Ferguson wary of the Porto storm

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The Independent Football

So the Champions' League becomes a cup competition again, though one with seeds neatly laid out at regular intervals to give the draw for the first knockout round a slightly artificial look. Bayern Munich - who had their goal- keeper-captain, Oliver Kahn, to thank for qualifying ahead of Celtic - and their opponents Real Madrid may demur, but overall the line-up resembles one of those women's singles rounds in which every match could potentially be won in straight sets.

Indeed, Arsenal in their rediscovered European form might just fancy their chances of a 6-1 6-0 success over Celta Vigo, one of the two Spanish contestants sitting, extraordinarily, in the bottom five of their domestic league. Stuttgart and Porto have been leading theirs, and will test Chelsea and Manchester United respectively, but having won their groups to earn a valuable top seeding, all three English clubs now have further cause for optimism.

The most anyone could find to tax Arsène Wenger with on Friday - after a little mutual teasing about the suspect passport of his former full-back Silvinho, who is now with Celta - was that Spanish armadas have sunk his Arsenal too often in recent seasons. Effectively eliminated by Valencia twice and Deportivo La Coruña once, as well as beaten at Real Mallorca, the London side should nevertheless know that Celta have failed to replicate the defensive solidarity that carried them to fourth place in Spain last season. Like most of the runners-up in Champions' League groups - Stuttgart and Porto excepted - they scraped through by a minimal margin, in their case winning only two games out of six, the crucial one being away to a weakened Milan, who had already qualified as group winners.

Wenger made the right noises in underlining his respect for the Spanish League but eventually had to admit: "The general feeling was we could have done a lot worse." And not much better. He added the valid point that although Arsenal will miss the extra guaranteed finance of a second group stage, the previous system "was far too tiring and left my players dead". United, though they always survived it, suffered similarly over a whole season and should also benefit from the shorter course. They now fight a Peninsular War of their own against the Uefa Cup holders Porto, who were hardly tested in the first group by Marseille or Partizan Belgrade. They have proved head and shoulders above the rest of an ordinary Portuguese League but will need to raise their game to prevent United reaching an eighth successive quarter-final.

Ferguson, who knows his history, can also point to six wins and a draw from United's seven games against Portu-guese opposition in the Euro-pean Cup, none more famous than the epic successes over Benfica by 5-1 in the Stadium of Light (1966) and 4-1 at Wembley two years later. Subduing the playmaker Deco and Beni McCarthy's striking partner Derlei will be the key.

And what of Chelsea? Claudio Ranieri has changed his metaphor from building a house to raising a child, modestly insisting that his "baby" is merely learning to walk: "I hope we'll be running quickly but I don't know." Lazio, Besiktas and Sparta Prague all struggled to keep up in the previous round.

He should be wary, though not frightened, of Stuttgart, who cruised to victory over United and Rangers at the Gottlieb-Daimler stadium in Mercedes Street, but stalled in both away games. At Ibrox they threw away a half-time lead and at Old Trafford last Tuesday again looked poised but lacking punch in a 2-0 defeat. It will be important for Chelsea to score an away goal rather than risk having to break down a stubborn defence at Stamford Bridge, where they have sometimes laboured this season.

Zvonimir Soldo, the veteran Croatian midfielder, will be the only survivor on either side of the clubs' previous meeting, Chelsea's 1-0 victory in the final of the 1998 European Cup-Winners' Cup. Since that game, the south German club have had a modest record, finishing 11th, eighth, 15th, eighth and second in the Bundesliga. Last season's position as runners-up - when they also lost to Celtic in the Uefa Cup - was assumed to be a peak, but coach Felix Magath has cleverly integrated half-a-dozen new players into a young side.

In the league, their strength was illustrated by conceding only three goals in the opening 15 games and remaining unbeaten, but there are teams in the bottom half of the table who have scored more. Bayern, meanwhile, have the tie of the round against David Beckham's Real Madrid, but may lack the ammunition to win it.

The elimination of Lazio and Internazionale was a bonus for aspiring winners, and their replacements, Sparta and Lokomotiv, cannot be fancied against group winners Milan and Monaco respectively. The seedings will have to be similarly upset if Deportivo La Coruña are to overcome Juventus, or Real Sociedad knock out Lyon.

Trips to eastern Europe were always on the cards for at least two of the three British representatives in the Uefa Cup, a tournament regularly dominated by the continent's poorer cousins until the Champions' League drop-outs drop in. Liverpool and Celtic would expect to come through and challenge strongly and Newcastle should be good enough to ensure there are three British clubs in the last 16 of the competition.

Champions' League The last 16

24 February 2004
Sparta Prague v Milan
Celta Vigo v Arsenal
Lokomotiv Moscow v Monaco
Bayern Munich v Real Madrid

25 February

Deportivo La Coruña v Juventus
Porto v Manchester United
Stuttgart v Chelsea
Real Sociedad v Lyon

9 March
Juventus v Deportivo La Coruña
Manchester United v Porto
Chelsea v Stuttgart
Lyon v Real Sociedad

10 March
Milan v Sparta Prague
Arsenal v Celta Vigo
Monaco v Lokomotiv Moscow
Real Madrid v Bayern Munich

Uefa Cup third round
Brondby v Barcelona
Parma v Genclerbirligi
Benfica v Rosenborg
Marseille v Dnipro
Celtic v FK Teplice
Perugia v PSV Eindhoven
Groclin Dyskobolia v Bordeaux
Valencia v Besiktas
Galatasaray v Villarreal
Club Brugge v Debrecen
Sochaux v Internazionale
Liverpool v Levski Sofia
Spartak Moscow v Mallorca
Gaziantepspor v Roma
Auxerre v Panathinaikos
Valerenga v Newcastle Utd

To be played: 26 February, 3 March.