Madrid and Rome next stops for Leeds

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The Independent Football

From one group of death to another. If Leeds United are to progress in the Champions' League they will have to survive twice.

From one group of death to another. If Leeds United are to progress in the Champions' League they will have to survive twice.

David O'Leary considered that it was "a miracle" that they should have qualified from a group containing Barcelona and Milan. Now Lazio, the favourites, and Real Madrid, the champions, await, - not to mention Anderlecht, who ripped Manchester United's defence apart in Brussels.

Much will depend on how quickly there is an improvement in the catalogue of injuries that has bedevilled but, astonishingly, given the teams they have encountered, not capsized O'Leary's season. Perhaps it is not a surprise that they face Real and Lazio first.

After the thrilling draw in the San Siro that took them into the second stage, O'Leary mused that it would "just be our luck" to meet them and so it has proved. His chairman, however, saw the group not as a lions' den, but an opportunity to put the name of Leeds United where it has not been internationally since Jimmy Armfield's team somehow lost the European Cup final in 1975.

"We took 6,000 fans to Milan, so think how many we would get for Madrid and Rome," Peter Ridsdale said. "On the plane back we were all talking about drawing Real Madrid and playing at the Olympic Stadium again. I am very excited about this and I think there will be one or two teams worried about coming to Elland Road."

Certainly, it is a fixture that Dino Zoff, the former Lazio manager who is now the club's vice-president, will approach with caution. "On paper Lazio and Real Madrid are the two sides to qualify but football is played on grass," he said. "Leeds have a very good young side, while Real and Anderlecht are excellent teams. We want to win the competition but it will be very hard just to make the quarter-finals."

Arsenal, too, are in uncharted territory, with two distinctly awkward fixtures to open their second-phase campaign: Spartak Moscow away and Bayern Munich's first visit to Highbury in European competition to follow.

As Leeds discovered, Moscow in November is a cold and unforgiving place. Conditions last year were so bad that Spartak were forced to move the game to Sofia, where they still managed a 2-1 victory. Going to what used to be the Soviet Union in winter is the footballing equivalent of a cricket tour of Pakistan; mental attitude is everything and, in Donetsk, Arsenal's was found wanting.

They have memories enough of Spartak Moscow, the team that in 1983 inflicted their heaviest European defeat at Highbury, an astonishing 5-2 Uefa Cup reverse. In this season's Champions' League, Spartak, driven on by the marauding midfield pair of Vasily Baranov and Victor Bulatov, have enjoyed a 100 per cent record in the intimidating Luzniki Stadium.

How well the other three teams perform against Lyon, the obvious weak link, may determine qualification for the quarter-finals.

They used to talk of "lucky Arsenal" and now they might, in European football, apply that epithet to Manchester United, who are fortunate indeed to have come this far after some unimpressive displays away from Old Trafford.

The prawn sandwich eaters may not find too much to raise their voices about in matches involving Valencia and Sturm Graz, whom United met in the Champions' League last season, and Panathinaikos.

"I think it could have been a lot worse," said United's chairman, Martin Edwards, with some understatement. "We have a good opportunity of progressing."

Valencia, last season's beaten finalists, will be favourites to go through with United, just as they did a year ago. Sir Alex Ferguson will remind his troops that United's 3-0 victory over the Spaniards at Old Trafford in December was arguably their best since becoming European champions.

Panathinaikos, good enough to eliminate Juventus in Athens on Wednesday night, are not a force to be taken lightly, but a lightweight attack is an obvious Achilles' heel.

The Austrian champions, Sturm Graz, were beaten convincingly 3-0 by United last season, although the return at Old Trafford was a distinctly low-key affair, settled by a dazzling strike from Ole Gunnar Solksjaer. This season they have won all their home matches, but conceded at a rate of four per away game, which does not bode well for their trip to Manchester on 13 March that closes the group.

Their attitude to this stage of the competition was summed up by Sturm Graz's captain, Ivica Vastic. "If we get through it would be a miracle," he said. But miracles do happen. Just ask David O'Leary.