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Saturday, June 14, 2003

PREMIER REPORT

Champions League to become more defensive with new format


LONDON -- The season has ground to a halt even though David Beckham's traveling circus is still touring the world, but it is time to look back on what we have learned from 2002-2003.

Christopher Davies

We found that a team can become European champion by scoring a single goal in the two semifinal ties and the final without actually winning any of the three matches over five hours of football.

In many sports it is said offense wins games, defense wins championships and if AC Milan's Champions League triumph seems proof of this theory we must remember there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

Milan "beat" Internazionale 1-1 in the semifinals on the away goal ruling and "beat" Juventus because it was better (or less worse) than its opponents from the penalty spot.

To those who say we must admire the defensive qualities of the Italians, where were these strengths when Manchester United overwhelmed Juve 3-0 in Turin in February? Or when Thierry Henry scored a hat trick against Roma in the Italian capital?

Juventus allowed 11 goals in its six second group stage ties -- one more than FC Basel and six more than United. There is no defense against such defending. Juve also qualified for the knockout stages with just eight points from a possible 18, the lowest ever total for a team advancing from the second group stage in the competition's history.

In becoming champion of Europe, Milan scored 22 goals in 17 ties. Only five times did it score more than one goal while in games against Internazionale, Bayern Munich and Lens, Milan mustered just two shots on goal in each match. These six efforts produced four goals so if nothing else its conversion ratio must be praised.

The key to Milan's success was the measly 15 goals conceded and it will be interesting to see how the pattern of the Champions League develops next season when, after the first stage, the competition goes to a sudden death knockout.

The suspicion is that defensive football will really come into its own here with away teams shutting up shop because there is no second chance as there is in a mini-league basis.

But perhaps the main lesson from the last campaign does not concern defending or attacking, simply that the difference between winning and losing . . . success and failure . . . is wafer thin. Juve, particularly, got the job done when it had to -- just barely.

From an England perspective we learned Wayne Rooney is ready for the international arena, for all the reluctance of his Everton manager David Moyes who is worried about too much, too soon for the 17-year-old.

I have no doubts about Rooney's skill, confidence or the ability of the boy to look after himself in a man's world. If there are reservations they concern two areas: the player's on-and off-field discipline.

Rooney already has a worrying number of red and yellow cards to his name after one season in the Premiership and he must channel his aggression into more positive areas and cut out the late challenges or else the player will find himself talked about for the wrong reasons.

The way Rooney handles the inevitable fish bowl existence he will experience will also shape his career, with the prying eye of the media everywhere and people with their own agendas allegedly helping the teenager but in fact just benefiting themselves.

We learned that a player's image does not necessarily affect his career prospects, at least not Jonathan Woodgate and Lee Bowyer who were involved in a court case while with Leeds after an Asian student suffered severe injuries.

Woodgate was found guilty of affray while Bowyer was cleared of all charges. Sir Bobby Robson decided to re-unite the "Leeds Two" at Newcastle, which brought the former England manager a rare round of criticism.

It was bringing Bowyer to the northeast that caused most uproar -- strange that the player cleared of all charges should be perceived as something of a social outcast rather than the one who was found guilty.

Robson's argument is that Bowyer was available on a free transfer from West Ham, was a good business move, and if Newcastle hadn't stepped in someone else would have.

How a usually supportive Newcastle following takes to Bowyer remains to be seen. However, the midfielder will not be available for the Champions League campaign which starts in August as he is serving a six-game UEFA ban for stomping on a Malaga player's head last season.

Most recently we learned that David Beckham is surplus to requirements at Manchester United and the England captain, a Red through and through, is being shown the door because Ferguson believes the player has almost become bigger than the club.

When Ferguson left Beckham out of the two biggest games of the season -- Arsenal away and Real Madrid at home -- the writing was on the wall and business-wise it may make sense if United can get £30 million for a 28-year-old.

Team Beckham will soon be on its way to the Far East courtesy of Castrol, one of his many sponsors, and Sir Alex Ferguson feels the offseason should be a time for resting rather than embarking on a world tour.

Few clubs can afford Beckham in the present transfer climate. Joan Laporta, a presidential candidate for Barcelona, has used Beckham as an election tool like a politician saying "vote for me and I'll abolish income tax."

As the Catalans are £90 million in debt, Laporta will struggle to fulfill his promise and deliver Beckham if elected on Sunday, but the problem United seems to have if it does offload the midfielder is a lack of realistic would-be buyers.

Last Monday, The Sun quoted AC Milan vice president Adriano Galliani as saying: "Beckham is our primary target. We are pursuing our objective and will do everything in our power to get him."

Within hours of Britain's best selling daily tabloid going on sale, Silvio Berlusconi, the Milan president who is also the Italian prime minister said with an unnecessarily nasty edge: "There are many better ways of spending money that has been hard earned with sacrifices other than hiring Mr. Beckham."

Presumably Galliani was: (a) misquoted by the Sun or (b) had not checked with his president about Beckham. Real Madrid, too, distanced itself from Beckham, yet United said it has had interest from Italian and Spanish clubs. Which begs the question -- who?

Having given so much to the United cause it would be a sad ending in a football sense for Beckham to be almost shown the door at Old Trafford as United appears to be doing, assuming a buyer can be found.

However, football emotions must be tempered by the £4 million Beckham would receive from United for the remainder of his two-year contract plus a similar signing on fee from any new employer.

The suspicion is that the Beckham saga is far from over and as the player will have the final say on his future it cannot be ruled out that he would prefer to stay in Manchester because the list of viable options is small.

This may be interpreted in some quarters as "Beckham Unwanted."

But the lesson Beckham has learned is that if you get on the wrong side of Ferguson you rarely have a chance to return to the right side.

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


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