Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Champions League Starts Today By The Way!

In case you hadn't noticed, the Champions League group stages begin this evening, with 16 of the 32 combatants commencing a journey which will end for two of them in the Olympic Stadium in Athens at next May's final. For some teams the achievement of reaching group stages in themselves is worthy of back-slapping jubilation, others peer hopefully at the next round, crossing their fingers that they may still be standing when springtime and the higher octane of the knockout rounds come around.

For the elite clubs of Europe's big leagues, however, the group stages, while providing an essential and hefty portion of financial income, are often little more than troublesome annoyances to be overcome efficiently in the hope that they do not distract from league duties.

England's four representatives would generally like to be classified in this category, Manchester United's humiliating exit at the bottom of their group last season notwithstanding. Indeed, this is the exception that proves the rule, as United had become so accustomed to sleepwalking through the competition's opening stages that last year's malfunction was subsequently all the more harrowing.

The Premiership's four representatives approach this year's Champions League with differing back stories. For Chelsea, whose foul-humoured clashes with Barcelona are amongst the most memorable contests of the two most recent seasons, the addition of Europe's most prestigious honour is of paramount importance.

The great Stamford Bridge project to become the biggest and bestest club in the world was made to look flimsy by their exit at Barcelona's hands last season. Controversy and talking points aside, the Catalans highlighted a significant gulf in class between themselves and England's top club in that tie. This subsequently led to Chelsea's pursuit and capture of Andrij Shevchenko and Michael Ballack in an attempt to gild to the finest quality their already sturdy edifice. The claiming of the Champions League trophy will undoubtedly be the prime target this season for Jose Mourinho's team.

Manchester United and Liverpool, on the other hand, may not pursue the famous trophy so intently. United would welcome any honour that would confirm their return to football's elite after several worryingly trophyless seasons. But while the Champions League trophy would be welcomed enthusiastically, it is the reclamation of the Premiership title which will more drive Sir Alex Ferguson this season.

The Scot will see the usurpation of Chelsea and United's restoration to domestic preeminence as the last great challenge of his career and, given that United's squad lacks the depth of their London rivals, would prefer to focus on the League should his team still be in contention in the spring.

Liverpool too would be best to focus on domestic matters. The Champions League victory of 2005 bought Rafael Benitez a huge amount of goodwill and probably the benefit of several seasons to bring Liverpool toward the long awaited goal of winning their first title since 1990. He will know, however, that it is that league title, once almost the sole property of the Anfield Road denizens, which is now the holy grail for the club's followers. After a disappointing start to the season (in particular Saturday's defeat in the Merseyside derby) Benitez could find that focussing on European success as another league challenge slips away disappointingly early will not work the same trick it did in 2004/05.

Arsenal, similarly, have had a poor start to the league and, in an era where dropped points are more costly than ever, to be 10 points (albeit with a game in hand) behind the leaders already suggests that a repeat of last season's European exploits may be the Gunners' best hope of glory this season.

Elsewhere amongst the big guns, renewed challenges from two of Europe's great names have an ominous look about them. Real Madrid's belated pursuit of sanity in the recruitment of Fabio Capello as coach and subsequently Fabio Cannavaro, Emerson and Ruud van Nistelrooy, coupled with the impatience inevitable in that club at their prolonged estrangement from the trophy they have won 9 times and the success of their bitter rivals, Barcelona, means they should go close this time.

Inter Milan, like Real, have been shopping in Turin at the Great Juventus Fire Sale, picking up Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic to add to such luminaries as Luis Figo, Adriano, Hernan Crespo and Javier Zanetti to name but a very few from a fearsome looking squad. While they too will hope to take advantage of the domestic woes of their Serie A competitors and finally claim the scudetto for the first time since 1989, their squad looks big enough to compete on both fronts.

If Roberto Mancini can control and satisfy the extraordinary number of star players and their corresponding egos at his disposal it is they who I feel will provide the biggest challenge to the holders' equally stellar regiment of artists.


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