English clubs restore pride and prestige

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The Independent Football

They may not, as Roy Keane pointed out, shout too loudly about it but English football goes into today's Champions' League draw with a smile.

They may not, as Roy Keane pointed out, shout too loudly about it but English football goes into today's Champions' League draw with a smile.

If last season's competition reflected the excellence of the Primera Liga, then the presence of Arsenal, Leeds and Manchester United at least ensures the Premiership's imaginings to be "the best league in the world" will not be entirely ridiculed.

That all three have survived is remarkable and that it was Manchester United that came closest to elimination even more so. Furthermore, Andy Cole's Achilles tendon injury means he will miss the first two games of the second group stage and therefore test Sir Alex Ferguson's theory that United would find the next phase more comfortable than the first.

For Arsenal, the second round is unknown territory, and it would be preposterous to claim that switching their home ties to Highbury proved the difference to Arsÿne Wenger's third tilt at the European Cup. Psychologically, however, it helped. Had Arsenal achieved even a draw in the raw hostility of Donetsk, they would have picked up more points than any other club.

Before celebrating the decline of Latin football, it should be pointed out that Spain, too, has three teams through and that Real Madrid, the European champions, who like Arsenal suffered a painless final defeat in a former Soviet territory, qualified with some aplomb.

Naturally, it is not enough in the Bernabeu to succeed; Barcelona had to fail and the comic way in which their coach, Llorenc Serra Ferrer, talked up the value of the Uefa Cup would have drawn smiles across Madrid while Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars were reflecting on a third miserable Champions' League campaign.

Those who witnessed Barça's 4-0 demolition of Leeds and Rangers' 5-0 thrashing of Sturm Graz at the start of the first phase would have been astonished to learn then that the Austrians would qualify while the Catalans would fail. As United proved in 1999, it is not the beginning but the end that matters.

If Barça can claim, with a little justification, that they are a team in transition, then Juventus are a side in chaos. Their performances in their final two matches - in which they had four players sent off - were the culmination of destructive ill-discipline. Lazio and Milan are still afloat but, as Leeds and Arsenal demonstrated, they are hardly invincible.

Denis Irwin, a man who has been involved in every one of Ferguson's European Cup campaigns with United, believes the quality of the competition had increased dramatically in the last two years.

Television money is acting as a leveller; even Panathinaikos, the team that kicked the Grand Old Lady of Turin's walking stick away, can afford to pay players of Paulo Sousa's quality.

Although Dynamo Kiev are out, dark horses from the east still exist in the form of Spartak Moscow, while Paris St-Germain and Anderlecht, who have not figured seriously in European football since their defeat by Sampdoria in the Cup-Winners' Cup final a decade ago, have returned to centre stage.

Maybe a new European order is taking shape.

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