18 September 2007

The secret of winning the Champions League? Forget domestic ambitions...

As another season of continental combat begins, Glenn Moore predicts problems for those who target too much

European ambitions? Best to put the domestic ones aside then. That is the memo to the 32 coaches embarking on the Champions League this week. Since Manchester United completed the treble in 1999 it has become evident that even the modern-day squad, with £50,000-a-week internationals jostling just to grab a seat on the bench, is insufficient to sustain a two-pronged assault on glory. Only five of the 16 subsequent finalists have also led the field at home. One of those, Jose Mourinho's Porto, were competing in a league which made only moderate demands on players.
No nation's clubs have it harder than England's. The Premier League has produced seven of the last 16 semi-finalists, but only one of the winners, Liverpool, on penalties, in 2005. Exhaustion, the bane of the national team, is an obvious cause. Just as England players arrive at the major biennial tournaments drained by a demanding domestic season of 38 high-intensity, lung-and-muscle testing league matches, plus cups, so do the club teams stagger towards the business end of the Champions League.
A winter break is the solution but that is unlikely to happen. The Premier League's refusal to reduce to 18 teams, and the Football League's successful fight to retain the Carling Cup, mean there is no room to rearrange fixtures. The answer, for managers, is to prioritise competitions and rotate the squad.
Jose Mourinho has admitted he made a mistake in seeking to drive Chelsea to a quadruple last season, and is planning to prioritise this time. On what, he will not say, but expect the cup competitions to suffer. Rafael Benitez has said his main target is a domestic title last won by Liverpool when it was still called the First Division – not quite baggy shorts, but houses had TV aerials, not satellite dishes, and live league football was a novelty.
Sir Alex Ferguson has been less candid, but his signings, notably Owen Hargreaves, suggest the focus will be on Europe. Having restored domestic superiority he can return to the quest for a second European Cup which would lift him from the ranks of the many, to the few. Arsène Wenger, one suspects, will wait to see how the season develops. He spoke on Sunday of wishing to win the one major trophy that still eludes Arsenal, but with his young team leading the Premier League he must be tempted to focus on regaining the domestic title.
The situation for Celtic and Rangers, Britain's other representatives in an unparalleled six-club entry, is slightly different. With respect to the SPL they do not have such a demanding domestic programme but, equally, they have thinner squads. Progress in Europe brings in pride and money but silverware looks improbable and neither Gordon Strachan nor Walter Smith can afford to sacrifice Old Firm supremacy at home just to go an extra round in Europe.
Managers across Europe are making these assessments: consider Frank Rijkaard, Alain Perrin and Armin Veh. Rijkaard, with Barcelona in 2006, is the only manager to win a Champions League-domestic league double this century, but he went potless last season. Lyon have unashamedly pursued European success in recent years, but Perrin is new to the post and must ensure domestic hegemony is not lost. Veh's Stuttgart are already slipping away from a resurgent Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga and may concentrate their resources on Europe. The risk, however, as Bayern found last season, is that they then fail to secure qualification for next season's Champions League. This is the problem with the competition's financial success – simply being in the Champions League is worth more to most clubs than winning trophies.
Carlo Ancelotti, meanwhile, must be tempted by the prospect of being the first manager to retain the trophy since Arrigo Sacchi did with the same Milan club in 1990, pre-Champions League days, with Ancelotti in the midfield. That the competition is now so much harder to retain – from 1970-1976 Ajax and Bayern each won three successive titles – is an indication of how tough and demanding it now is.
Ajax and Bayern are two of the three big names missing from this year's competition, Juventus, having spent last season in Serie B, are the third. In their place are two newcomers, though Steaua Bucharest won the competition in its old guise in 1986 and Seville are hardly unknowns having won back-to-back Uefa Cups. Spain, Italy and England provide a dozen of the teams and it will be a surprise if the winner does not come from one of those countries. There are five clubs from the former Eastern Bloc, a region which has not provided a semi-finalist since Andrei Shevchenko left Dynamo Kiev in 1999. Of the quintet Shakhtar Donetsk could be the surprise with many a big four coach keeping an eye on £15m Mexican Nery Castillo.
That could be bad news for Celtic who also have Milan in a tough group. Rangers have an equally difficult sextet of matches to negotiate but the English clubs appear well placed. Manchester United will be more concerned with the logistics of travelling to Kiev, and crowd control in Rome, than anything they encounter on the field. Chelsea's group is a three-way contest from which Jose Mourinho's team should emerge. Arsenal and tonight's opponents, Seville, will cruise Group H. Which leaves Liverpool who, under Benitez, have been domestic bystanders, but a European power.
Now the focus is on the home front but Benitez does not intend to give up on the Champions League. "You must try and win every competition," he said yesterday. "It depends on your squad. If you want to compete in four different competitions you need to use your squad.
"I said at the start of the season that our priority could be the Premier League but that doesn't mean that we don't want to win the other trophies. We don't want to forget the Champions League."
Is this squad good enough to go the distance in both? "I think so, but we will see during the season, sometimes you need a little bit of luck." Across Europe 31 other coaches will agree with that.

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