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The European summit

With Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea all in Champions League action last week, Tony Cascarino takes a look at how English clubs might fare in Europe this season.

Tony Cascarino, 23 Sep 2004

Man Utd’s recent 2-2 draw in Lyon highlighted a number of problems the team are facing at the moment.

Like a lot of people, I think that when Man Utd have a full squad they’re a match for anybody, but I also feel that there are a few individuals in their ranks who are dangerously low on confidence at the moment. Alex Ferguson is partly responsible for the situation; I don’t think he’s really giving full backing to players such as Tim Howard and John O’Shea – who looks a shadow of the player he was 18 months ago – and that’s taking its toll on team morale.

I think it might even be affecting Roy Keane as well. There was a big moment after the match when Ferguson said that there were only really three players who emerged from the game with any credit: Ronaldo, Heinz and Van Nistelrooy. I’ve never known Fergie not to mention Roy Keane in those circumstances, because usually when the team are in a tight spot, he’s the one who drags them out of it. There are a few other telling signs too, like when Fergie let slip in the summer that Steven Gerrard was the kind of midfield player he was looking to sign.

Personally, I think United may actually have been better off signing another midfielder – specifically one with the kind of drive to get forward and lead the team that Roy is famous for – rather than another striker like Wayne Rooney. Also, I don’t think United have ever really properly replaced Peter Schmeichel. I was talking to Packie Bonner about this recently, and he felt that Fergie doesn’t really back his goalkeepers enough; he’s maybe prepared to wield the axe a bit too quickly.

In fact, I think Fergie has been found wanting tactically on a few occasions over the past few seasons, like when he went with one up front in Europe after having such huge success with the 4-4-2 formation. There seemed to be a lot of uncertainty in the ranks during those games, with Van Nistelrooy on his own up front and Scholes floating in just behind him, not to mention having five at the back, which is a system United have been totally unfamiliar with during Fergie’s spell at the club.

There’s a lack of coherency to United at the moment, which last season Ferguson was blaming on Rio Ferdinand being out, Heinz’s involvement in the Olympics, Wes Brown’s injuries etc. However, if Fergie manages to get all those player back in the squad over the next few months – plus the addition of Wayne Rooney – and results still stay the same, I think we could see some serious upheaval at the club. Certainly, if they stay within touching distance of Arsenal and manage to beat them home and away, they can still turn their season around, but if results don’t improve dramatically in the near future, I don’t think Fergie will stay ‘til the end of the season.

Elsewhere in Europe, Chelsea looked hugely impressive in Paris. They have great athleticism within the team, their one-touch football when they get going can be awesome, and unlike United they haven’t been conceding soft goals lately. Admittedly, Paris St. Germain haven’t had the greatest start to the season, but Chelsea still played with huge authority and never looked in danger of losing control of the match.

Arsenal, meanwhile, tend to get a little frustrated in Europe – perhaps because they’ve become so used to winning in the Premiership – but they’re still very much in contention. I don’t think Arsenal’s test is going to be PSV at home; their biggest obstacles are likely to be some of the away games they’re facing later this year. However, they’ve got one of the strongest defences around, and you can never underestimate the part that plays in European competition.

Overall, I think the Champions League is perhaps the most difficult competition to predict, just because so many of the key incidents can be so marginal. It might be an offside decision, missed penalty or controversial sending-off that makes all the difference in the end. Having said that, I do feel we could well have a British winner. It’s not likely to be Celtic, who were very unfortunate to get such a horrible draw. Arsenal and Man Utd have their own individual strengths, but if I had to pick one from the bunch, I’d go for Chelsea.

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