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Thursday, December 07, 2006

 

Five alive as British Clubs dominate Champions League


British hopes of triumphing in Europe's premier club competition were flying high on Wednesday after an unprecedented five clubs qualified for the lucrative knockout phase of the Champions League. Manchester United survived an early scare at Old Trafford to send ambitious Benfica packing 3-1 and into the UEFA Cup, while Arsenal played out a 0-0 draw with another Portuguese side, FC Porto, to join them in the last 16.

English champions Chelsea had qualified with room to spare, as had Liverpool and Scottish champions Celtic, who were comprehensively defeated 3-1 at FC Copenhagen as the Danes fought to restore some viking pride.

All four English Premiership clubs topped their respective groups, meaning the cross-Premiership clashes will be avoided at least until the quarter-finals.

Only Celtic, who finished second in group F behind Manchester United, failed to avoid that relative setback which means the Scottish champions will play the first leg of the knockout phase at home.

But just how long any of the five Brits survive is another matter.

The likes of nine-times European champions Real Madrid, two-time champions Barcelona and six-times champions AC Milan are all in the hat for the December 15 draw.

United manager Alex Ferguson was buoyed by his team's performance on the night, and hopes the two-time winners can go one better than last year's beaten finalists Arsenal.

"There's lot of quality there in the last 16 now - five British teams - and it's absolutely fantastic," said Ferguson. "One of the British teams can win it, hopefully it's us."

From the five British teams still involved have come eight victories in the competition.

Liverpool were the last British club to win the continental crown when they won it for a fifth time in 2005, while Celtic became the first British club to be champions of Europe, in 1967.

Neither Arsenal nor Chelsea have won the European crown while United have won it twice.

Compare that to records elsewhere on the continent though and the Europeans' track record shines through.

Three Spanish sides have made the weight for the last 16, with defending and 1992 champions Barcelona squeezing in at the last minute with a 2-0 win over Werder Bremen at the Nou Camp on Tuesday.

Nine-times European champions Real Madrid, who were already qualified after finishing second in group E behind French champions Lyon, finished their group campaign with a 2-2 draw away to Dynamo Kiev with a brace from Ronaldo putting the cherry on the cake.

Valencia, the UEFA Cup winners in 2004, have yet to win the Champions League but qualified with ease from a relatively easy group D with four wins from six matches.

The Champions League would not be complete without the Italians. Some of their top clubs, including six-time European champions AC Milan, became embroiled in a match-fixing scandal last season but still the football-mad 'Azzurri' went on to win the World Cup.

On Wednesday AC Milan fell 2-0 at home to Lille, allowing the French side to join the last 16 party for the first time.

It was a great performance from one of France's solid league clubs, and one which their manager, Claude Puel, was only to happy to shout about.

"We showed a lot of maturity, a lot of know-how," said Puel, who has been to the semi-finals of the competition both as a player and as an assistant coach at his former club, Monaco.

"We stayed calm and didn't give any opportunities to Milan, and I think in the end they were lucky we didn't score even more."

AC Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti admitted they had played badly, but promised a re-invigorated approach to the competition once key players return from injury.

"We'll now wait to see what the draw gives us and, in February, we will welcome back a few key players who have been injured."

AC Milan, like the other group winners, will have the advantage of an away tie first in the next round while two-time winners Inter Milan, who finished second in group B behind Bayern Munich, will play at home first.

Roma, like Lille, joined the last 16 for the first time when they beat Valencia 1-0 on Tuesday to finish second in group D.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who has just celebrated 10 years working with the Gunners, joined his old foe, Ferguson, in applauding the influence of the Premiership on the competition.

"That shows how much the Premiership has improved," Wenger told Sky Sports.

Arsenal, who are only just getting over their defeat in last year's final, could face Barcelona in the next round, in a rematch of last year's final.

The other clubs to qualify were 1988 winners PSV Eindhoven, four-time winners Bayern Munich and two-time winners FC Porto.


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