Europe's elite renew quest for ultimate prize

Champions League: Group stages kick off tonight with big-spending Lazio the favourites but the final outcome is still as difficult to predict as ever
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The Independent Football

All roads are expected to lead from Rome next May when, according to bookmakers, pundits, and their own supporters, Lazio will make the short trip up the autostrada to Milan's San Siro stadium to play, and win, the 46th European Cup final.

All roads are expected to lead from Rome next May when, according to bookmakers, pundits, and their own supporters, Lazio will make the short trip up the autostrada to Milan's San Siro stadium to play, and win, the 46th European Cup final.

That is the plan and even Lazio's opponents seem hard-pressed to dispute it. Take Arsÿne Wenger, the manager of Arsenal, the Italian champions' main rivals in the first group stage of the Champions' League which opens today at venues from Lisbon to Donetsk.

"Lazio are the favourites," said Wenger yesterday as Arsenal prepared to meet Sparta Prague in a Group B match. "They had a strong team last year and now they have bought Hernan Crespo and Claudio Lopez to join a forward line which already had Simone, Inzaghi and Salas. It is a [Boeing] 747 of a forward line."

But though the Lazio president, Sergio Cragnotti, has spent millions of pounds in an attempt to establish a new Roman empire across the European game, many more millions have been collectively lavished by their rivals.

Wenger added: "There are other super-favourites, like Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Manchester United. Then there are the second rank of favourites, who include us."

And this without even mentioning the holders, Real Madrid, now with Luis Figo but not Fernando Redondo; Juventus, strengthened by the arrival of David Trézéguet; and Milan, who have signed Redondo.

Also in the frame are the Spanish champions Deportivo La Coruña, last year's runners-up Valencia, Monaco and Paris St-Germain and, perhaps, even Rangers and Galatasaray.

Thus for all Lazio's strengths the Champions' Cup is wide open, as it has been for the last decade during which nine different clubs have won it, only Real doing so twice.

Well, maybe not quite "wide open", for several of the above teams are long shots while as for the other 18 clubs, as Wenger added: "There are so many games now it is like a championship, I don't think an outsider like Rosenborg can win."

It thus looks like a closed shop dominated by a small élite of wealthy clubs, and yet it is not. Lazio, for example, may be the current Italian champions and the biggest spenders in a profligate game, but five years ago they were just another team of pretenders. Last season's domestic title was only the second in their history and until lifting the final edition of the Cup-Winners' Cup in 1999 they had never reached a European final. Money talks but a famous history guarantees nothing, which is why clubs like Milan want a genuine "closed shop" super league.

The fluctuating nature of success was illustrated by the appearance of Valencia in last year's final, their first, while Borussia Dortmund, winners in 1997, failed to qualify this year. Juventus, Ajax, Marseilles and Milan, all winners since the Champions' League format began in 1992-93, have also had seasons of exile.

If anything the closed shop is on the margins. Teams like Rosenborg, Sparta Prague and Dynamo Kiev have become so wealthy from their Champions' League campaigns that they are utterly dominant in their domestic forum.

They may never win the European Cup for their squads are not deep enough and their stars will always be lured away by the higher wages of the big western European leagues but, unlike Liverpool, Benfica, Dortmund and Ajax, they are in the competition, this year and every year.

Some of these teams, in the opening group stage, may spring a surprise with the Spanish and Italian clubs especially vulnerable. " La Primera Liga only kicked off at the weekend which could," added Wenger, "be a disadvantage to the Spanish clubs."

David O'Leary, who has a formidable representative of each league in Leeds' group (Barcelona and Milan), was less convinced. "They prepare so well these days I do not think it will make a difference."

Yet while their players did spend their summer on the beach (the Spanish press photographed the bucket-and-spade activities of Figo and Zinedine Zidane on a daily basis, the latter in the hope that they would catch him flying from Majorca to Barcelona), they were only getting fatter in the wallet. Still, they are unlikely to be match-sharp and tomorrow is as good a time as any for Leeds to visit the Nou Camp.

If there is another benefit from the Champions' League's expansion it is in the contribution it has made to reducing the English game's insularity.

ITV's coverage has attracted large audiences, even when English teams are not involved, and, with Channel Four and Sky's coverage of the Italian and Spanish leagues, a growing awareness of the foreign game is being fostered, which may prompt a better appreciation of England's real status. A good clue is the probable presence of just 16 Englishmen in this week's starting line-ups.

Never mind, 37 of the players who appeared in the Euro 2000 semi-finals are present and there should be some excellent football. It is European showtime again and while, like the Premiership, it is bloated and fiscally selfish, in the jargon of the money and marketing men who underwrite its success, it is a great product.

