English clubs hope to dodge Italian test
Arsenal and Chelsea in Champions League draw while Manchester plays second fiddle
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 the 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 surface further complicating such a fixture. Basle, despite their part in United's elimination, 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 that we think our players can handle. Zenit is a different story, a natural pitch. Of course, very, 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, from last 16, from last eight, from semi-finals and from the final. It gets pretty difficult now."
Lyons might have scored seven times in their last game in Zagreb to qualify but they would be welcome opponents for either Arsenal or Chelsea as their form, both domestically and in Europe, 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. Barça beat Al-Sadd 4-0 to reach Sunday's final against Santos but were left lamenting Villa."It's a massive blow for the team," said Pep Guardiola. "We are all very sad for him. It takes a long time to return after a break like this." Villa 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 in the seeded pot for the Europa League draw. Stoke are in the unseeded one 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.
Wayne Rooney insists it is a competition United are looking forward to featuring in for the first time in 16 years. "Definitely," said Rooney. "I don't think the manager's won the Europa League, so I'm sure he will want to win it."
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