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Brewin: Hammers raid at Palace

Premier League about an hour ago
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Atletico MadridAtletico Madrid
Real MadridReal Madrid
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Leg 2Aggregate: 2 - 1
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Dec 14, 2006

The numbers game

Metaphorically speaking, the Premiership can head to Nyon, Switzerland, for Friday's UEFA Champions League Round of 16 draw with a smug grin and its chest puffed out.

POSSIBLE OPPONENTS
• Arsenal: Barca,
Inter, PSV,
Roma, Real,
Celtic, Lille

• Chelsea: Inter,
PSV, Roma,
Real, Celtic,
Porto, Lille

• Liverpool: Barca,
Inter, Roma,
Real, Celtic,
Porto, Lille

• Man United: Barca,
Inter, PSV,
Roma, Real,
Porto, Lille

All four English clubs - the maximum quota allowed under UEFA rules - didn't just qualify for the knockout phase of Europe's elite competition, but secured their passage as group winners. A feat neither Italy, Spain nor Germany could match.

• Champions League draw live @ 11.00 GMT

The managers of England's representatives are in bullish mood. Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, who guided his unfancied team to last year's final, claims his side can go the distance once more and believes that Europe's top competition is starting to feel the full force of the Premiership.

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson, who won the European Cup in 1999 with the Red Devils, also believes a British club (the Scot includes Celtic) can win the title and that his Premiership leaders are in the form to go all the way.

Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho is simply expected to win the competition by billionaire chairman Roman Abramovich and Rafa Benitez's stuttering Liverpool, who won their fifth European title as recently as 2005, are also talking up their chances - although the bookies make them the least likely of the quartet to be successful.

But talk, as they say, is cheap and whilst all of the Premiership's representatives are saying all the right things there are still some major obstacles to overcome, at least six ties are to be negotiated before the final, and Friday's draw will simply confirm the magnitude of the initial obstruction.

Each group winner goes into the hat knowing they will enjoy the advantage of playing the second-leg of their tie at home and that they cannot be pitted against a fellow table-topper or against a member of the same federation. This eliminates the likes of Bayern Munich and AC Milan but five domestic league leaders remain in the runners-up pot, including reigning European Champions Barcelona.

So who should you be hoping your team pulls out of the hat? Here ESPNsoccernet examines the potential opposition in order of preference:

 LOSC LILLE METROPOLE: If you believe in God then this is the side you are praying for him to deliver unto your team. These are the weakest opponents remaining and any of the four Premiership clubs could draw them. Claude Puel's side have qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time in their history with a paltry nine points - on a par with Celtic as the lowest point-scorers - but they did beat AC Milan 2-0 in their final group match. In both previous European outings they came third in their opening round group, winning only one game in each campaign. The further advantage of drawing Ligue 1's third placed side is that the French club's temporary stadium is not up to European standard so even their homes games are played away, at Lens.

 CELTIC FC: If you don't get Lille then Cetlic are next on the wanted list. The Scottish champions are 16 points clear in the SPL and are an awesome force at Parkhead but the Scottish League does not provide the sort of high-level match practice required to compete with the best in Europe, where Gordon Strachan's men suffer worse travel sickness than a child who's eaten 17 bags of Haribo. The Bhoys lost all three games on the road but still managed to reach the knock-out stage for the first time in their history. Forget all that Battle of Britain rubbish, as long as you don't give away free-kicks in 'Sunshuke Nakamura territory' threats will be minimum. Manchester United pipped them to first place in the group phase and cannot face the Scots.

 FC PORTO: The 2004 European Champions qualified behind Arsenal on their head to head record, regardless of their superior goal difference, and as such cannot face the Gunners. Following the decimation of the 2004 squad and the exit of manager Jose Mourinho the The Dragons' became a laughing stock, capitulating to finish bottom of their Champions League group in 2005. However, under coach Jesualdo Ferreira, Porto have regained their consistency and the Portuguese Liga leaders are a threat once again, with Tottenham Hotspur flop Helder Postiga and Barcelona misfit Ricardo Quaresma both resurgent. That said they have over achieved and would probably have settled for a place in the UEFA Cup.

