Ferguson and Co know the serious stuff comes later

Sir Alex and his Chelsea counterpart united in their desire to win 'best tournament'
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The Independent Football

The desire of Uefa's president Michel Platini to see some new names among the lucrative group stages of the Champions' League means a hello this week to teams like Apoel Nicosia (Cyprus), Debrecen (Hungary) and Unirea Urziceni (Romania), while more familiar contestants such as Anderlecht, Celtic, Panathinaikos and Sporting Lisbon have been left by the wayside after difficult ties in the play-off round. On the other hand, the top-10 contenders as listed by the bookmakers unsurprisingly comprise four English clubs, three Italian, two Spanish and one German.

The Spanish pair, the holders Barcelona and the big spenders Real Madrid, top the odds list ahead of the Premier League quartet, in which Manchester United are sandwiched between Chelsea and Arsenal, with Liverpool the slight outsiders. Apart from the fact that nobody can yet predict how successfully Madrid's new galacticos will gell, it is a fair assessment and one that arouses a sense of anticipation in all four managers of the English clubs, each of whom is steeped in the competition. Carlo Ancelotti, Sir Alex Ferguson and Rafa Benitez have all known what it is to be coach of the champions of Europe, but like Arsène Wenger they have all fallen at the last hurdle too.

Where Ancelotti, the newest boy on the Premier League block, has it over the others is in not only having won the trophy twice as a coach but the European Cup twice as a player, and all with one club. "I don't know if I am an expert of Champions' League but for me it is a very particular competition because in my last team, Milan, there was a very good tradition and culture for this competition. All the team had a special sensation about it. I think it is the most important competition in the world and a very difficult one to win."

So what is the secret, from a successful midfielder (1989 and 1990) and manager (2003 and 2007)? "You have to be lucky and have courage and personality. Everything has to be perfect." Perfection was what his Milan side achieved in the first half of their 2005 final against Benitez's Liverpool. Three goals to the good, the squad players not involved pulled on their celebratory T-shirts. After that, of course, the courage, the personality and, yes, the luck belonged to Liverpool, who brought about the most extraordinary transformation in European Cup history. "You are never sure to win it until you take the cup in your hands," Ancelotti said on Friday. "I was winning 3-0 in the final and we lost. An unbelievable situation, impossible to explain how it happened, impossible. I've never seen that match again. Only the first half. Then I broke the television!"

He is able to laugh, four years down the line, the despair of Istanbul mitigated by the joy of Athens two years later. Knowing they were through to the final after crushing Ferguson's Manchester United, the whole Milan squad assembled at their training ground, cheering Liverpool to victory against Chelsea in the other semi-final so as to set up an opportunity for revenge, a dish they proceeded to devour in cold, calculated fashion.

Even then the competition, or rather the absence of it, had another twist for Ancelotti; failing to qualify for it when Milan finished in only fifth place in Serie A in 2008 to put the skids under his stewardship there, compounded by losing out last season to hated rivals Internazionale and Jose Mourinho in Serie A.

Yet for all his fierce verbal sparring with Mourinho, Ancelotti was quick to add the Italians to that list of Spanish and English favourites for this season's European crown. "Real Madrid have very good players but they have to build a team," he said. "It is essential to have a team, it's not enough to have only good players. Italian teams are very competitive. Inter has quality, Milan has tradition, Juventus has quality and tradition. Not only those other teams can win." He admits that Didier Drogba, who is banned for the first two group matches against Porto and Apoel, will be "a big loss" but insists that: "We can make up for him with other players. Nicolas [Anelka] is in a very good moment and [Salomon] Kalou can show his quality in this competition."

Heartened by a favourable draw in which they avoided Madrid, Inter and Juventus from the second pool of teams, the English quartet should all reach the knockout stage as usual. United are still sore about last season's final against Barcelona, not so much for the result as their failure to make much of a game of it. No kicking in the television for Ferguson, although that does not mean he feels inclined to laugh about the game. "When you look at these things you can find either reasons or excuses, and it's always better to look at the reasons," Ferguson said.

"I've watched the game since and I'm quite clear about where we went wrong. That's always helpful. If there's good reasons, you can put a lot of things to the back of your mind and get on with your life. We've looked at everything, the whole build-up, the hotel, the training beforehand, so we are quite clear about everything. I'm not going to go into what those reasons are but they are things I think can be put right and will be put right."

