SPORTS

  /  

October 23, 2001

Manchester's defense a big question mark

For those people whose concentration suffers from irregular lapses, especially on Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons around half past one, get out of class, get a glass of Amstel, and converge on the second floor of the Reynolds Club; ESPN2 provides live coverage of the UEFA Champions League starting at 13:45. Match day five guarantees the prospect of world-class football as champions and non-champions alike vie for a lucrative spot in the second phase of the tournament. Today's televised game via satellite from the Theatre of Dreams, Manchester: it's the English champions Manchester United vs. Greek counterparts Olympiakos in Group G.

Manchester United's turbulent season took two further dips last week when the Red Devils crashed at home not only to Deportivo La Coruna, but also to mid-table Bolton Wanderers. When is the last time Manchester lost at home twice in the same week? The particular statistic escapes the minds of most fans. The inherent problem with this year's United squad is the defense. Compared with the well-oiled and technologically superior mechanics of their midfield and attack, Manchester's defense is squeaky, rusty, and ghetto. Manchester have the acceleration of a Ferrari, the steering and handling of a Rolls Royce, but the safety features of a Lada. Laurent Blanc, however good he may have been in his prime, is now a liability in the back due to his donkey speed and pace. It seems that all he's good for is to ‘french' Fabien Barthez's egg-shaped head before games, if you know what I mean. Wes Brown is erratic, Gary Neville is shortsighted, Ronny Johnsen is injury-prone, and Dennis Irwin is unaggressive. Manager Sir Alex Ferguson made the biggest mistake of his illustrious career when he sold off macho-man defender Jaap Stam to Lazio as the penalty for his controversial autobiography (which, by the way, was blown out of proportion by the British tabloids). Ferguson's tactical philosophy that all's well no matter how many goals United leak like a sieve, so long as more is scored on the opposite end, is absolutely disastrous. To put it curtly, Manchester's defense sucks too much for its offense to counter-balance or outweigh the suckiness. There always comes a point of unsurpassable magnitude in most things. It is called the peak. No matter how smart you are, you cannot get a higher GPA than a 4.0, and no matter how fast you are, you cannot run faster than a speeding bullet. And no matter how good Ruud van Nistelrooy, David Beckham, Juan Sebastian Veron, and Roy Keane are, Manchester can't come back from two-goal or greater deficits against the cream of European football. The only peak United have reached all season is the peak of their fans' tolerance. To qualify for the second phase of the Champions League, Manchester need to beat Olympiakos and hope French side Lille lose at Deportivo. Anything short of victory will trigger a massive downslide in Manchester United's stock price, consequently enabling me to buy the majority of shares and become club chairman. But let's be clear at the outset, Olympiakos are by no means pushovers. Morale is high in the Greek camp after coming back from a goal down to beat Lille in last week's Champions League encounter, giving them their first victory of the campaign. Moreover, last Saturday's 5-0 thumping of Ionikos in the Greek League confirms Olympiakos' hot form. They will also be hungry to avenge their first ever Champions League home defeat two weeks ago at the hands of Manchester. Manchester vs. Olympiakos is a tough match to call but I would bet on a United victory as last week's double slump was mainly due to, notwithstanding the consistently poor defense, the game-costing errors of Fabien Barthez against Deportivo and the fielding of a second string squad against Bolton. I expect after a week that saw Manchester United soaked from being thrown a bucket of cold water that they will find their true colors, the red-hot form we're used to seeing from the Red Devils.

In today's other fixtures, Lille travel to Spain to face Group G leaders Deportivo La Coruna, where they must avoid defeat to keep alive hopes of beating Manchester to the second group phase. However, current Spanish League leaders Deportivo are in a formidable mood, and combined with home-field advantage at the Riazor, they will prevail in victory. In Group E, Norwegian champions Rosenborg play host to the Scottish champions Glasgow Celtic in a must-win game for both sides. The hosts need a victory at home to climb out of the cellar of Group E and catch a third-place ticket into the UEFA Cup, while the visitors are desperate not to fall further behind group leaders Juventus and second-placed Porto. With the return from injury of Larsson and Sutton, Celtic should have enough ammo to win in Norway. Group E's remaining pair face off in the Stadio Delle Alpi in Turin, as Italian has-beens Juventus take on the Portuguese of Porto. A win for Juventus would guarantee their qualification for the second group phase, but the Bianchoneri are winless in the last four matches in the Serie A and are without Chilean star Marcelo Salas. Nevertheless, available for selection are superstar striking pair Del Piero and Trezeguet who will guide Juventus back to winning ways. In Group H, Czech champions Sparta Praha travel to Russia to face Spartak Moscow. With Praha already guaranteed of qualification for the second phase and Moscow desperate for a victory to finish third place for a UEFA Cup spot, the home side has more to play for and should be revved up for the match. Sadly for Moscow, my hometown heroes Sparta Praha forgot how to lose quite a while ago, and without playing at 100 percent, they should be able to manage an easy draw at the least. In the group's other game, defending European champions Bayern Munich entertain Dutch side Feyenoord. The Germans need just a point to qualify to the second phase while Feyenoord need a victory to cement their third-place spot. Because Bundesliga leaders Bayern Munich not only have home advantage, but currently are coming off an awesome victory in the top-of-the-league clash against Kaiserslautern, they should stroll elegantly to victory. In Group F, German side Bayer Leverkusen travel to Istanbul to face Turkish champions Fenerbache. The Turks have nothing to play for besides pride as they are out of contention for even a third-place finish. Their opponents on the other hand, need a victory to guarantee a place in the second phase and will be going all out for the win. However, the Turkish champions aren't champions for nothing, and they will salvage their damaged pride with a victory over Leverkusen. Simultaneously, Group F leaders Barcelona will battle Olympique Lyonnais in the Stade Gerlan for a match that could decide the fates of both sides. A Barcelona victory or a draw will assure the Catalans of a second phase spot, but defeat will leave them tied on points with Lyon, dragging the question of qualification to the very last day of the first group phase. Given Barcelona's poor away form and Lyon's horrendous record in the domestic league, the most likely outcome of the match seems to be a draw.

So here you have it, my complete preview and analysis for match day five of the UEFA Champions League.