Chelsea return for Italian challenge

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REPORTS OF a "group of death" did not prove premature when the second phase of the Champions' League was drawn yesterday but, much to the relief of England's representatives, Manchester United and Chelsea, neither club was placed in it.

REPORTS OF a "group of death" did not prove premature when the second phase of the Champions' League was drawn yesterday but, much to the relief of England's representatives, Manchester United and Chelsea, neither club was placed in it.

Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Dynamo Kiev and Rosenborg Trondheim, who comprise Group C, is a combination designed to make anyone feel off-colour, so in comparison both English clubs came off relatively lightly, although neither will feel particularly blessed.

United's principal opposition is likely to come from either Fiorentina or Valencia while Chelsea will return to Italy to face the team that succeeded them as the holders of the Cup-Winners' Cup, Lazio.

United, the holders and top seeds, could not face a club from their own country but did the next best thing because Fiorentina removed Arsenal when they won at Wembley while Valencia's two defeats of Rangers effectively ended the the Scottish champion's hopes. The other team in Group B are Bordeaux, whom Eric Cantona played for briefly in the 1980s.

United's secretary, Ken Merrett, said: "It's a very attractive draw. We don't have a long history with any of the clubs but they're great places to go to."

United's first match of the second phase will be away to Fiorentina, whose principal player is Gabriel Batistuta, a former Old Trafford target, followed by successive home matches - albeit split by nearly three months - against Valencia and Bordeaux. The chance to sample the clarets of south-west France will not come until 7 March.

In the French league, Bordeaux are above Marseilles, who got a win and a draw against United in the first phase, a fact that will act as an encouragement according to their president, Jean-Louis Triaud. "Marseilles proved that United are beatable," he said. "Maybe they will take more care against French teams now."

Fiorentina's general manager, Giancarlo Antognoni, was more circumspect. "United are the team to beat but we have to try to finish second; we have to beat Valencia and Bordeaux," he said. "We always have good matches against English teams and we're looking forward to it."

Chelsea's Group D campaign begins with a comparatively low-key home game against Feyenoord, but they then travel to Rome and the home of the European Super Cup winners, Lazio, before two potentially decisive fixtures with Marseilles on 29 February and 8 March. These will mark a homecoming for Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly, who began their careers at the Vélodrome.

A Feyenoord spokesman said his club may consider a ban on Chelsea fans for the second leg.

"I don't know whether Chelsea fans will be allowed to come here, we will have to wait and see," the spokesman said, also hinting that Feyenoord fans may be barred from the first leg.

In the Champions' League plate, sorry the Uefa Cup, Leeds will return to Moscow, the scene of Thursday's 3-0 success against Lokomotiv, to face Spartak, a draw that is unlikely to lighten the mood of their manager, David O'Leary, who has decried the system whereby third-placed teams from the premier European competition join in the third round. Spartak finished behind Sparta Prague and Bordeaux in the Champions' League first phase, but as the legs are to be played in late November and December, that old Russian ally, General Winter, may yet have a say.

Newcastle will travel to Italy in the first leg against the team that knocked Leeds out of the Uefa Cup last season, Roma, while Rangers face Borussia Dortmund.

Arsenal's manager, Arsÿne Wenger, will return to his native land to face Nantes, a draw which was welcomed by the club's vice-chairman, David Dein. "Our team is half-French," he said, "so I think they'll know a lot about them."

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