United enjoy the luck of champions

Ferguson praises 'good draw' against Porto, Arsenal play Villarreal, while Liverpool and Chelsea meet yet again, with a chance of facing Barcelona.
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The Independent Football

Sir Alex Ferguson was of the opinion earlier this week that any team trying to win five trophies in one season would need an uncommon degree of luck. If yesterday's Champions League quarter-final draw was anything to go by then United are a very lucky team indeed.

The European champions face Porto next month and then the winners of Arsenal and Villarreal in the semi-finals on the road to the final in Rome. They have avoided the pitfalls of an all-English draw and, in the Portuguese champions, have an opponent who are the least dangerous in such elite company. As for Barcelona, it is Chelsea or Liverpool who face the prospect of playing them in the semi-finals. "United have a better draw," Rafael Benitez said yesterday and there were very few who were arguing with him.

The Liverpool manager is unwilling to betray any weakness in public so he will treat another knockout tie against Chelsea with the same cold-eyed pragmatism: another opponent to be out-thought, another strategic battle to be won. In private he too must be wondering at the tedium of a fifth consecutive Champions League meeting between Liverpool and Chelsea, a tie that began as a novelty in the semi-final of 2005 but has since then started to feel about as monotonous a prospect as the Boat Race.

Even Frank Lampard said this month that he and his Chelsea team-mates were "a bit fed-up" with facing Liverpool in the Champions League and you could understand what he meant. As well as their eight games in Europe in the previous four seasons, they also faced each other in the 2005 Carling Cup final and the 2006 FA Cup semi-finals. The narrowing down of the Champions League to a small elite means that there are not many surprises left anyway. But it is getting to the stage where it would be a shock if Chelsea and Liverpool did not draw one another.

Benitez's chief complaint yesterday was that he will have to play the first leg at Anfield, rather than the second which is what he would have preferred. And with good reason, the three meetings of these two sides in the knockout rounds have gone the way of the side that played at home in the second leg. "For me it is always worse when you play the first leg at home and then the second away," Benitez said. "But we can't do anything about it. The draw has been made. If we progress then we face Bayern Munich or Barcelona. That will be really difficult too. What happened in the semi-final last season won't really have any bearing on the outcome this time. We know we made a mistake in the last minute at home [John Arne Riise's own goal to make it 1-1]. That was the difference. It's a different season and some of the players are different. It will be similar in terms of the rivalry between both teams, but totally different."

It is old news for everyone else bar Guus Hiddink who will become the third Chelsea manager since 2005 to take on Benitez's Liverpool. Jose Mourinho lost twice to Chelsea in the knockout rounds and the wound of what he called Luis Garcia's "ghost goal" in 2005 never really healed.

"I was listening and watching for the players' reactions," Hiddink said. "They were very curious asking 'Who? Who? Who?' Then when it was confirmed, there was: "Aw, not again'. It was a good reaction. That's positive for us and was not negative. It's exciting. I love the atmosphere in those tight games, it is threatening and you have to 'arm' yourself. There's very enthusiastic support for the home team and it must give even more courage and energy to the away team to face this. That is football. I love those circumstances. The players who can cope with that pressure are the big players, and big players show themselves on those nights."

Hiddink has only been to Anfield once when he was in charge of the Netherlands, winning the Euro '96 play-off qualifier there 2-0 against the Republic of Ireland. He won the European Cup with PSV Eindhoven in 1988 but he said that he understood Roman Abramovich's obsession with winning the Champions League. "Realistically, we'll fight for every chance this year in the Premier League, but the Champions League is the one every manager and player dreams of," he said. "That's the ultimate challenge of a player and a coach. But you need some luck to get through and achieve that.

"Some English or Scottish managers have done it [won the Champions League]. But not with two different clubs. Winning with PSV was at the beginning of my career. Now I'm getting a little grey at the end of my career. It would be perfect for everyone. We hope we don't get injury problems, that the squad is filled with quality players. These games are so tight they can go either way."

Rio Ferdinand said yesterday that United had "unfinished business" with Porto, who eliminated them in 2004, although really that ghost was laid to rest with the defeat of Mourinho and Internazionale in the previous round. Unlike in 2004, United are at home in the first leg this time.

"You sometimes wonder if being at home first is a good or a bad thing," Ferguson said, "but I think in this modern-day competition there is no indication of what is better." Ferguson acknowledged this was "a good draw for us" and although Porto are 23-time champions of Portugal, that is indisputable. They were beaten 4-0 by Arsenal at the Emirates in the group stages in September and, despite their pre-eminence domestically, they are still a selling club. United acquired Luis Anderson from Porto in the summer of 2007. Elimination to Porto would represent a huge shock for United.

The return of Robert Pires – even older than Ryan Giggs – to Arsenal with Villarreal is the most interesting aspect of a rematch of the 2006 semi-final. "It's an interesting case," Arsène Wenger said. "We will have to keep him quiet because he's a guy who can make the difference. I still have him on the phone many times. Robert is doing very well. He is 36 this year and still playing. He's a fantastic player."

How our experts see it: Who will be champions?

James Lawton Chief Sports Writer

Winners Arsenal

Runners-up Barcelona

Sam Wallace Football Correspondent

Winners Manchester United

Runners-up Barcelona

Glenn Moore Football Editor

Winners Liverpool

Runners-up Manchester United

Neil Warnock Columnist and Crystal Palace manager

Winners Bayern Munich

Runners-up Manchester United

Jason Burt Football Writer

Winners Manchester United

Runners-up Barcelona

Ian Herbert Football Writer

Winners Manchester United

Runners-up Barcelona

Reds against Blues: History of an epic duel

Liverpool and Chelsea have met eight times before in the Champions League:

27 April 2005

Semi-final first leg

Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

3 May 2005

Semi-final second leg

Liverpool 1 (Garcia) Chelsea 0

*Liverpool win 1-0 on aggregate

28 Sept 2005

Group stage

Liverpool 0 Chelsea 0

6 Dec 2005

Group stage

Chelsea 0 Liverpool 0

25 April 2007

Semi-final first leg

Chelsea 1 (J Cole) Liverpool 0

1 May 2007

Semi-final second leg

Liverpool 1 (Agger) Chelsea 0

*1-1 on aggregate, Liverpool win 4-1 on penalties

22 April 2008

Semi-final first leg

Liverpool 1 (Kuyt) Chelsea 1 (Riise og)

30 April 2008

Semi-final second leg

Chelsea 3 (Drogba 2, Lampard pen) Liverpool 2 (Torres, Babel)

*aet, Chelsea win 4-3 on aggregate

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