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Saturday, May 3, 2008

PREMIER REPORT

English clubs continue to flex muscles in Europe


LONDON — England's national team may not be traveling anywhere in Europe this summer, but the two best teams in the Premier League will meet in an English derby in the Champions League final in Moscow on May 21.

Christopher Davies

Whatever the failings of England, English clubs, reinforced by overseas aid, rule Europe.

The continuing success of Premier League teams in the Champions League has seen England overtake Spain as the No. 1 country in UEFA's rankings — the first time this has happened since the ill-fated European Cup final between Liverpool and Juventus 23 years ago, when English clubs were banned for five years.

And Chelsea, which meets Manchester United in the Moscow final later this month, is the top-rated team in Europe.

This season eight Premier League clubs were in Europe, including Tottenham, Bolton, Everton and Blackburn in the UEFA Cup.

Along with Chelsea, United, Liverpool and Arsenal in the Champions League, the English clubs have lost only 11 of 75 ties including qualifiers — and two of those defeats were in all-English ties.

Such success is no guarantee of magnificence at midnight in Moscow, where the final kicks off at 10:45 p.m. local time. If the game is like last year's F.A. Cup final between the two clubs, we will start surfing channels at halftime.

If it is like last month's Premier League match at Stamford Bridge, which Chelsea won 2-1, even blinking will risk missing an incident.

The two Champions League finals between teams from the same country — Real Madrid vs. Valencia and AC Milan vs. Juventus — have been less than enthralling.

Real's win was too one-sided, while the all-Italian clash was sterile.

The quarterfinal ties between Arsenal and Liverpool, and the semifinal between Liverpool and Chelsea were, to the surprise of most, memorable occasions full of flowing football, drama and the odd controversy to add extra spice.

More of the same in Moscow, please.

Neutrals in England have a dilemma — most would prefer both teams to lose.

United has been, at the same time, the most popular and least popular club in England — the most because of its huge fan base, the least because of jealousy and resentment, such support and their continued success brings.

However, few would argue it plays far more attractive football than Chelsea, which, remarkably, did not have a single representative in the Professional Footballers' Association's Team of the Season.

United had three — Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Chelsea is disliked because of the unlimited financial resources, courtesy of Roman Abramovich, who will see his club play the biggest game in its history, in his country's capital.

To Russia with love.

And sorry to harp on about it, but given the £300 million spent on players, Chelsea should be more pleasant on the eye than pragmatic.

Also, in Didier Drogba, Chelsea has the complete center-forward who was magnificent in the 3-2 win over Liverpool on Wednesday night.

Despite never being cautioned for simulation, Drogba has a largely deserved reputation as a diver, which was highlighted by Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez before the tie at Stamford Bridge, the Spaniard blind to the similar antics of his own captain, Steven Gerrard.

Manager Avram Grant cannot win, even when Chelsea wins. After a victory, people say that Chelsea should win given the players it has, which is true.

But when Chelsea loses — not too often, just five times in his 51 games in charge — Grant, not the players, was pilloried.

Grant has achieved what the popular Jose Mourinho never did, which is to lead Chelsea to the Champions League final, which makes it "Mourinho's team" plus Nicolas Anelka.

True, Grant does not have Mourinho's charisma (which included good, bad and ugly), but then neither did Sir Alf Ramsey, who led England to World Cup glory in 1966.

However, whatever, one's feelings about Chelsea, there could not have been a fan anywhere who was not touched by Frank Lampard's personal triumph against Liverpool.

Pat, the mother he adored, died the previous week, but not only did Lampard play on Wednesday, he fulfilled his role as penalty taker in extra time with the score 1-1.

It would have been easy to hand the task to Michael Ballack, because Germans don't miss penalties, but Lampard passes the ball not the buck.

As the ball hit the back of the net, Lampard looked to the heavens, took off his black armband, kissed it and placed it on his heart.

If ever actions spoke louder than words, this was the moment.

* * * * *

ONE PLAYER who seems allergic to words is Paul Scholes, who scored Manchester United's winner against Barcelona the previous night.

Scholes was suspended for United's 1999 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich, but will be the first name on Sir Alex Ferguson's Moscow team sheet.

Scholes prefers to let his football do his talking, adding a new dimension to shyness.

"Scholesey was excited in the dressing room — he smiled," said Mikael Silvestre. Scholes, playing as well as at any time in his career, rarely does interviews. He is not being rude, the midfielder simply feels uncomfortable and uneasy talking to the media.

Rest assured there will be much said before the final with both clubs stoking the fires.

After last Saturday's Premier League match battle, which Chelsea won 2-1, there was an incident on the pitch as some United players warmed down.

Words were exchanged between the ground staff and players after the latter was asked not to run on the area that was being repaired and mowed.

Fists flew and so did insults, with unconfirmed allegations of racial insults.

The Football Association is investigating, so we can expect action some time in November.

Christopher Davies covers the Premier League for the London Daily Telegraph.


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