Liverpool still the freak bet as Wenger seeks slice of fortune

Champions' League: Favourites Chelsea must balance the demands better this time as Ferguson fights the trend
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The Independent Football

Anything Liverpool can do, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and, well, Liverpool are entitled to think they can emulate. Unfortunately for the four English clubs, and Rangers, setting out this week on another quest for European club football's most prestigious trophy, there are half-a-dozen others across Europe with the same belief, as well as a group of outsiders who wonder whether they might just continue the trend set by Porto and the reigning champions.

Arsenal's manager, Arsène Wenger, who spends more time than most in front of a screen showing football matches from around the world, lists the top 10 contenders without hesitation, adding to his own club: "Liverpool, Chelsea, Man United, you can put the two Milan clubs in there, Juventus, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich. It could be an outsider - Lyon can create a surprise."

The bookmakers are not inclined to argue, listing Chelsea as narrow favourites ahead of Barcelona, whom they edged out in the wildly dramatic first knockout round last season, by virtue of John Terry's disputed goal at Stamford Bridge. (Not only, it may be remembered, did Ricardo Carvalho deserve an assist for his foul on the goalkeeper, but Terry himself now admits: "I gave my marker a little shove.")

That extra round of cup football, replacing the second group stage, has undoubtedly increased the unpredictability of the competition, and led to such unusual suspects as Porto and Liverpool winning it. It is necessary, however, to delve a good way down the betting lists to find either of them this time, for different reasons.

Porto's superbly organised side of two years ago began to disintegrate as soon as Jose Mourinho left, not least because he took half of the back four with him to Chelsea; Rangers' two games with them ought to decide who accompanies Internazionale through the group stage, and a home victory at Ibrox on Tuesday would be another tonic for Scottish football.

As for Liverpool, the extra-ordinary success of a side who finished 37 points behind Mourinho's in the Premiership is regarded as such a freak that the odds of 22-1 against them are almost as long as they were a year ago. Seeing Steven Gerrard reduced from heroic figure holding up the trophy one amazing night in Istanbul to depressed one slouching from the Windsor Park pitch last Wednesday, looking far from fit, cannot inspire even the most devout Liverpudlian to want a wager.

The holders' first match, away to Real Betis on Tuesday, will be of huge significance, with a home game against Chelsea to come, and they will do well to take something from it if Gerrard is still below par.

Mourinho and his squad must balance the demands, to a degree they could not quite manage last season, of the Premiership and Champions' League, which only Man-chester United (in 1999) have achieved since the latter competition incorporated a group stage or two.

"It can be done," Wenger believes, though Arsenal have never been close. "You need luck in having no major injuries in the final sprint, losing a big player. For example Man United, how many times that season did Sheringham or Solskjaer win them a game coming on? If just one of them had been injured, they would not have won the European Cup. That's where the luck comes in."

The feeling of leading bookmakers, who have Arsenal outside the top six (last season they were favourites) is that with Patrick Vieira gone the final season at Highbury will be one of transition.

It is a concept that few managers are allowed these days, and Wenger appears sincere in disputing the notion: "I fight very hard to convince the squad it's not a transitional year. I don't see why they should think that. Because we lost Patrick Vieira? We have lost big players before, massive players, and come back.

"We have replaced Patrick Vieira with Hleb, who is a big player. I accept we never have won the European Cup but we're not as bad as some people say. We're in the top [group of seeds] and it's not easy to be in there, because there are some good teams in the second group."

Arsenal have, at least, the most favourable draw of the five British clubs, and anything other than an emphatic win over the little Swiss side Thun ("nearly a village," Wenger admits) will be a hugely inau-spicious start to their eighth successive tilt at the title.

It is 10 in a row for United and Sir Alex Ferguson, though only one semi-final in six years since the glory that was Barcelona '99. Like Liverpool, they begin in Spain, against Villarreal, who have already eliminated Everton and have Diego Forlan ("He comes from Uruguay/He made the Scousers cry") keen to have Old Trafford weeping tears of regret for letting him go.

"I'm not a bit surprised how well he's done," Ferguson said. "His only problem here was that we didn't give him enough football. Because he's South American he found it difficult to be a bit player. That's the reason we let him go. He was an intelligent boy and a good professional. His goal ratio wasn't bad. He had a run of eight games and he scored seven goals. That's when I should probably have persevered with him."

Odds (William Hill): 5-1 Chelsea, 6-1 Barcelona, 15-2 Milan, Real Madrid, 8-1 Juventus, 10-1 Manchester Utd, 11-1 Arsenal.

OPERATION EUROPE: BRITISH CLUBS IN THE CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE

Tuesday: Group G

Chelsea v Anderlecht

Anderlecht have raced away to a good start in the Belgian League, with their new Turkish striker Serhat Akin prominent, but it is more relevant that in an admittedly tough group last season they lost all six games, to Internazionale, Werder Bremen and Valencia. Whoever Jose Mourinho rotates between yesterday and Tuesday, Chelsea should be good enough to open with a victory.

Key opponent: Vincent Kompany.

Tuesday: Group G

Real Betis v Liverpool

Having played more games in Europe (seven) than in the Premiership (three) this season, Liverpool should be ready for this tricky start. Betis pipped Sevilla to Spain's fourth Champions' League place largely on the back of goals from Ricardo Oliveira and Joaquin's exciting wing-play down the right.

Key opponent: Ricardo Oliveira.

Tuesday: Group H

Rangers v Porto

Co Adriaanse is the fourth coach in 12 months to try to replace Mourinho, whose Porto team have now broken up. With Jorge Costa's old legs finally giving out, they are likely to include only a couple of survivors from the Champions' League-winning side, including the goalkeeper Vitor Baia.

Key opponent: Vitor Baia.

Wednesday: Group B

Arsenal v Thun

With nothing other than one (losing) Swiss Cup final 50 years ago to boast about, the little lakeside club are the biggest outsiders other than Rangers' group opponents Artmedia Bratislava. They did manage to beat Dynamo Kiev and Malmo in qualifying rounds on the back of goals from Mauro Lustrinelli and Tiago Bernardi, one of three Brazilian signings.

Key opponent: Tiago Bernardi.

Wednesday: Group D

Villarreal v Manchester Utd

Despite losing goalkeeper Jose Reina to Liverpool, Villarreal's greatest priority in the summer was to keep the outstandingly creative Juan Roman Riquelme, as well as Old Trafford flop Diego Forlan. They helped make Everton look pedestrian, and United may be happy to avoid defeat before winnable home games against Lille and Benfica.

Key opponent: Juan Roman Riquelme.

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