Football: United avoid heavyweights of Europe

FORTUNE FAVOURED Manchester United in the draw for the Champions' League yesterday, when the holders and top seeds avoided the heavyweights of Germany, Italy and Spain in the opening group stage. Arsenal and Chelsea can look forward to mouth-watering ties against Barcelona and Milan respectively, while Rangers must negotiate arguably the toughest section to reach the last 16.

As the London duo savoured the prospect of entering the citadels of Nou Camp and San Siro, United began boning up on three clubs they have never encountered in Continental competition. Their defence of the trophy they won so dramatically in May - which will be a 17-game slog if they reach the final again - opens against Ossie Ardiles' Croatia Zagreb at Old Trafford on 14 September. They also play Marseilles and Sturm Graz, compared with a group that included Barcelona and Bayern Munich when United were unseeded a year ago.

The trip to Provence is certain to raise security fears after the violence involving England fans in the city during last year's World Cup finals. Marseilles became European champions six years ago, only to be stripped of their title because of a match-fixing scandal. Their squad includes four players with whom United are acquainted from the Premiership: Fabrizio Ravanelli (Middlesbrough), Ibrahima Bakayoko (Everton), Sebastien Perez (Blackburn) and Kaba Diawara (Arsenal).

Zagreb, who impressed with their technical ability when beating Celtic last season, also feature a familiar face in Ardiles, the former Tottenham midfielder and manager. Sturm Graz's status as Austrian Double winners similarly commands respect, although they may end up fulfilling the role of makeweights which Brondby took in United's group a year ago.

Arsenal, as well as facing the Spanish champions, tackle Fiorentina and Sweden's AIK Solna. For the Gunners, who will again play home games at Wembley, the group is scarcely easier than the one from which they failed to advance last autumn.

However, as their chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, pointed out, Dennis Bergkamp's fear of flying may not deprive them of his talents this time. "They are all venues I think Dennis can get to by car," he said. "And Barcelona, Florence and Stockholm are all nice cities to visit."

Niceness will not be a priority for Luis van Gaal, Barca's hard-nosed coach, who is under pressure to do better than last year when his team failed to qualify for the second phase. Jari Litmanen and Dani have arrived to bolster the Dutchman's attacking options, which include his compatriot Patrick Kluivert.

Fiorentina are also replete with scoring potential after recruiting Enrico Chiesa and Abel Balbo to join Gabriel Batistuta. Nor can anyone afford to write off AIK.

Wenger claimed Arsenal's as "the hardest group". Chelsea and Rangers might disagree. Nevertheless, Chelsea's Italian colony, not least the manager Gianluca Vialli, will relish taking on Milan. They may even benefit from some inside information from Marcel Desailly, a Vialli signing from the five-time European champions.

The Galatasaray tie takes Chelsea to Istanbul, scene of two recent visits by Manchester United. Hertha Berlin were the surprise packet of last season's Bundesliga, finishing third, and are one of four German sides in the 32- team draw. Chelsea's chief executive, Colin Hutchinson, pledged to keep their games at Stamford Bridge rather than switching to Wembley.

Rangers' reward for battling through the preliminary rounds was to emerge in what the Glasgow media will doubtless dub the group of death. Bayern, Valencia and PSV Eindhoven - the Ibrox manager Dick Advocaat's former club - have all won European trophies. But so have Rangers, and the signals from their victory over Parma was that the present squad have the know- how to improve upon the under-achievement of Walter Smith's final foreign campaigns.

n OnDigital have secured rights to Manchester United's Arsenal's and Rangers' Champions' League opening games.

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE DRAW

GROUP A

Lazio (Italy)

Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)

Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine)

NK Maribor (Slovenia)

GROUP B

Barcelona (Spain)

Fiorentina (Italy)

Arsenal (England)

AIK Solna (Sweden)

GROUP C

Borussia Dortmund (Germany)

Feyenoord (Netherlands)

Rosenborg Trondheim (Norway)

Boavista (Portugal)

GROUP D

Manchester United (England)

Marseilles (France)

Croatia Zagreb (Croatia)

Sturm Graz (Austria)

GROUP E

Real Madrid (Spain)

Porto (Portugal)

Olympiakos Piraeus (Greece)

Molde (Norway)

GROUP F

Bayern Munich (Germany)

PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)

Valencia (Spain)

Rangers (Scotland)

GROUP G

Spartak Moscow (Russia)

Bordeaux (France)

Sparta Prague (Czech Republic)

Willem II Tilburg (Netherlands)

GROUP H

Milan (Italy)

Chelsea (England)

Galatasaray (Turkey)

Hertha Berlin (Germany)

FIXTURES

(GB teams only)

GROUP B: Tue 14 Sept: Fiorentina v Arsenal. Wed 22 Sept: Arsenal v AIK Solna. Wed 29 Sept: Barcelona v Arsenal. Tue 19 Oct: Arsenal v Barcelona. Wed 27 Oct: Arsenal v Fiorentina. Tue 2 Nov: AIK Solna v Arsenal.

GROUP D: Tue 14 Sept: Manchester Utd v Croatia Zagreb. Wed 22 Sept: Sturm Graz v Manchester Utd. Wed 29 Sept: Manchester Utd v Marseilles. Tue 19 Oct: Marseilles v Manchester Utd. Wed 27 Oct: Croatia Zagreb v Manchester Utd. Tue 2 Nov: Manchester Utd v Sturm Graz.

GROUP F: Wed 15 Sept: Valencia v Rangers. Tue 21 Sept: Rangers v Bayern Munich. Tue 28 Sept: PSV Eindhoven v Rangers. Wed 20 Oct: Rangers v PSV Eindhoven. Tue 26 Oct: Rangers v Valencia. Wed 3 Nov: Bayern Munich v Rangers.

GROUP H: Wed 15 Sept: Chelsea v Milan. Tue 21 Sept: Hertha Berlin v Chelsea. Tue 28 Sept: Chelsea v Galatasaray. Wed 20 Oct: Galatasaray v Chelsea. Tue 26 Oct: Milan v Chelsea. Wed 3 Nov: Chelsea v Hertha Berlin.

l Top two in each group advance to second stage (four groups of four). Top two in each second-stage group advance to quarter-finals.

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