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE GROUPS AND FIXTURES

GROUP A

Real Madrid, Spartak Moscow, Bayer Leverkusen (Ger), Sporting Lisbon

Tonight: Spartak v Leverkusen; Sporting v Real Madrid. Wed 20 Sept: Real Madrid v Spartak; Leverkusen v Sporting. Wed 27 Sept: Leverkusen v Real Madrid; Spartak v Sporting. Tue 17 Oct: Real Madrid v Leverkusen; Sporting v Spartak. Wed 25 Oct: Leverkusen v Spartak; Real Madrid v Sporting. Tue 7 Nov: Spartak v Real Madrid; Sporting v Leverkusen.

GROUP B

Lazio (It), Sparta Prague, Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukr)

Tonight: Sparta Prague v Arsenal; Shakhtar Donetsk v Lazio. Wed 20 Sept: Lazio v Sparta Prague; Arsenal v Shakhtar Donetsk. Wed 27 Sept: Arsenal v Lazio; Sparta Prague v Donetsk. Tue 17 Oct: Lazio v Arsenal; Shakhtar Donetsk v Sparta Prague. Wed 25 Oct: Arsenal v Sparta Prague; Lazio v Shakhtar Donetsk. Tue 7 Nov: Sparta Prague v Lazio; Shakhtar Donetsk v Arsenal.

GROUP C

Heerenveen (Neth), Valencia, Olympiakos (Gr), Lyon (Fr)

Tonight: Valencia v Olympiakos; Lyon v Heerenveen. Wed 20 Sept: Heerenveen v Valencia; Olympiakos v Lyon. Wed 27 Sept: Olympiakos v Heerenveen; Valencia v Lyon. Tue 17 Oct: Heerenveen v Olympiakos; Lyon v Valencia. Wed 25 Oct: Olympiakos v Valencia; Heerenveen v Lyon. Tue 7 Nov: Valencia v Heerenveen; Lyon v Olympiakos.

GROUP D

Sturm Graz (Aut), Galatasaray (Turk), Monaco, Rangers

Tonight: Galatasaray v Monaco; Rangers v Sturm Graz. Wed 20 Sept: Sturm Graz v Galatasaray; Monaco v Rangers. Wed 27 Sept: Monaco v Sturm Graz; Galatasaray v Rangers. Tue 17 Oct: Sturm Graz v Monaco; Rangers v Galatasaray. Wed 25 Oct: Monaco v Galatasaray; Sturm Graz v Rangers. Tue 7 Nov: Galatasaray v Sturm Graz; Rangers v Monaco.

GROUP E

Deportivo La Coruña (Sp), Hamburg, Juventus, Panathinaikos (Gr)

Tomorrow: Hamburg v Juventus; Panathinaikos v La Coruña. Tue 19 Sept: La Coruña v Hamburg; Juventus v Panathinaikos. Tue 26 Sept: Juventus v La Coruña; Hamburg v Panathinaikos. Wed 18 Oct: La Coruña v Juventus; Panathinaikos v Hamburg. Tue 24 Oct: Juventus v Hamburg; La Coruña v Panathinaikos. Wed 8 Nov: Hamburg v La Coruña; Panathinaikos v Juventus.

GROUP F

Bayern Munich, Rosenborg Trondheim, Paris St-Germain, Helsingborg (Swe)

Tomorrow: Rosenborg v PSG; Helsingborg v Bayern. Tue 19 Sept: Bayern v Rosenborg; PSG v Helsingborg. Tue 26 Sept: PSG v Bayern; Rosenborg v Helsingborg. Wed 18 Oct: Bayern v PSG; Helsingborg v Rosenborg. Tue 24 Oct: PSG v Rosenborg; Bayern v Helsingborg. Wed 8 Nov: Rosenborg v Bayern; Helsingborg v PSG.

GROUP G

Anderlecht (Bel); PSV Eindhoven (Neth), Dynamo Kiev (Ukr), Manchester United

Tomorrow: PSV v Dynamo Kiev; Manchester Utd v Anderlecht. Tue 19 Sept: Anderlecht v PSV; Kiev v Manchester Utd. Tue 26 Sept: Kiev v Anderlecht; PSV v Manchester Utd. Wed 18 Oct: Anderlecht v Dynamo Kiev; Manchester Utd v PSV. Wed 24 Oct: Kiev v PSV; Anderlecht v Manchester Utd. Wed 8 Nov: PSV v Anderlecht; Manchester Utd v Dynamo Kiev.

GROUP H

Besiktas (Turk), Barcelona,Leeds United, Milan

Tomorrow: Barcelona v Leeds; Milan v Besiktas. Tue 19 Sept: Besiktas v Barcelona; Leeds v Milan. Tue 26 Sept: Leeds v Besiktas; Barcelona v Milan. Wed 18 Oct: Besiktas v Leeds; Milan v Barcelona. Wed 24 Oct: Leeds v Barcelona; Besiktas v Milan. Wed 8 Nov: Barcelona v Besiktas; Milan v Leeds.

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