United win battle for renewed self-belief
Published 08/12/2006 | 13:39
The British have arrived in the Champions' League knockout stages in style, so it took an old hand on Wednesday night to remind us that this was more a basic requirement than a cause for celebration.
Gary Neville took stock of an evening of European excitement at Old Trafford and said that, after the disappointment endured by Manchester United last season, this was the very least they expected.
"To be sweating on the last day was just ridiculous," he said. " This club has to be in the knockout stages. This is a not a big night, it's not a memorable night. It's just a night when we got to where we should expect to be. Last season was just unacceptable. This is where we deserve to be - in the last 16. Can we win it? Well we are in a cup competition and, if we win three ties from here, then we will be in the final."
The Premiership's big four all qualified top of their groups and suddenly the rest of European football looks that little bit less daunting. It has been the fashion since Porto's victory in 2004, and Liverpool's the following season, to consider the Champions' League as an unpredictable beast, just as likely to reward the unfancied as the famous. This time most of the big clubs have made the final 16 - it is picking the favourite that is difficult.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been tipping Lyon to win it this season, and who could argue with a side already 14 points clear in their division, who went within a whisker of beating Milan in last season's quarter-finals? Ferguson knows them well too, he has tried and failed to buy Michael Essien and Mahamadou Diarra. Both have left the club now managed by Gérard Houllier, but Lyon do not seem to have suffered unduly.
Since the Premiership was given four qualification places for the 2002-2003 season, all four of England's representatives have made it to the knockout stages once before - in the season that Liverpool won the European Cup, 2004-2005. Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester United have all fallen before at the group stages. So what does it say that all four of them qualified in style, if not with ease?
Yet again, there is no clear favourite, although experience would suggest that Lyon and Chelsea are coming nicely to the boil as very serious Champions' League contenders. The Italians have just two sides in the competition, the erratic Internazionale and Roma, who have not made much of an impression in recent years. History tells us, however, that it is not necessarily the most successful league teams that triumph.
"No United player is going to stand here tonight and tell you that we are going to get to the final," Neville said on Wednesday. "But of course it's a good opportunity and every team left in, including us, will now think that they have a chance. If we play well, take our chances and have some luck then who knows what will happen? It is a mental challenge when you go behind in a big game like we did tonight but we have players now who have the mental strength to come back."
The mental strength was certainly evident against Benfica on Wednesday but, with that kind of toughness, Chelsea have the edge. The four points they took off Barcelona have gone some way to exorcising the notion that they can be played off the park by anyone.
Arsenal are once again England's artistic contribution and much will rest on how Thierry Henry returns from his month off. He could be reinvigorated, but what effect will his looming presence have on the rest of his team?
As usual Liverpool remain the most enigmatic. They do not even have a settled front two, but Rafael Benitez has proved himself so adept in the Champions' League that it is hard to bet against them being in the last eight.
Celtic are, with Lille, one of the most underresourced teams left. They have nothing to lose and even the giants of European football will find it hard to pretend they are not impressed when they walk out at a packed Parkhead.
"We have had to make teams scared of us again and I think that is what we are doing," said Ryan Giggs of Manchester United. "There are some big teams we can play in the next stage but, if we are still playing like this in February, we can be confident teams will not be keen to play us. Nobody will relish playing us given the form that we are in."
Giggs is old enough to remember the first years of the Champions' League before the marketing men had really taken over. When Eric Cantona fought with Istanbul policemen and Galatasaray fans bricked the United coach windows. The atmosphere around games is much more stilted now; it is much more difficult, however, to predict the outcome on the pitch.