Italian clubs set to rule again

  • Other Sport
  • Sunday, 21 Sep 2003

By Rob Hughes

AFTER one round of the new Champions League, the message is uncompromisingly clear: Italy holds the trophy and has no intention of letting go. 

On Wednesday, Juventus and Inter followed Lazio and AC Milan, who won their opening games the night before. The performances were measured, authoritative and built on defensive solidarity. 

Drawing praise for an Italian victory has been like drawing teeth. The dreadful stalemate of last season's final, as AC Milan beat Juventus in a penalty shoot out after 120 goalless, guileless minutes, numbed the brain and squashed the purpose of soccer. 

Yet in London on Wednesday, Inter outplayed, out-passed and out-thought Arsenal so comprehensively, so smartly that no one could argue when the Inter coach, Hector Cuper, said: “It was a beautiful Inter tonight.” 

The Beautiful Game, eh? Well, yes, let's hear it for Hector. We give him such criticism when his teams - first Valencia and now Inter - anaesthetise the opposition and steal victories by stealth.  

Wednesday wasn't like that; it was a master class of imposed order and beauty. Arsenal, which had believed this could be its big season, was taken apart. 

Three goals to Inter, absolutely nothing to Arsenal and a full stadium emptying of disillusioned home fans 10 minutes before the end - that tells the bare bones of the story. 

Julio Cruz, a teenager from Cuper's homeland of Argentina, showed cunning to score the first; he waited for the pass to come and waited again for Arsenal's goalie, Jens Lehmann, to go to ground; then Cruz coldly flicked the ball over him. 

Three minutes later, Andy van de Meyde, recruited in the summer from Ajax Amsterdam, delivered a right-footed volley that beat Lehmann's feeble attempt to stop it.  

The coup de grace was delivered by the speed, the balance, the composure of Obafemi Martins, just 18 and from Nigeria. He had burst through what Arsenal calls a defence three times.  

Finally he scored at 40 minutes, reacting like a lizard between rocks as the Turk Emre Belozoglu dodged and wove and then threaded a pass between the tall but immobile pillars of the Arsenal center backs Kolo Toure and Sol Campbell. 

Inter preyed on the wastefulness of experienced campaigners such as Robert Pires, giving the ball away, and it made nonsense of Christian Vieri, Inter's principal but wounded striker, who said when the club sold Hernan Crespo a month ago that this left him without a worthy partner.  

Take your time, Vieri, in coming back. Make sure you are sound and strong to battle for a place alongside these young pups. 

Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal coach, looked and sounded drained after the fall in his Highbury castle, but he needs solutions by today when his team plays at Manchester United. 

Wenger is clutching at a small straw when he suggests that a missed penalty, at two goals down, was significant.  

It was a brilliant save by the towering goalie Francesco Toldo, who read Thierry Henry's intention and dived full length to push the ball away.  

Toldo was as safe between the posts as Lehmann was not. From Fabio Cannavaro to Javier Zanetti to the youths up front, Inter's players had a better game plan and a more polished idea of how to attack and defend than Arsenal.  

You should ask what happened to the Musketeers - Henry, Pires, Patrick Vieira and Sylvain Wiltord - around whom Wenger builds his team.  

You should ask why Dennis Bergkamp was left on the bench for a humiliating hour while his team lacked his inventive passing quality. 

You would hope, for Arsenal's sake, that Martin Keown, a gnarled and aged warrior of defence, will be fit to try to organise a better back line for the next game. 

In Italy, meanwhile, the fans provided a sad commentary on their country's European domination as a mere 14,420 turned up at Stadio delle Alipi in Turin to watch Juventus, last season's finalist, beat Galatasaray of Istanbul. The match stuttered. Juve led at five minutes through Alessandro Del Piero's sweeping shot from a fine Mauro Camoranesi pass. 

The Turkish teams are fighting teams these days. Hakan Suker headed an equalizer in the 19th minute. It took the quick wit of Del Piero, whose free kick created the winning goal for the veteran defender Ciro Ferrara. 

In Munich, Bayern trembled when Alan Thompson scored for Glasgow Celtic in the 57th minute, but Roy Makaay paid a double dividend on his recent transfer. 

The Dutchman levelled with a supreme volley after 73 minutes. He won the game four minutes from time when his floated cross, missed by his teammate Michael Ballack, sailed past Celtic's goalie Magnus Heldman and inside the far post. 

“It's a difficult ball for the goalkeeper,” Makaay said sympathetically. “He's expecting the striker will at least touch the ball.” 

Sometimes a goalkeeper is meant to be the fall guy. In Lyon, Daniel Zitka of Anderlecht was harshly adjudged to have fouled Sidney Govou and was beaten by the penalty kick of Junior Pernambucano. It proved the only goal, the victory for Lyon, because at the other end Gregory Coupet pulled off a flying save to prevent an equalizer by the Belgian club. 

Real Sociedad also had a home penalty to savour in San Sebastian, and Darko Kovacevic the honor of converting it, for a 1-0 victory over Olympiakos of Greece. AEK Athens, driven on by a raucous home crowd, went a goal down to Deportivo la Coruٌa's Walter Pandiani, survived a clear penalty appeal and finished all square at 1-1 thanks to Vassilis Tsiartas's late goal. 

PSV Eindhoven was shocked in its own stadium by Monaco. The team from the principality, defying a bankruptcy threat a few months ago, led through a headed goal from Fernando Morientes - on loan from Real Madrid - and then a second, scored low on the ground by Edouard Cisse. The lone reply, a free kick by Wilfred Bouma, was insufficient to prevent Eindhoven going down 2-1. 

The week's biggest crowd was in Kiev. There, 78,000 people willed Dynamo to beat Lokomotiv Moscow. 

It was by no means a one-way pressure. Dynamo's keeper, Olexander Shovkosvsky, made three excellent saves before two goals in the last seven minutes gave Kiev the victory. 

The goals, one with the head, the other with the right foot, both came from a substitute, Diego Rincon.  

If the name doesn't tell you that he has little background in post-Soviet squabbles, the simple joy with which Rincon smiled at his goals was a broad clue. Rincon is another exiled Brazilian, just playing the Beautiful Game. – IHT 

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