English clubs hope to dodge Italian test

 

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The Independent Online

Manchester will have to vacate, at least temporarily, its position as England's pre-eminent football city as Arsenal and Chelsea discover their opponents in the last 16 of the Champions League at lunchtime today. An hour later – siesta time in some countries – City and United receive their Europa League assignments.

As group winners, the London clubs are in the same pot as Barcelona and Real Madrid and so avoid the Spanish favourites, as well as Bayern Munich, distant third favourites ahead of the remaining English clubs.

The two Italian clubs, Milan and Napoli – the latter helped end City's first experience of the competition – will be names neither Arsène Wenger nor Andre Villas-Boas will want to see emerge alongside their sides from the unseeded pot. A journey to Russia in February may also be something best avoided, with CSKA Moscow's plastic pitch further complicating such a fixture. Basle, despite their part in United's demise, will be the team in demand.

"There are a lot of top teams also in those runners-up spots," said Villas-Boas yesterday. "One team with seven European titles [Milan] and, for sure, those will be the ones to try to avoid.

"The synthetic pitch is also always difficult at CSKA but it's something we think our players can handle. Zenit is a different story, a natural pitch. Of course, very cold. But normal circumstances.

"Any team from now on is extremely difficult. We've had [in recent seasons] Chelsea going out in all the knockout phases and from the final. It gets pretty difficult now."

Lyon might have scored seven in Zagreb to qualify but they would be welcome opponents for Arsenal or Chelsea as their form has been sketchy. Marseilles, who followed Arsenal through, are Chelsea's other possible draw, while Bayer Leverkusen, who beat Villas-Boas's side in Germany before qualifying behind them as runners up, could be picked to face Arsenal.

Barcelona's defence of the trophy they won at Wembley in the summer will have to continue without David Villa after the Spain striker yesterday broke his leg playing in the Club World Cup, Fifa's tournament too far for the winners of each continental club competition. Villa (above) will almost certainly miss the rest of the season and will also struggle to be fit for Spain's defence of the European Championship next summer.

The Manchester clubs will both be seeded for the Europa League draw. Stoke are unseeded but cannot be drawn against English opposition. They will have a similar wish list to Arsenal and Chelsea – avoid the Italians, Lazio, and a trek to Russia, Lokomotiv Moscow.

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