Spurs face tough European test
Peter Crouch was not even trying to be careful what he wished for as he basked in the glory of Tottenham’s qualification for the serious business of the Champions League group stage.
“We want Real Madrid and Inter. You don’t know how good you are until you play against the best,” announced Spurs’ hat-trick hero after Harry Redknapp’s side eased fears they might squander a potential £30m jackpot by easing past Young Boys of Berne.
Now Crouch and Spurs will get the chance to find out as the draw in Monaco threw them up against holders Inter Milan, albeit in a different guise under the leadership of former Liverpool manager Rafael Benitez as opposed to Jose Mourinho.
Werder Bremen and FC Twente complete a tough reintroduction to Europe’s elite group for Spurs in a draw laced with cautious optimism for all of the Premier League’s representatives.
Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho has won the Champions League twice – photo: Getty
Mourinho, inevitably, will be at the heart of the most appetising of the Champions League groups, with his new Real Madrid charges up against AC Milan and Ajax – not to forget Auxerre.
Real, AC Milan and Ajax have written some of the greatest stories in the tournament’s history, winning it on 20 occasions between them – this is the “Group Of Glamour” not the “Group Of Death”.
With Wembley as the final destination for this season’s Champions League, there may even be an extra incentive, if it were needed, for the English quartet to make up for the disappointment of last season, when there was no presence in the last four.
And while Spurs face a hazardous, but not insurmountable group, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal will feel confident about their hopes of making it into the knockout phase.
There will be a parochial interest of sorts in another – let’s get the cliche out of the way – “Battle Of Britain” meeting between Manchester United and Rangers, reuniting those two great old friends Sir Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith.
But even under their experienced and shrewd manager, it is hard to see Rangers making a serious dent in the reputation of their English rivals.
As the club that broke the top four mould last season by removing Liverpool from what had become an established group since Everton’s incursion in 2005, much interest centred on how Spurs would fare in the draw.
The simple verdict will be – could have been better, but could have been worse.
Inter, with Benitez keen to repair any lingering damage to his reputation in the tournament he treasures above all others after his departure from Liverpool, will be their sternest examination. Spurs, however, will not shrink from the challenge.
The Italian champions’ pedigree was on display for all to see at the draw in Monaco as they made a clean sweep of the individual honours for last season’s tournament. Julio Cesar was named goalkeeper of the year, Maicon defender of the year, Wesley Sneijder midfielder of the year and Diego Milito striker of the year.
Inter striker Diego Milito scored twice in Inter’s Champions League final win over Bayern Munich – photo: Getty
And what are the chances of Redknapp taking advantage of Mourinho’s obvious and long-standing antipathy towards his successor Benitez by seeking out a few secrets that could unseat Inter?
Werder Bremen finished third in the Bundesliga last season and recently sold World Cup star and inspirational midfield man Mesut Ozil to Real Madrid, while FC Twente enter the group phase still armed with the confidence of their Eredivisie win last season, even though the architect of the triumph, former England coach Steve McClaren, has departed for Wolfsburg to be replaced by the Belgian Michel Preud’homme.
Spurs must guard against the sort of frailty that saw them dice with elimination against Young Boys, but Redknapp will hope that will have provided the stark warning of what is required at this level.
And there is a creative streak throughout this Spurs side that can trouble any opponents – so while this group fulfils Crouch’s criteria of testing their pedigree to the full, it is still a section they can still have hopes of navigating their way through.
United, Chelsea and Arsenal will have reacted to their draw with a measure of pleasure and serious aspirations of qualification for the latter stages.
United will be wary of Valencia, but stripped of David Silva, now at Manchester City and with the brilliant David Villa at Barcelona, they will not present the formidable offensive force they have been in the past.
Rangers will raise their game against English opposition as ever, but with apologies to those north of the border United will surely have too much class for them. Turkish champions Bursaspor will present the sort of passionate and gifted challenge this country always provides, but this is a group that holds no terrors for Ferguson.
The question for United, as it was last season, is whether they have the ability to negotiate their way past the higher quality opponents they will face in the later stages. This was the problem last season – and I fear it will be again this time, especially in defence – but United are written off at your peril.
Rangers, even apart from United, have a tough fight on their hands, but manager Smith has been through these campaigns before in his long career and will relish the task facing him and his team.
Rangers boss Walter Smith was briefly assistant manager at Man Utd in 2004 – photo: Getty
Chelsea are again in pursuit of the missing trophy in their collection, the honour that sometimes seems destined to always elude them. Whether it is a “ghost goal” against Liverpool, penalty woes against Manchester United, injustices of officialdom against Barcelona or being outmanouevred by their former coach Mourinho with Inter last season, Chelsea have not cracked the Champions League.
So this seasoned collection of players goes to the well once more – and with a group that should see them ease through this stage.
Didier Deschamps will return to Stamford Bridge with Marseille after taking the club to their first French Ligue 1 triumph in 18 years, while Chelsea’s Didier Drogba also faces his former team.
A talented squad, a gifted manager and a passionate home support make them a test for anyone, but Chelsea will hope to make their experience and quality count, as it should, against Spartak Moscow – complete with new signing from Celtic Aiden McGeady – and Slovakian champions Zilina.
Is this the year Chelsea finally lay their hands on the biggest trophy in European club football? They will, in my opinion, reach the latter stages again but the same old foes, especially in the shape of Mourinho at Real and Barcelona, lie in wait and threaten disappointment again.
Arsenal must compete with the logistical problems of the lengthy trip to the Ukraine to play Shakhtar Donetsk and a reunion with former striker Eduardo. He will undoubtedly be afforded a warm reception on his return to the Emirates, having seen his burgeoning Arsenal career curtailed by the serious leg injury sustained in a tackle with Martin Taylor at Birmingham City.
Braga have given notice of their threat by disposing of Celtic as well as Sevilla in the Champions League qualifying rounds, but once more, a group that also contains Partizan Belgrade should provide Arsene Wenger’s side with a route into the knockout games.
Arsenal and Wenger’s philosophy on the beautiful game was put into sharp relief as they lost heavily in Barcelona last season. And who can forget Barca’s opening 20 minutes at the Emirates – quite possibly the best passage of play I have witnessed in the flesh – in that quarter-final first-leg?
Wenger will hope Arsenal will learn from those harsh lessons, but they will be regarded as underdogs should they reach the latter stages.