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Saturday, April 5, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Real Madrid vs. Manchester United as good as it gets


LONDON -- Arsene Wenger did not need a second to think about his answer.

Christopher Davies

"The best football is not in the World Cup but the Champions League," said the Arsenal manager, "The World Cup may unite a nation more but apart from two, maybe three games the standard in the Champions League is far higher. It's fantastic. You have the best players in the world playing. The coaches have been working with the players for months. The Champions League sees the best football, no doubt."

And it doesn't come much better than Real Madrid vs. Manchester United next Tuesday which is one of four mouth-watering quarterfinals that Wenger will watch with envy after Arsenal was knocked out of the competition by Valencia.

With respect to Ajax vs. AC Milan, Inter Milan vs. Valencia and Juventus vs. Barcelona, the tie between Real and United is the star of the show, the top of a very good bill and a match that any self-respecting football supporter will watch.

Ironically most people in Spain will be cheering for United, while in England many will be rooting for Real. Both clubs are, at the same time, the most popular and most loathed in their own country, an emotion borne out of jealousy of continued success and an arrogance that comes with this.

United may not have dominated English football in the way that Real has ruled in Spain, though since the inception of the Premier League in 1992-93 only Blackburn once and Arsenal twice have won the Championship.

In 1999, United memorably completed a historic treble of the league championship, F.A. Cup and Champions League but its achievements pale into insignificance when compared with those of Real.

The madridistas have won nine European Cups, 28 Spanish titles and more domestic cups than they care to remember.

There is an understandable belief in the Spanish capital that this year the Dream Team, whose lineup contains three European Footballers of the Year and is good enough to intimidate most opponents, will make it a perfect 10.

However, Real's form in the Champions League this season has been far from impressive, with some observers believing that the early rounds are almost too easy for a team whose substitutes would walk into most other sides.

Indeed, had Lokomotiv Moscow's Brazilian striker Julio Cesar not missed the most open of open goals in stoppage time in the final second group stage tie in Russia, it would have been Borussia Dortmund and not Real which would have advanced to the last eight.

Now that we are at the business end of the Champions League we will probably see the real Real. As former Celtic manager Jock Stein once said, you qualify in your boiler suit and then put on your tuxedo.

United has won every game its first team has played in this season's Champions League, the two losses coming when Sir Alex Ferguson gave youth its chance against Maccabi Haifa and FC Basel.

In Ruud van Nistelrooy United has the 2002-2003 leading goal-scorer and the experience United has gained since losing to Madrid three years ago will, Ferguson believes, serve them well this time.

"We played with our hearts rather than our heads then," he said. "Hopefully we will have taken something out of that disappointment and be more aware of what's going on this time.

"It's a fantastic draw against Europe's most successful club of all time. It's for moments like this I decided not to retire [last season].

"The thought of going to the Bernabeu Stadium, coming away with a good result and saying 'that's an achievement' is what it's all about. This is why you are involved in European football and this is why you are involved in the game."

Real is happy to play United, believing Barcelona or Valencia would have provided different and more demanding opponents, but then Madrid has made a habit of getting what it wants.

Its famous five of Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Luis Figo, Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos are the Hollywood superstars of a very accomplished production where midfielder Claude Makelele is one of the best supporting acts in football.

The big names are worth their weight in replica jerseys but the miracle is that Vicente Del Bosque, who looks more like the coach driver than the coach, has managed to control all the big egos. Word has it that captain Fernando Hierro is a very significant influence on team matters and, even at 35, the defender means as much to the side as ZZ and company.

Last week Real made noises about how it would like to sign David Beckham, thus adding even more spice to a quarterfinal that needed no extra PR to sell it. If it is serious, Posh Spice had better start learning Spanish because Real invariably gets its man.

It was "impossible" to sign Luis Figo from the deadliest of rivals Barcelona. No way would Juventus part with Zidane. And Inter was adamant that Ronaldo was going nowhere. Look where they are now.

Perhaps Beckham will be saying adios to Manchester but in the meantime the England captain is on a revenge mission against Real -- and what better way to impress would-be buyers than helping your present team knock your potential employers out of the Champions League?

There was never any chance of a Republic of Ireland supporter taking off his shirt or going even further will a full monty in Georgia as the teams met in Tbilisi last Saturday.

Apart from the sub-zero temperatures the traveling fans were warned they could be shot for any excessive exposure.

A leaflet handed to Irish supporters as they arrived in Tbilisi read: "Irish fans should be careful to respect local norms of behavior and refrain from activity which might cause offense to their Georgian hosts.

"Georgians have a highly developed sense of their own dignity and can react strongly if offended. This, combined with the prevalence of firearms in Georgia, means a supporter who removes his shirt in a bar can expect to be the cause of a fight and a person who exposes himself any further runs the risk of being shot."

The Irish fans, as ever, behaved impeccably and did not indulge in any activity which might cause offense -- which is more than can be said of the home supporters.

Ireland players were pelted with missiles during the game, which the Republic won 2-1.

Kevin Kilbane was struck on the arm by a penknife -- thankfully the "closed" end. A ball bearing hit Gary Breen on the head, Lee Carsley was the target of a family-sized bottle of fizzy thrown at him, while a vodka bottle smashed against a post -- the UEFA observer at the match had the broken neck of the bottle in his case as evidence.

While all this was going on the police -- there were 3,000 of them inside the stadium -- stood around taking no action, possibly keeping a watchful eye for any Irish supporter committing the far more serious crime of taking off his shirt.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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