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Battle for supremacy

A coherent argument can usually be made in support of the view that the World Cup doesn't really begin until the knock-out stages get going. The same can perhaps be said of the Champions League in its contemporary guise.

It's not that the group stage doesn't offer nerve-jangling drama. There was, after all, plenty of palpable tension on Tuesday and Wednesday in Porto, Leverkusen and Liverpool. Even that soulless excuse for a spectacle at Rome's Olympic Stadium had its own surreal fascination.

However, the point is, the top teams in Europe have become expert at pacing themselves and outflanking the opposition in the initial phase. It's all about qualifying in the most efficient way possible. The feats of heroism needed to win the Champions League can be kept in a safe, to be opened at the end of February.

While Arsenal and Real Madrid taxed themselves and their supporters more than anyone could have imagined during the group phase, the fact is, progressing to the last sixteen is what it's all about. In many respects, it's a brand new competition starting on February 22.

Will anyone dwell on the fact that last season's winners qualified with a meagre haul of eight points, thanks to an 86th minute goal against a team already through to the next round? Only if they're a commentator or an anorak.

As regular readers of this column will have suspected long ago, those of us who are members of the former group, by definition, also belong to the latter!

The draw for the round of sixteen doesn't take place until Friday, December 17, giving us a few days to ponder the benefits of going into the hat in Nyon as section winners. Similarly, there's a case to be made that runners-up have it that little bit harder.

In the wake of the 3-0 defeat in Turkey suffered by a makeshift Manchester United, there are those ready to lambast Sir Alex for not going all out to win the game and thus clinch victory in the group.

By finishing second in Group D, United know they have five possibilities when it comes to potential opponents; Juventus, Milan, Inter, Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen.

No one in their right mind would actively hope to be on a collision course with any of the three Italian standard bearers, which leaves two teams who have claimed United's scalp in the knock-out stages of this competition before. Hardly appetising then.

On the other hand, Ferguson is quite right to point out that it's no picnic for the 'top seeds' either. Take Chelsea, who (since the rules make it impossible for them to face fellow Premier League sides, United and Liverpool) could easily find themselves paired with Champions League 'small fry' such as Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich!

Those who consider their other potential adversaries, Werder Bremen and PSV to be mere makeweights, have short memories. This time last year, Porto were almost universally dismissed as rabbits in a field of thoroughbred racehorses.

A quick word about the supposed prize going to the group winners of playing the second leg at home. Psychologically, the majority of teams will tell you they prefer to travel for the first game and then let the home crowd carry them in the return. It must be said though, there's no significant empirical evidence to buttress this line of reasoning.

The chances are, we'll end up with one or two irresistibly glamourous ties and the odd match involving two teams possessing less formidable portfolios. Who would have thought last season's meeting of Lokomotiv Moscow and Monaco in the first knock-out round, would produce one of the finalists?

We're just going to have to be patient and wait for Lars-Christer Olsson to pull the names out of the Swiss pot before getting overly worked up.

It's also true that much can change in a couple of months. Strong current form is not necessarily a harbinger of postive things to come and by no means an indicator of who'll be on song when the Champions League returns from its winter hibernation.

Teams presently beset by injuries (Liverpool come immediately to mind), might find a clean bill of health will make all the difference.

Having backed Arsenal to end their European hoodoo, even before a ball was kicked in this season's competition, I'm in no position to flip-flop at this stage of the proceedings. Their group stage form was certainly perplexing, until the Tuesday night demolition of poor Rosenborg, yet the fact remains they're through as Group E winners.

Barcelona, to name but one side, played more engaging football than Arsenal in the section matches, but could do no better than finish second to Milan in Group F.

Anyone of rational mind knows everyone starts from scratch now. What has gone before is largely immaterial. The Champions League begins all over again in just over two months and we can start the pre-match analysis now.

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