A rematch with Barcelona, favourites or not, would not worry him, he insists: "It would not be a problem for us but this is a fresh start and you have to move on. That was the first Champions' League final I had lost and obviously it was very disappointing, but it's over. There's no point kicking yourself all summer over it, and I haven't been doing. You can't win 'em all, bad days come along, put it behind you and move on."

United would love to come up against Real Madrid and Cristiano Ronaldo, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that they are probably Ferguson's least favourite foreign club. "Difficult to say how well they will do," was all he would say on the record about them this time.

Ferguson agrees with Ancelotti about the primacy of the Champions' League, but knows better than the new boy how it can impinge upon the domestic league and vice versa. "It's a great tournament, it's the best tournament now. It's got all the best players, all the best teams are there. The problem for us is that the Premier League is such a tribal war that you have to win that as well."

So after Istanbul on Tuesday night, United must prepare for tribal warfare with none other than Manchester City five days later. Similarly, a long trip to Moscow – though it brings back fond memories – at the end of October is followed by a visit to Anfield; after the Russian bear, the bear pit.

For Liverpool themselves, and Arsenal, there should be a gentle start on Wednesday, despite a contrast in opposition: Liverpool meet Debrecen for the first time, even after 300 European games; Arsenal revisit the scene of their biggest win, home or away, the 7-0 romp in Liège 16 years ago. The serious stuff comes later.

Group-by-group guide


Group A: Juventus v Bordeaux; Maccabi Haifa v Bayern Munich No more Pavel Nedved at Juve, but Fabio Cannavaro, Alessandro del Piero and David Trezeguet are still part of an ageing squad. Bordeaux, French champions under Laurent Blanc, can make the group a three-way struggle with Louis van Gaal's Bayern.

Group B: Besiktas v Manchester United; Wolfsburg v CSKA Moscow Like the other English clubs, United were luckier with the draw than they might have been. However, they still face three perilous away trips, starting in hostile Istanbul. German champions Wolfsburg, who are due at Old Trafford in two weeks' time, will be interesting.

Group C: Marseille v Milan; Zurich v Real Madrid Madrid, with their £200m signings, and Milan, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in for Kaka and Leonardo replacing Carlo Ancelotti as coach, will be expected to sail through. But that may depend on how fast Marseille settle under Didier Deschamps.

Group D: Atletico Madrid v Apoel Nicosia; Chelsea v Porto Although not the Porto of 2004, Jose Mourinho's old club regularly make the knockout stage. They must be wary of Chelsea and also Atletico, who have a formidable striking partnership in Sergio Aguero and prolific (yes, really) Diego Forlan.


Group E: Liverpool v Debrecen; Lyon v Fiorentina Liverpool begin against the most modest of Hungarian opposition before travelling to Florence a fortnight later. The Italians only scraped through the qualifying round against Sporting Lisbon. So Lyon, despite losing their French crown, may be stronger rivals.

Group F: Internazionale v Barcelona; Dynamo Kiev v Rubin Kazan The match of the week by a long, long way takes place in the San Siro as Mourinho resumes his abrasive rivalry with Barça. The latter's judgement will be on the line after swapping Samuel Eto'o and a huge fee for Inter's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, valuing the Swede at some £60m.

Group G: Seville v Unirea Urziceni; Stuttgart v Rangers Not the worst group for Rangers, especially as Stuttgart have lost their main striker Mario Gomez to Bayern. Seville, however, did manage to turn down £12m for the Brazilian forward Luis Fabiano. Unirea from Romania are the unknown quantity.

Group H: Olympiakos v AZ Alkmaar; Standard Liège v Arsenal Little travel and three beatable opponents for Arsenal, starting with the Belgian champions, who have reached this stage for the first time. So have Ronald Koeman's Alkmaar, although Olympiakos, with former Aston Villa defender Olof Mellberg and ex-Blackburn striker Matt Derbyshire, are more experienced.

Odds (William Hill): 4-1 Barcelona; 9-2 Real Madrid; 11-2 Chelsea; 6-1 Manchester United; 7-1 Arsenal; 8-1 Liverpool; 12-1 Inter; 22-1 Milan; 25-1 Bayern, Juventus; 33-1 Lyon, Seville; 40-1 Atletico, Wolfsburg; 66-1 Porto; 80-1 Stuttgart; 100-1 bar.

Steve Tongue