FOOTBALL FOCUS - Champions League Final Decisions.jpg

FOOTBALL FOCUS – Champions League Final Decisions

Final Decisions By SKIP BANDELE

England doubled its representation in the world’s foremost club competition, as both Arsenal and Liverpool came through their respective final qualifying round second leg encounters.

The Gunners, leading 3-0 against Dinamo Zagreb from the away game, suffered some anxious moments, as their Croatian visitors took an early lead at the new Emirates Stadium, but second half strikes from Freddie Ljungberg and Mathieu Flamini ensured an easy passage into the competition proper. Liverpool, on the other hand, had to suffer to the end against Maccabi Haifa in Kiev. Peter Crouch’s 54th minute header should have eased nerves, but Roberto Colautti equalised less than 10 minutes later for the Israeli side, forcing Rafa Benítez’s troop to hang on to its slender 3-2 aggregate lead until the final whistle.

Benfica experienced no such problems, dispatching Austria Vienna with ease at the Stadium of Light. Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes and Petit scored the goals that gave the Eagles a comfortable 4-1 overall victory. Hearts, trailing AEK Athens 2-1 from their home leg, were overrun 3-0 in the Greek capital and are eliminated from the competition.

Elsewhere, Hamburg drew 1-1 in Spain against Osasuna, to go through on the away-goal rule. Fenerbahçe were surprisingly eliminated by Dynamo Kiev and FC Copenhagen caused the shock result of the round by overcoming Ajax 2-0 in Amsterdam to take part in the group phase.

The draw

The annual gala event in Monte Carlo not only defined the first phase of the competition, but also honoured last season’s stars. Arsenal’s Jens Lehmann was voted ‘best goalkeeper’, while Carles Puyol, Deco and Samuel Eto’o Fils, all of Barcelona, received the defensive, midfield and striking honours. Their team-mate, Ronaldinho, was deemed to have been the tournament’s best player.

Group A: Barcelona, Chelsea, Werder Bremen and Levski Sofia                

Group B: Inter Milan, Sporting, Bayern Munich and Spartak Moscow                                  

Group C: Liverpool, PSV Eindhoven, Bordeaux and Galatasaray                  

Group D: Valencia, AS Rome, Olympiakos and Shaktar Donetsk

Group E:  Real Madrid, Lyon, Steaua Bucharesti and  Dynamo Kiev

Group F: Manchester United, Celtic, Benfica and FC Copenhagen                          

Group G: Arsenal, Porto, CSKA Moscow

and Hamburg                    

Group H: AC Milan, Lille, AEK Athens

and Anderlecht

Group A verdict: Barcelona, AS Rome and Chelsea should make the last 16 despite some stiff opposition from Bremen.

Group B verdict: Sporting will be hard pushed to find a way past Inter and Bayern.

Group C verdict: If there is no rapid improvement from the Reds, any two of the four can progress.

Group D verdict: AS Rome and Valencia are clear favourites.

Group E verdict: Madrid and Lyon should have nothing to fear from the other two.

Group F verdict: Benfica has a good chance of joining Manchester in the last 16.

Group G verdict: Arsenal and Hamburg can shade the other two.

Group H verdict: Lille can finish second to AC.

The first round will be played on Tuesday and Wednesday September 12 and 13, with Manchester’s first ever competitive game against Celtic providing the highlight.