Ferguson talks up underdogs in United's long-haul group

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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson last night insisted his Manchester United side's Champions League draw was far from easy despite evidence to the contrary. United's group includes CSKA Moscow, Besiktas and Wolfsburg.

"These are difficult ties, especially the trips to Russia and Turkey," Ferguson said. "CSKA have developed strongly in the last few years, and games in Turkey are always difficult. We also know the quality that we're up against with Wolfsburg, with what they achieved in the Bundesliga last season."

David Gill, United's chief executive , however, felt his club should be content with the outcome: "Overall we have got to be happy with it," he said.

United face long trips to Istanbul and Moscow but Gill saw no reason why that should impact on United's Premier League title defence. "You can get too psyched out by those sort of things," he said, before reflecting on United's penalty shoot-out triumph over Chelsea in Moscow in the 2008 final. "We are looking forward to going back to Moscow after those great scenes in 2008."

Arsenal's chief executive Ivan Gazidis was in no mood to underestimate the challenge facing the Gunners against AZ Alkmaar, Olympiakos and Standard Liège. "Some might look at it [Group H] and see it as an automatic pass but we don't see it like that," Gazidis said. "We think it will be very tough. But we won't lose our focus. We have a very determined group.

"It is good to have relatively short travel times and we would like to get off to a good start [at home to Standard Liège]. We would also like to qualify as early as we can out of the group phase. We are playing clubs from three great leagues and there is a reason that all of them have reached this stage of the competition," Gazidis said. "But we are very, very focused game-to-game – we lost a bit of that last season but this time it is different."

Atletico Madrid president Enrique Cerezo is confident his side can be one of the two clubs to progress out of their group despite being handed a tricky draw. Atletico, who secured their spot in the group stages after defeating Panathinaikos 5-2 in the play-off round, were included alongside Chelsea, Porto and Apoel Nicosia in Group D.

Chelsea were semi-finalists last season and were finalists in 2008, while Porto knocked Atletico out at the first knock-out stage last time out on the away goals rule. Despite that, Cerezo believes his side can get through the group stages again this season: "I'm always optimistic and therefore I have total confidence in my team. You have to keep in mind that the teams who participate in this competition are the best in Europe, so any opponent is difficult to beat. Whilst always being humble, I think that Atletico Madrid have a very good chance to get through to the following phase. Chelsea could be the most difficult for us, but we will fight to get our place in the last 16."

Pick of the draw: The games to look out for

Milan v Real Madrid

An emotional return to San Siro for Kaka after his summer move from to Madrid. The draw also gives Klaas-Jan Huntelaar the perfect opportunity to prove Madrid wrong after they allowed him to leave in the summer.

Bayern Munich v Juventus

Two European giants come face to face but it remains to be seen whether Bayern will still have Franck Ribéry in their ranks. They will, though, be boosted by the arrival of Arjen Robben.

Internazionale v Barcelona

Revenge will be the order of the day when Jose Mourinho takes Inter to the Nou Camp. The former Chelsea manager was overlooked for the Barcelona job last year. The tie also pits Samuel Eto'o and Zlatan Ibrahimovic against their former clubs.

Groups: The English challenge

Manchester United (Group B)

CSKA Moscow

Already well into their season, which should make them a threat in the autumn group stages but usually undermines Russian clubs' chances come the competition's resumption in February. Overcame that handicap to win the Uefa Cup in 2005 but have never advanced past the group stages in the Champions League. Currently sitting fourth in the domestic league but, while only finishing second last season, have won the title twice in the last four years.

Dangerman: Diminutive Brazilian striker Vagner Love. Has scored 95 goals in 184 games.


Their Ionau stadium has a setting worth travelling to the brink of Asia to visit. The team are less impressive. Though they beat Liverpool at home a few years ago, they were thrashed 8-0 at Anfield. Usually overshadowed by Fenerbahce and Galatasaray but won the Turkish Super League for only the second time in 14 years last year and completed the double with a Turkish Cup success. Veteran national goalkeeper Rustu is in their ranks.

Dangerman: Bobo. The Brazilian joined three years ago and has scored 74 goals in 143 games.


The VW works team, won their first title since the start of the Bundesliga last term. Have lost coach Felix Magath to Schalke but not too many players.

Dangerman: Obafemi Martins. Inconsistent but an explosive shot.

Chelsea (Group D)


Like Chelsea they are still pining for the 'Special One', but at least Chelsea are likely to recover. Perennial Portuguese champions but finding it increasingly difficult to threaten in Europe. Sold key figures Lisandro and Lucho to France, for big bucks, and sought, as usual, to replace them by raiding smaller Portuguese teams and the South American market. Could still be dangerous in the Dragao, less so away.

Dangerman: Hulk. Given his nickname because of his powerful build, but also as he looks like Lou Ferrigno.

