English clubs were handed the best of the Champions League draw last night when they managed to avoid all of the big guns from Spain and Italy. Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid will have to face Milan and defending champions Barcelona play Jose Mourinho's Internazionale while the Premier League clubs have escaped with ties against Europe's lesser lights.
Sir Alex Ferguson said that Manchester United's draw was "far from easy" and of the four English sides they have arguably the hardest draw having been drawn against Wolfsburg, the German champions from the final pot. The fourth pot usually offers up no-hopers from the minor leagues of European club football but included the Bundesliga winners this year because they have no previous history in the competition.
As well as Wolfsburg, United will play the Russian champions CSKA Moscow and Turkey's Besiktas. The trips to Moscow and Istanbul are among the furthest in the group. The dream draw from Uefa's point of view would have been Ferguson's side against Ronaldo (right) and Madrid, who were seeded in the second pot. Instead it will be the Brazilian Kaka of Real's new signings who faces his former team Milan for his new club.
Chelsea will play away in Cyprus against the minnows Apoel Nicosia, 20 times champions of their national league but appearing for the first time in the Champions League. Judging by the reaction of their officials, they were glad just to be visiting such a famous club. Chelsea also face Atletico Madrid, whose striker Sergio Aguero they have shown interest in, and Porto.
The Chelsea captain John Terry was voted the best defender in the tournament for last season. An announcement on his new contract is expected soon. The club's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, said that Chelsea were pleased with the draw. "There is not too much travel in the group, and we've managed to avoid one of the big ones."
Liverpool play against Lyons of France and Serie A's Fiorentina, neither of whom are champions of their national league, and the Hungarian side Debrecen, who play in a stadium with a 10,000-capacity. The club, from a town of around 200,000 people in east Hungary, lost in qualifying to Manchester United five years ago and have never been in the group stages of the Champions League before.
Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool's club ambassador, who attended the draw in Monaco, said that he was confident the club would get back on track after two defeats already this season. "We wanted three wins at the start of the season and we haven't got them," he said of the losses to Tottenham and Aston Villa. "But I think we will react positively. There are another 35 league games to go and if we win every one of them I think we will win the title."
The draw for Arsenal was even more favourable. They play the unlikely Dutch champions AZ Alkmaar who lost their manager Louis van Gaal in the summer as well as Olympiakos from Greece and the Belgian side Standard Liège.
One of the most attractive games of the group stages will see Zlatan Ibrahimovic go back to his former club Internazionale with Barcelona, who he joined this summer. Internazionale coach Jose Mourinho faced Barcelona twice in the Champions League as Chelsea manager, eliminating them in his first season in 2005 and then losing to them the following season.