The players of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United will not be interrupting training this morning to gather around a portable television to discover who they are paired with in today's draw for the Champions' League's first knock-out round. With each having produced impressive conclusions to the group stage, the draw, to be made in Nyon, Switzerland, at 11am, holds few fears.
It helps that they are each seeded. That is not always relevant but today it would seem to confer an advantage. Having topped their groups, the English trio cannot meet Real Madrid, the favourites, Milan, the holders, Juventus, last season's runners-up, or the French pair Monaco and Lyon. Instead they will draw either Bayern Munich, VfB Stuttgart, Deportivo La Coruña, Real Sociedad, Celta Vigo, Sparta Prague, Porto or Lokomotiv Moscow. Clubs cannot draw compatriots, nor teams they met in the group stage.
The German and Spanish clubs look the greater threat, though Bayern are having a fitful season and both Sociedad and Vigo are languishing in La Liga's relegation zone. The seeded teams will play their home legs second. Not, as the Arsenal manager, Arsène Wenger, noted after his team's qualification on Wednesday, that that is always a benefit with the modern game so influenced by counter-attacking. "We'll take anybody, I don't mind who we play," Wenger added. His team yesterday echoed his thoughts. "We do not fear anyone," Patrick Vieira said. "We've showed we can beat any team."
He added: "We have a stronger squad than previously. We have more experience, we are more mature and I feel we are ready to make real progress."
Milan's success last season was built on defence, as was Bayern Munich's in 2001. But Thierry Henry insisted that Arsenal should follow the attacking philosophy which has served them so well domestically. "We can't go out and just try and stay at the back," he said. "We must play our game. That's how we can win. We must play high up the pitch, as we did against Lokomotiv Moscow and in Milan." Robert Pires concurred. "What is important is that we impose our style on the game whoever we play," he said.
Vieira suggested the presence of three Premiership clubs in the last 16, all of them seeded, "shows how strong the English League is". Up to a point. It shows how good these three teams are but, as the Premiership table illustrates, they are way ahead of the pack. Newcastle's Champions' League qualifying-round defeat to Partizan Belgrade, and Manchester City's Uefa Cup exit to the unknown Poles, Groclin, confirm the gap.
The gulf is underlined by England's big three having prospered through the autumn despite European commitments. Traditionally it is only now that the juggernauts begin to roll. Instead they can be expected to extend a domestic differential which already stands at nine points. "My concern now is to concentrate on the Premiership," Wenger said. The message was the same at Stamford Bridge, where Claudio Ranieri said, "I've told my players to focus on the Premiership", and at Old Trafford where Alex Ferguson rested players in midweek ahead of the Manchester derby this weekend.
The Champions' League returns in 2004 with the knock-out ties scheduled for 24 to 25 February and 9 to 10 March. Before then, clubs can add up to three players to their rosters during the transfer window. The English trio have each been linked with new signings.
Chelsea, who have the greatest funds, are thought to be looking for a defender who can play right-back, with Michel Salgado, of Real Madrid, and Valencia's Roberto Ayala the prime targets. However, neither would be eligible for Europe having played in the Champions' League and Uefa Cup, respectively, earlier this season.
United are chasing a forward. Among those on an eight-man shortlist are Mark Viduka and Jermain Defoe who are eligible for Europe, and Nicolas Anelka and Anderlecht's Aruna Dindane who are not. Depending on what happens to Rio Ferdinand when his drugs test case is heard next week, they may also be in the market for a central defender.
Arsenal have the thinnest squad and just £10m with which to strengthen it, but Wenger now says he is unsure whether he would want to spend. If he does, the investment will be in defence or attacking support for Henry.
Incidentally, Arsenal's manager and players both pin-pointed Ashley Cole's late winner in the fourth group tie, against Dynamo Kiev, as the turning point. In the event, had that match been drawn, all four teams in Group B would have finished with eight points, a Champions' League first.
Arsenal would then have progressed on goal difference with Kiev second. But if Cole's goal was irrelevant mathematically to Arsenal, mentally it was huge. Without that lift they are unlikely to have won 5-1 in Milan and would now, at best, be contemplating the Uefa Cup.