Atletico Madrid

The other team in Spain's capital, and don't they know it. Still, in Sergio Aguero they have a player all of Europe covets and one with the skill to unlock any defence. Diego Forlan has an impressive goals record since leaving Old Trafford and Simao, on his day, is a handful. Not so polished at the back, and very impatient in the boardroom which may play on coach Abel Resino's mind.

Dangerman: Sergio Aguero. Father of Maradona's grandson, and a very good player in his own right.

Apoel Nicosia

Twenty domestic titles but that will cut no ice on Champions League debut. The group's whipping boys have a mix of Brazilians and Portuguese amid the Greeks and Cypriots.

Dangerman: Michalis Morfis. If the Cyprus goalkeeper can keep a clean sheet he could destabilise Chelsea's campaign.

Liverpool (Group E)


Spent heavily in pre-season as Claude Puel's side looked to bounce back from a first title-less season in eight years. The loss of Karim Benzema and free-kick expert Juninho will be keenly felt, but Lisandro Lopez, a £21m signing from Porto, scored on his debut against Le Mans and will present a danger. Previous best showing in Champions League was the quarter-finals three years in succession between 2004 and 2006.

Dangerman: Lisandro Lopez. Powerful and prolific striker.


Not been the same since Gabriel Batistuta left town, but capable of bright moments under the experienced Cesare Prandelli. Lost Melo – once an Arsenal target – to Juventus. Marchionni has made the journey in reverse along with Torino's Natali.

Dangerman: Alberto Gilardino. Never quite cracked it at Milan but still a threat.


The Hungarians were once the greatest footballers in the world, but those days are long gone and Debrecen will be just delighted to be in the competition as the first Hungarian team in 14 years to qualify for group stages. Title winners four times in five years.

Dangerman: Leandro. Brazilian playmaker who has Hungarian nationality and been capped 10 times by his adopted country.

Arsenal (Group H)

AZ 67 Alkmaar

Now under the guidance of Ronald Koeman who knocked Arsenal out of the competition when coaching PSV Eindhoven. Took over from Louis van Gaal who prompted one of Dutch football's biggest shocks when he led AZ to the title ahead of Steve McClaren's Twente, leaving Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, the big three, trailing. Runners-up to Ipswich in the 1981 Uefa Cup Final.

Dangerman: Mounir El Hamdaoui. The Egyptian was top scorer in the Eredivisie last season with 23 goals in 31 appearances. Briefly with Tottenham and Derby.


The Greek side had to come through two rounds of qualifying to reach the group stages. They have decent Champions League experience but are one of the outsiders, and have not made it further than the quarter-finals. Never easy to play at home, but poor travellers.

Dangerman: Matt Derbyshire. Scored eight goals in 13 goals on loan from Blackburn at Olympiakos last season and has since made the deal permanent.

Standard Liège

Worried Liverpool and Everton last season, enough for David Moyes to sign Marouane Fellaini. Since lost Oguchi Onyewu, the big American defender, but have retained Steven Defour. Debut in the Champions League.

Dangerman: Defour. He makes the midfield tick.

The rest...

Group A

Bayern Munich, Juventus, Bordeaux, Maccabi Haifa

Bayern and Juve, with six European Cups between them, will be favoured to progress

Group C

Milan, Real Madrid, Marseille, FC Zurich

The European Cup's two most sucessful sides meet in the group stages

Group F

Barcelona, Internazionale, Dynamo Kiev, Rubin Kazan

Ibrahimovic of Barca and Inter's Eto'o get early chance to face former sides

Group G

Sevilla, Rangers, Stuttgart, Unirea Urziceni

Tough ask for Walter Smith's side

Tournament odds (William Hill)

4/1 Barcelona; 9/2 R Madrid; 11/2 Chelsea; 6/1 Manchester U; 7/1 Arsenal; 8/1 Liverpool; 12/1 Internazionale; 22/1 Milan; 25/1 B Munich; Juventus; 33/1 Lyons; Seville; 40/1 A Madrid; Wolfsburg; 80/1 Porto; Stuttgart; 100/1 Fiorentina; Olympiakos; 125/1 Bordeaux; 150/1 AZ Alkmaar; Marseille; 200/1 CSKA; Rangers; 250/1 Besiktas; D Kiev; R Kazan; 500/1 S Liege; U Urziceni; 750/1 Maccabi; 1,000/1 Apoel; Debrecen; Zurich.

All-English final: 3/1

All-Spanish final: 11/2

Premier League side to win: 11/10

Best Premier League performer: Chelsea 7/4, Arsenal, Manchester Utd 11/4, Liverpool 7/2.

Key dates: Group matches 15/16 Sept, 29/30; 20/21 Oct; 3/4 Nov, 24/25; 8/9 Dec; Knockout round (first leg) 16/17/23/24 Feb & (second leg) 9/10/16/17 March; Quarter-finals 30/31 March & 6/7 April ; Semi-finals 20/21 April & 27/28 April; Final (Madrid, Spain) 22 May