UK teams looking good in Europe

Warning: you might get a severe case of déjà vu reading this. It’s not my fault. Two weeks ago, the Champions League featured Chelsea seeing off Barcelona, Liverpool sinking Bordeaux, Manchester United too good for not-so-wonderful Copenhagen, Celtic shocking Benfica and Arsenal coming home from freezing Moscow with their diminished tails between their legs.

And this week, the same fixtures apply with only the venues changed to protect innocent people involved.

Yes, Chelsea, 1-0 winners over European champions Barcelona at Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, thanks to Didier Drogba’s sensational strike, have to go to the Nou Camp this time.

No doubt Ronaldinho and pals will actually run about a bit this time.
And the Spanish champions, despite their 2-0 defeat against arch-rivals Real Madrid in La Liga, will win it. It matters not.

Unquestionably, Chelsea and Barcelona will go through. Levski Sofia and Werder Bremen are mere onlookers in Group A. This year’s trophy will go to the Blues or Barca. These are the two clubs in Europe that have the depth of talent, the money, the experience. The days when Nottingham Forest could dominate Europe because their boss was good at creative accounting and physical intimidation are long gone.

Mind you, with Frank Lampard being linked to Barca, home of his lovely lady Elen Rives, there could be a bit of spice. Word is he’s lined up for a swap with Brazilian-born Portuguese international Deco. Apparently Lamps could eventually go for a cut-price £10-million under the terms of his contract. That’s cheap for a rarely injured England international who scores the odd deflected goal; but he’s none too happy about the arrival of £130 000-a-week Michael Ballack, I’m told.

With David Beckham eager to leave Real Madrid under Fabio Capello’s “here’s your cushion, David” reign, watch this space.

Liverpool, 2-0 winners at Bordeaux thanks to the lanky beanpole called Peter Crouch, bring the Frenchmen to soon-to-be-sold Anfield. Rafa Benitez’s constant tinkering has ruined the Reds’ title chances domestically, but expect the side with the best European pedigree in England to qualify smoothly from Group C, where PSV Eindhoven will finish second. Let’s just pray Benitez actually sticks with Crouch, rather than fiddling constantly.

Crouch is the best thing Liverpool can offer at the moment. Forget Dirk Kuyt, Robbie Fowler and Craig Bellamy. Daddy long legs will get them in the end.

Manchester United and Celtic look comfortable in Group F. Both won the corresponding ties two weeks ago; this time United go to FC Copenhagen and Celtic are at Benfica. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men had no trouble with the Danes last time. But Celtic may be over-exposed in the original Stadium of Light.

Ironically, given their current form, it’s Arsenal who are worrying the experts most when it comes to European qualification in what has, so far, been a very impressive year for British clubs.

Robbed by a ridiculous refereeing decision—Thierry Henry was adjudged to have handled when scoring the equaliser at a bumpy Lokomotive stadium—Arsenal host CSKA Moscow, Roman Abramovich’s second club, at the Emirates on Wednesday.

The 1-0 defeat in a freezing Russian capital was actually deserved. Arsenal were thoroughly outplayed, despite manager Arsène Wenger’s pre-match confidence in his young Guns.

Anything less than a win at home on Wednesday may leave Arsenal in trouble in Group G with FC Porto, European champions just three years ago under Chelsea’s Jose Mourinho, coming up on the rails.

It shouldn’t happen. Arsenal were magnificent at Reading’s Madejski stadium last week, a 4-0 win featuring goals from Robin van Persie and Alexandr Hleb that looked like they were put together on a chess board.

Then, during the week, the Gooners put out nine teenagers and 23-year-old French striker Jeremie Aliadiere and they stuffed West Brom, on something of an unbeaten run in the Championship, 2-0.

Here’s what West Brom’s new boss Tony Mowbray makes of them: “It is not the individuals, it is the brand of football. We saw them annihilate Reading on Sunday and, while none of those players played, it was very similar to watch.

“They pass and move, they’re quick and agile, they create space and don’t miss people with passes. It is football of the highest quality.”

Given that verdict, I suspect all four English clubs will move comfortably into the knock-out phase of the Champions League next year, with Celtic sneaking through too. Five British sides in the last 16? It’s never happened before. But given the money swilling about in our game, and the disarray in Italy, don’t be surprised.

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