English trio step up quest for glory

Champions' League: Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal eager to take Premiership form into Europe
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The Independent Football

Like the second half of a "before-and-after" advert, England's trio of contenders resume their quest for the Champions' League grail this week almost unrecognisable from the clubs they were when the second phase reached its pre-Christmas cut-off point. Arsenal will even have Dennis Bergkamp playing in a European away game -- now that's unrecognisable.

The change is arguably most pronounced in Manchester United, who visit Nantes tomorrow in the first half of a double-header over the coming week. When they beat Boavista, having opened Group A by drawing in Munich, their staccato season looked to be finding a smoother rhythm. In fact, the nadir of West Ham's victory at Old Trafford was still to come.

Since then, however, United have won 11 out of 12 Premiership matches, eased their fixture congestion by departing the FA Cup and received the massive fillip of Sir Alex Ferguson reneging on all his "definite" decisions to retire.

Liverpool have also undergone a drastic transformation, which they will seek to sustain at home to Galatasaray tomorrow in the meeting of the last two Uefa Cup winners. Already coping with an enforced change at the top, Phil Thompson deputising for the stricken Gérard Houllier, they seemed to be slipping off the pace in the Premiership due to a cautious strategy which relied too heavily on Michael Owen for goals.

Yet no sooner had Liverpool also gone out of the FA Cup than they revived their challenge by triumphing at Manchester United and scoring four and six times respectively away to sides who almost pipped them to a Champions' League place.

The difference in Arsenal, who face Bayer Leverkusen in Germany tonight, is less easy to discern, although, like Ferguson, Arsène Wenger acted during the 11-week European hiatus to end a damaging atmosphere of uncertainty by committing himself to Highbury. Arsenal have also been facing up to the prospect of losing one captain, Patrick Vieira, while welcoming back another, Tony Adams, just as injury and suspension threatened to undermine their season.

How readily the three teams can translate their Premiership form to the Champions' League stage – and the extent to which the attritional affect of Continental combat impacts upon domestic aspirations – remains to be seen. United have a theoretical advantage in experience over the other two, having repeatedly outstayed Arsenal while Liverpool were exiled to lesser cups, and their immediate task looks the least arduous.

Nantes, who eliminated Lazio at a time when they were bottom of their league, have themselves revived on the home front since installing Angel Marcos, an Argentinian coach, on 28 December. But they lost at home to Lille on Saturday, are the only club without a point in the second phase and look too lightweight to become the first French side to reach the last eight during the country's reign as world champions. Four points from their two fixtures looks well within United's capabilities and would leave Ferguson with one foot in the quarter-finals.

Galatasaray are likely to prove more awkward opponents for Liverpool, who have a sapping derby against Everton between their meetings. The Turkish side's confrontations with English teams tend to be volatile affairs and Mircea Lucescu's tenure has been marked by a poor disciplinary record. Having had four men sent off in Saturday's defeat by Fenerbahce, they will also be without the suspended Capone and the Blackburn target Hakan Unsal at Anfield.

Since Liverpool finish with a visit to Barcelona and a home match against Roma, anything less than four points from Galatasaray would make further progress difficult. But then this is their first Champions' League campaign, and the priority must surely be to regain the championship.

Arsenal ought to be better able to balance the dual imperatives, if only because they have done it before. All four clubs in Group D have three points, suggesting a parity that would make any away win precious. Therein lies the snag for Wenger's men, who boast the best record on the road in the Premiership but have lost the last six on their European travels.

Leverkusen are a free-scoring outfit under Klaus Toppmöller, and in Michael Ballack possess one of Europe's hottest properties, at least until he joins Bayern in the summer. But Jens Nowotny, who was in Germany's defence when England beat them 5-1, will not relish his encounter with Thierry Henry, a flier in the Michael Owen mould, or the wiles of Bergkamp, a non-flier in the literal sense who has taken advantage of a domestic suspension to drive to join his colleagues.

All the English clubs may have to find overdrive to thwart the Champions' League favourites. That status belongs to Real Madrid, who host Porto tonight needing to put Sunday's stumble at Bilbao behind them, followed by Juventus, whose United-style surge from sixth place in December sees them receive Deportivo La Coruña as Serie A leaders.