Ferguson given dream date with Rangers

Draw hands United manager chance to return to Ibrox in style while Chelsea trio face emotional return to Italian capital
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The Independent Football

It is 34 years since Alex Ferguson left Ibrox under a cloud. Harshly blamed for conceding the opening goal in a humiliating 4-0 Scottish Cup final defeat to Celtic he had spent the last six months training with the juniors. His love for the club he climbed over the back wall to see as a boy was irrevocably soured.

Ferguson has been back to haunt Rangers since, notably when managing Aberdeen, but yesterday's Champions' League draw gives him the opportunity to return in style. In pairing Manchester United with Rangers in Group E, the sport's European ruling body, Uefa, provided the boy from Govan with the chance to underline his dizzy success since leaving Glasgow. The matches, to be played on 22 October at Ibrox and 4 November in Manchester, will be the first competitive meetings between the present English and Scottish champions since 1992 when Rangers defeated Leeds United in this competition.

Ferguson will not take Rangers lightly, especially as they are managed by one of his apprentices, Alex McLeish, who played in defence under him at Pittodrie. Yet the English champions will be expected to reassert the Premiership's sense of superiority following the dents inflicted last season by Celtic's Uefa Cup victories over Liverpool and Blackburn. Completing the group are the German club VfB Stuttgart and Panathinaikos of Greece.

"It's a great draw," said Ferguson yesterday. "I was half-expecting to get a Scottish team and it has happened. Alex is an old player of mine and has done a great job at Rangers."

McLeish responded: "It is a fantastic draw. The games will be massive. They will capture the imagination of the public and I will relish them. I have no doubts I will get a call from Sir Alex in the next couple of days once the dust has settled and we will have a chat about it." Both clubs said that, unlike in 1992, travelling fans are likely to be permitted.

This latest "Battle of Britain" tie stole the attention from Chelsea at the Monaco draw despite the London club being paired with Lazio. The tie offers Hernan Crespo a quick return to Serie A, and a club who once paid £37m for him. It is also an emotive tie for Claudio Ranieri, a Roman by birth, and Juan Sebastian Veron, who had the best years of his career in the Italian capital. Group G also features Sparta Prague and Besiktas. To the relief of the Football Association Chelsea will not be visiting the Turkish champions until 9 December, two months after England's highly charged European Championship qualifier in Istanbul.

The most attractive opening fixtures for British clubs involve the other qualified clubs, Arsenal and Celtic. Arsenal have been given a brute of a draw beginning with a trip to play Internazionale, last season's semi-finalists, on 17 September. They must also travel to Dynamo Kiev and Lokomotiv Moscow. Neither journey will be welcomed in the context of a congested Premiership season especially that to Moscow on 30 September as it precedes a 12.30pm Saturday kick-off at Anfield. At least both trips are scheduled before 21 October well before winter bites.

While Arsenal are in Milan, Celtic will be in Munich facing Bayern. They were also paired with Anderlecht and Lyon. The latter match evoked bitter memories of the 1999 Uefa Cup tie when Henrik Larsson broke his leg 13 minutes into a fixture Celtic lost home and away.

David Beckham will begin his first European campaign with Real Madrid at home to Marseilles. In a pairing which will have been greeted painfully on Tyneside the group also includes Partizan Belgrade, Newcastle's conquerors, along with the Uefa Cup holders Porto.

The other outstanding clash is in Group H between Milan, the holders, and Ajax who were within a minute of knocking them out in last season's quarter-finals. Also noteworthy are the Group D meetings between Galatasaray, of Turkey, and the Greek champions, Olympiakos.

The final is in Gelsenkirchen on 26 May. With only two German survivors, less than Greece, the prospects of a home finalist are not good, but while Real Madrid and Milan start favourites, Bayern Munich could prove hardest to beat.

CHAMPIONS' LEAGUE ODDS: 11-4 Real Madrid; 6-1 Manchester United, 7-1 Bayern Munich, 9-1 Milan; 10-1 Arsenal; 14-1 Chelsea; 40-1 Celtic; 50-1 Rangers.

GROUP A

Bayern Munich (Ger)

Lyon (Fr)

Celtic

Anderlecht (Bel)

GROUP B

Arsenal

Internazionale (It)

Dynamo Kiev (Ukr)

Lokomotiv Moscow (Rus)

GROUP C

Deportivo La Coruña (Sp)

PSV Eindhoven (Neth)

AEK Athens (Gr)

Monaco (Fr)

GROUP D

Juventus (It)

Galatasaray (Tur)

Olympiakos (Gr)

Real Sociedad (Sp)

GROUP E

Manchester United

Panathinaikos (Gr)

Rangers

VfB Stuttgart (Ger)

GROUP F

Real Madrid (Sp)

Porto (Por)

Marseilles (Fr)

P Belgrade (Serb-M)

GROUP G

Lazio (It)

Chelsea

Sparta Prague (Cz Rep)

Besiktas (Tur)

GROUP H

Milan (It)

Celta Vigo (Sp)

Ajax (Neth)

Club Bruges (Bel)

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