IS anyone else out there old enough to remember when Manchester United versus Rangers in the European Cup would have been a game to cherish? A Battle of Britain to be savoured and looked forward to?
Sadly, I can. When Graeme Souness went north and spent David Murray’s millions on Terry Butcher, Chris Woods and Paul Gascoigne in the 1990s, Rangers were the nine-in-a-row Scottish champions with bite. When England’s finest were banned from Europe after the Heysel Stadium tragedy in 1985, Rangers were all we Brits had to keep us warm on mid-winter evenings.
Now, sadly, they’re scheduled to arrive at Old Trafford with the same SPL title attached... but none of the kudos. I’ll be on Sky News at 7.45am discussing all this but here’s a word to the wise from Richard Gough, one of those old Rangers stars when they used to progress to the latter stages in Europe: “It’s good for Rangers. We see Manchester United on the television every week.”
Great. The Champions League draw yesterday saw Rangers and Manchester United sharing Group C with Valencia and Bursaspor. Even the Blue Noses in Glasgow must accept Rangers – Sir Alex Ferguson’s old club - haven’t got a hope of qualifying – they’ll be lucky to scrape into the Europa League in third place ahead of the Turks.
Instead, everyone’s worried about all those crazed Scots coming down to Manchester. At the 2008 UEFA Cup Final, Rangers fans left their mark on Old Trafford and the surrounds leaving Rangers Supporters Trust chairman Stephen Smith saying hopefully: "There were around 200,000 Rangers fans in Manchester for the final and only a tiny, tiny amount, a tiny fraction, were involved in trouble. The bother was over-hyped."
We'll take his word for it.
Instead of the great England v Scotland clash, we are forced to focus on the real biggie for English fans – Jose Mourinho may have left Inter Milan but with former Liverpool boss Rafa Benitez in charge, the reigning champions should provide two mouth-watering clashes with Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham.
Spurs, thanks to a Jermain Defoe arm and a Peter Crouch hat-trick, saw off Young Boys to make their debut in the group stages. With the final scheduled for the new Wembley next May, Spurs fans will be praying for a bit of luck against mighty Inter... not to mention their other Group A rivals, Germany’s Werder Bremen and Dutch hopefuls FC Twente.
Champions Chelsea face Marseille, Spartak Moscow and Zilina in Group F while in Group H, Arsenal take on Shakhtar Donetsk – the Ukrainian side who now boast their old Brazilian-Croatian strike Eduardo – plus Portugal’s Braga and Partizan Belgrade, once the Yugoslav powerhouse.
With Chelsea super-striker Didier Drogba set to visit his old club on the French south coast, Marseille chairman Jean-Claude Dassier oozed: “It will be great to see Didier back at the Velodrome but it won't be a piece of cake.” He then immediately contradicted himself and added cautiously: “Chelsea are the favourites but I think we can beat the other two."
The objective observers of course will point to Group G as the biggie – and they’d be right. Mourinho’s Real Madrid, complete with £60m of new talent, face Italian giants AC Milan, Dutch masters Ajax and Auxerre of France. Pick your two from those four with care.
Former Real Madrid great Emilio Butragueno, now a director at the San Siro, warned: "Milan don't worry me because you are always going to get a difficult or very difficult side. What I didn't like was getting Auxerre as the fourth team. It was the toughest part of this draw for us."
When you've got Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and a galactico of stars, you can afford to say things like that.
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
Personally, I can see all four English clubs getting through. Arsenal have the easiest group despite the presence of Shakhtar, who upset them a decade ago. The Ukrainians won the last UEFA Cup but went out of the inaurugal Europa League last year to Fulham.
Manchester United and Chelsea will cruise through despite a couple of hairy trips and even Spurs have a chance, despite this from Luis Figo, spokesman for Internazionale, who said: “We want a repeat of our success last year. It's a tough group but if we want to go to Wembley we have to beat everybody. German teams are always well-prepared and English ones know how to be dangerous."
That draw in full:
Inter Milan, Werder Bremen, Tottenham, FC Twente
Lyon, Benfica, Schalke, Hapoel Tel-Aviv
Manchester United, Valencia, Rangers, Bursaspor
Barcelona, Panathinaikos, FC Copenhagen, Rubin Kazan
Bayern Munich, AS Roma, Basel, CFR Cluj
Chelsea, Marseille, Spartak Moscow, Zilina
AC Milan, Real Madrid, Ajax, Auxerre
Arsenal, Shakhtar Donetsk, Braga, Partizan Belgrade