English clubs in pole position
At this time of the year, it can feel as if the football programme is packed with rehearsals while the true drama lies weeks or months ahead.
This, however, is a delusion. August 31's draw for the Champions League group phase would have commanded attention, but there has already been stress, misery and joy.
Malaga, for instance, claimed a place in the tournament proper for the first time after following a home win over Panathinaikos with a goalless draw in Athens. By and large, it is undeniable that the elite are in a privileged position. All four of the English clubs go straight to the group phase. Chelsea may have come sixth in the Premier League, but they are Champions League holders. In principle, it is impossible to improve on that, but Roberto Di Matteo seems set on making his side more expressive.
The leading English clubs usually have a store of knowledge they draw on to consistent effect. This is not to be taken for granted. Arsenal, for instance, made a great effort to recover from a 4-0 defeat to Milan and won 3-0 at home in last season's competition, but it was still galling for the club to take their leave.
Although alterations would have been necessary, it was no part of Arsene Wenger's scheme to sell Robin van Persie to Manchester United. That transfer, all the same, enhances Sir Alex Ferguson's team, offering the sort of depth that challenges players.
Elsewhere, there must be scrutiny of Manchester City. Roberto Mancini is no longer being accorded limitless means and the origins of this scepticism may lie in the European front. His side lacked the cosmopolitan expertise anticipated from the manager.
None of England's sides look all that formidable and although there will be plenty of expertise elsewhere, no one is unassailable. Barcelona's air of superiority disappeared when Chelsea had the effrontery last season to win the semifinal. With Pep Guardiola giving up the manager's post, there may be a small interruption in their affairs.
Economics usually tell and it is no coincidence that clubs from La Liga, the Premier League and the Bundesliga are expected to make an impact. The Spanish economy may be in feeble condition, but Jose Mourinho will not be reduced to cobbling together a line-up of Bosman recruits for Real Madrid. The manager is unaccustomed to disappointment and he will want to repeat the successes he relished with Porto and Internazionale. – © Guardian News & Media 2012