Manchester United will face one of Milan, Internazionale, Olympique Lyonnais, F.C. København, Roma or Olympique de Marseille – as UEFA likes to put it – in the Champions League first knock-out round when the draw is made a week from tomorrow. It represents a decent selection of potential opponents for Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
Indeed, given the other half of the draw, containing Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, winning Group C has provided ample reward .
Aside from Milan and Copenhagen none of United’s potential opponents occupies a top three spot in their domestic leagues, with the Italians arguably the only challenge that the Reds will gladly avoid.
Tougher fixtures lie ahead of course but for now Ferguson can target the quarter-finals with renewed confidence.
Massimiliano Allegri’s remodelled side tops Serie A by three points and qualified for the knock-out stages despite losing 2-0 at home to Ajax on Wednesday night. Having signed Zlatan Imbrahimovich on loan from Barcelona, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Robinho in the summer much was expected of Milan this season, despite the disappointing 2009/10 campaign.
Indeed, United’s easy win over the Milanese in last season’s round of 16 summed up the the Italian’s campaign, which ended in European humiliation, and with domestic rivals Inter winning the treble under Jose Mourinho.
Domestically Milan leads a Serie A that is nowhere near the standards of two decades ago. In Europe Allegri’s outfit finished a full eight points behind Mourinho’s Real Madrid in Group G.
Dangermen: Ibrahimovich, Ronaldinho, Robinho
Much as United fans enjoy mocking Rafael Benitez – he brings it upon himself – the former Liverpool manager could do nothing but fail at Inter. Had the Nerazzurri’s season been running to plan, Mourinho’s outfit would still reign; Italian champions, Cup winners, Champions League winners. Mourinho won it all and then some. Doesn’t he always?
But Benitez’ relative failure is all the more humiliating for the manner in which his side is not performing this season. Inter has not lost key players – bar Mario Ballotelli – nor did Benitez’ side strengthen over the summer either. The result is a dysfunctional Inter, which fies fifth in Serie A, a full 10 points behind the club’s neighbours.
The recent 1-0 defeat to Milan was almost the last straw for Benitez’ reign. It could yet be.
In Europe Inter’s 4-3 win over Tottenham Hotspur at San Siro was followed by defeats at White Hart Lane and, humiliatingly, to Werder Bremen in Germany on Tuesday night.
Ferguson will surely relish another meeting with Benitez. On this form so should United supporters.
Dangermen: Wesley Sneider, Samuel Eto’o
No longer the dominant force in French football; nor it seems is the club a model for how to play the transfer market to profitable effect under colourful chairman Jean-Michel Aulas. OL now spends big and posses quality in abundance. Despite the club’s recent travails, OL is just two points from the Ligue 1 leadership, despite lying a seemingly lowly fifth.
After all, OL aficionados can still point to an attractive side containing talent such as Lisandro López, Jérémy Toulalan and the gifted if expensive Yoann Gourcuff. But Claude Puel’s outfit struggled last season, finishing a full six points behind champions Marseille, in part at least due to a run to the Champions League semi-final.
This season has been more circumspect in Europe, with Puel’s team finishing second behind Schalke after punishing away defeats to both the Germans and Benfica.
Dangermen: Gourcuff, López
The Danish champions are running away with the SAS-Ligaen, fully 19 points ahead of Roy Carroll’s Odense after little more than half the season completed. Critics can point to a fatal lack of competitiveness in the 12 team competition but Ståle Solbakken’s side is no pushover in Europe either, both having earned a creditable 1-1 draw with Barcelona and beaten Panathinaikos at Parken.
Filled with local talent and – strangely – Brazilian ringers, Solbakken’s side mixes functional yet attacking football, with the former international’s undoubted tactical nous.
Certainly no gimme for United but nothing to fear either.
Dangermen:César Santin, Dame N’Doye
With less than half the season completed Claudio Ranieri’s side is already at risk of missing out on Europe altogether next season, lying 10 points behind Milan in eighth place. The Giallorossi’s mixed domestic season, in which Ranieri’s side has lost four times, is mirrored in Europe where an embarrassing home defeat to FC Basel was watched by just 22,365 fans at Stadio Olimpico.
This is not Roma of last season, when the capital club went on a 24-match unbeaten run to qualify for the Champions League. Francesco Totti, who signed effectively a new nine year contract last season – four as a player, five as club director – has struck just four times in 18 matches this season. Mirko Vucinic has five in 14 in a side that has scored just 20 in 15 domestic matches. Fine, but for a leaky defence that has conceded just as many. Good job Marco Borriello is having a decent season, then.
Stade Velodrome always rocks to a different beat than the rest of French football. No bourgeoisie fans here. No more so than Wednesday night when OM put a faltering Chelsea side to the sword in front of nearly 60,000 fans.
Last season’s French Champions are just two points off the Ligue 1 leadership this time out and Didier Deschamps’ side is enjoying a resurgence in domestic football after years in the relative wilderness.
Following Marseille’s European Cup win in 1993 and 1994 domestic title the club was relegated by the French Football Federation (FFF) after a match-fixing scandal. L’OM returned to the top under the guidance of new owner Robert Louis-Dreyfus in 1996, with the ADIDAS director replacing the disgraced former chairman Bernard Tapie.
Following that first French title in 17 years Marseille has performed creditably in Europe this season while keeping in touch domestically. Two defeats in the opening pair of Champions League matches could have proven fatal but OM won four on the spin, including a stunning 7-0 away victory at MSK Zilina.
Dangerman: Loïc Rémy, Lucho González