Brilliant Barcelona can defy history and retain crown

The reigning champions have the manager, the personnel and, writes Glenn Moore, the support of the neutral to win the Champions' League again
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The Independent Football

Since the European Cup was transformed, 14 years ago, into the compelling mix of greed and glory which is the Champions' League, no club has retained the trophy as the Continent's best.

But as the competition tonight prepares to embark on another nine-month odyssey, this curse is under threat from a man who knows, more than any other involved, how to break it.

In May of this year, Frank Rijkaard watched with his usual nonchalance as Barcelona rallied to defeat Arsenal in Paris. In May, 1990, Rijkaard was somewhat less restrained as he scored the goal which enabled Milan to defeat Benfica in Vienna and secure back-to-back European Cups. They were the first team to do so since Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest in 1980, and no team has done so since.

That is not so surprising because the competition now has far greater depth of quality, and lasts so much longer. In 1990, the big four leagues only entered one club apiece: this season, England, Italy, Spain and Germany between them entered 15.

To reach the final in 1990, Milan defeated HJK Helsinki, Real Madrid, Mechelen and Bayern Munich. To reach last year's final, Barça beat Werder Bremen, Udinese, Panathinaikos, Chelsea, Benfica and Milan. They were, without question, the competition's best team,winning nine and drawing four of 13 games.

Since then they have signed Gianluca Zambrotta, Lilian Thuram and Eidur Gudjohnsen, have Xavi and Lionel Messi restored to fitness, and Ronaldinho smarting from a poor World Cup. Such is their strength that both Thuram and Julio Belletti, the Brazilian right-back who scored the winner against Arsenal, are expected to be left on the bench tonight. The Champions' League may be as hard to retain as a bar of soap, but few would bet against Barcelona doing so.

Incidentally, Barcelona will tonight wear advertising on the front of their shirts for the first time in a competitive match. Barça have not sold out: they will be promoting Unicef, the United Nations children's charity and they have actually paid for the privilege.

It is classy behaviour like that, as much as their football, which will have most neutrals rooting for Barcelona. Among those most eager to challenge them are three of the more commercially orientated clubs: Chelsea, Real Madrid and Milan. Each can expect to be more focused on Europe than their domestic competitions. Chelsea are now obsessed with Europe - witness the acquisition of Andrei Shevchenko and Michael Ballack - Real Madrid always have been, and Milan's chances in Serie A are severely hamstrung by the eight-point deficit imposed in the wake of the "Moggipoli" match-fixing scandal. At least, unlike Juventus, they could enter the Champions' League, albeit through qualifying.

Lyon, after winning five successive French titles, will also be looking to Europe but Gérard Houllier's prospects have been weakened by the sale of Mahamadou Diarra to Real Madrid. Internazionale and Valencia will also consider themselves in with a chance as will the other Premiership sides Arsenal, Liverpool and a Manchester United team finally showing echoes of the 1999 side.

With England the only nation to have four teams in the competition - Chievo and Osasuna having been knocked out in qualifying - the prospects of drawing level with Spain in achieving both an 11th European Cup, and 29th European trophy - appear reasonably bright. So, too, English chances of topping The Independent Index which marks nations on the Champions' League performance of its representatives. Last season Spanish clubs won this ranking, followed by the Italians then the English.

There is not, however, a single English coach among the 32. Norway, by contrast, do not have a team in the Champions' League but they do have two coaches, Trond Sollied, at Olympiakos, and Stale Solbakken, at Copenhagen. Indeed, only three Englishmen have managed in the Champions' League and one of them, Blackburn Rovers' Ray Harford is no longer alive. The others are Sir Bobby Robson and Stuart Baxter (AIK Stockholm). Is it any wonder the Football Association's search for an experienced, preferably English coach, took so long?

The final is in Athens. Anyone looking for omens may note that Chelsea won their first European trophy there, defeating Real Madrid in a replay to win the European Cup-Winners' Cup in 1971. The gap between the first match and the replay were marked by a legendary drinking session. Even if there were still a place for replays in the schedule it can be assumed that would not be repeated. For all its glamour European football is now a deadly serious enterprise: there is too much money at stake for it not to be.

Young guns: Five to watch

* MAHAMADOU DIARRA Real Madrid

Powerful midfielder developed in Mali before working his way up the European leagues from Crete, to Vitesse Arnhem, to Lyon. Deadline day £20m signing.

* DIEGO Werder Bremen

Touted, with Robinho, as the new face of Brazilian football at Santos, but lost his way at Porto. Classy passer but do not expect a work ethic. Still only 21.

* RICARDO OLIVEIRA Milan

Signed by Milan for £10m on deadline day. Came to prominence with Santos but struggled at Valencia. Rediscovered goal touch at Real Betis but was badly injured last year.

* JEREMY TOULALAN Lyon

Recently called into the senior squad, this impressive under-21 international signed from Nantes this summer for £4.75m. Will fill Diarra's holding midfield role.

* VINCENT KOMPANY SV Hamburg

Coveted by clubs across Europe but a series of injuries last season put enough off to allow Hamburg to step in and acquire the stylish defender from Anderlecht for £5.7m. Just 20, starting fourth Champions' League campaign.

How Spanish clubs ruled 2005-06

* INDEPENDENT INDEX OF EUROPEAN FOOTBALL

The Index awards points to each league every week, based on the performance of that league's clubs in the Champions' League. The scoring is simple: four points for an away win; three for a home win; two for an away draw and one for a home draw. Scores count from every club in that league competing in the Champions' League. The scores make up a league table after each week of Champions' League action, but the truest guide to the best league in Europe comes from the accumulated table.

* INDEX OF EUROPEAN LEAGUES 2005-06

AW HW AD HD L Pts

(4pts) (3) (2) (1) (0)

1 Spain 8 9 7 7 8 80

2 Italy 5 14 6 3 10 77

3 England 7 8 6 7 7 71

4 Germany 1 8 3 2 8 36

5 France 34; 6 Netherlands 26; 7 Portugal 24;

8 Belgium & Scotland 12; 10 Greece 9; 11 Slovakia 8;

12 Norway 5; 13 Switzerland & Turkey 4; 15 Czech Republic 2; 16 Austria 0.

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