 PSV EINDHOVEN: Yet another Group Phase runner-up that leads their domestic league; the reigning Dutch Champions are not only top of the Eredivisie but with a six point cushion after just 16 games they are in danger of running away with the title yet again. Untouchable domestically PSV have lost twice in Europe: away to group winners Liverpool and at home to Bordeaux once the qualification places were all sewn up. The Farmers have an illustrious European history that stretches much further back than the 2005 semi-final and the 2006 exit at the hands of Lyon under previous boss Guus Hiddink but new coach Ronald Koeman will do well to get past the round of 16. Despite being able to call on the talents of Barca old boys Phillip Cocu and Michael Reiziger. Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal would be happy to face the Dutch side.

 AS ROMA: A certain tipster friend of ESPNsoccernet's predicted the Giallorossi as surprise winners before the competition kicked-off and although still an unlikely outcome his reputation may be sitting a little more comfortably at the moment. Roma are a team in form and before this weekend's humiliating 3-0 defeat in the Rome derby Luciano Spalletti's team had won six games in a row to move into second place in Serie A. However, the Italian side do have weaknesses and a poor away record - defeats to Shakhtar Donetsk and Valencia - let top spot slip. Much also depends on the form of Francesco Totti, to such an extent that critics label Roma as a one man team. Although we are entering potentially troublesome ground here all four of the Premiership sides would welcome Roma ahead of the following three teams.

 REAL MADRID CF: The nine-time European Champions are not the force they once were and have failed to impress since their last triumph in 2002. The creaking bones of Zidane and Figo have departed the Bernebeu and none of the Premiership sides would be too intimidated by Los Blancos after Arsenal made them look mediocre en route to last season's final. Since then, however, Fabio Capello has taken control and dispensed with the free flowing approach that the Madristas demand and his more pragmatic system has brought an improved balance to the team - even if two holding midfielders ahead of World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro is tantamount to sacrilege at the Bernebeu. They scored the most goals during the group stage but, bar Celtic, also conceded the most.

 FC INTERNAZIONALE MILANO: Enigmatic is one way to describe the Nerazzurri, a maelstrom of chaos that can produce devastating results when it randomly clicks into synchronicity is another. Since the European titles of 1964 and 1965 the odd sparkling victory is all that has interspersed the ensuing years. Despite this Inter expect to win the trophy this term. Why you ask? Well for 16 years Inter spectacularly failed to win the Scudetto, until last season when the Serie A title was awarded to them after Juventus and AC Milan were punished for match-fixing. Now that both major rivals are out of this season's title race the Scudetto is a done deal, at least as far as Inter are concerned, so only European triumph will do. To help Roberto Mancini's team to triumph in Europe Inter pilfered Patrick Vieira and Zlatan Ibrahimovic from demoted Juve, in addition to six more high-profile signings that included Hernan Crespo and Fabio Grosso. Il Biscione is a nest of vipers best eluded.

 FUTBOL CLUB BARCELONA: No need to say too much here, except: avoid at all costs! The Catalan giants may have been criticised for not replicating the breath-taking football they displayed last term, but Barca still sit comfortably on top of La Liga and should welcome back Pichichi winner Samuel Eto'o and Argentine starlet Lionel Messi when the Champions League resumes in February. Chelsea, having beaten them at Stamford Bridge and drawn at the Nou Camp in the group phase, cannot face Frank Rijkaard's team who, despite scoring freely in Spain, have lost a little of their fear-factor in Europe. The Blues proved that if you play a high-tempo, physical game they can be beaten. But Barca remain favourites to defend their title and only a fool would want to pull Rijkaard's team out of the hat.

  • If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.