we know we'll get goals.”
Ferguson of all people, though, will not be taking the Turkish champions lightly. In 1996 Fenerbahce were the first away side to win a European tie at Old Trafford, and from the accuracy with which he described Elvir Bolic's winner, it is clear the defeat still haunts Ferguson. “I dreaded being the manager to lose the unbeaten record,” he said.
Like that anxiety, the pressure at United at present comes from the expectations raised by past performances, but it may be the case that the indifferent start to the season could work in their favour. Arsenal have a seven-point lead over United in the Premiership, meaning that, almost by default, Ferguson's priority must be Europe, which is where his own inclinations seem to have been leading him in recent years anyway.
Even more encouragingly, in Van Nistelrooy, Rooney, Alan Smith and Louis Saha, United, for the first time since the treble-winning of year of 1999, have four top-class forwards, none of them sated, a strength in depth the particular importance of which Ferguson has always stressed.
Rooney made his international debut against Turkey and was hugely impressive; if he can be as effective on his Champions League debut against Turkish opposition, it might just be a sign that the side many consider only the third best in England is the best-equipped of the English sides for European glory.