Jim White

A special victory

Jim White

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The Champions League final is to be staged in the Olympic stadium in Rome next May. And the good news for Chelsea fans is that they are guaranteed to see their team play there in this year's competition.

Well, at least once. Phil Scolari's team drew Roma in Group A of the qualifying stages and will head off to the eternal city for what they hope is not the last time in the season on 4 November. In what must be regarded as the easiest draw of any of the English clubs, Chelsea's other two opponents are Bordeaux and Cluj of Romania, a side hailing from the Transylvanian town with the previous claim to fame of sending the Cheeky Girls out into the world, seeking innocent British parliamentarians to ensnare.

There is nothing so exotic for Liverpool, who, after scraping through the qualifying stages thanks to last-minute intervention from Dirk Kuyt, are faced with a tough and familiar collection of wily old faces. PSV, Marseille and Atletico Madrid: it doesn't come much harder than that at this stage, though Fernando Torres for one will be relishing the idea of a return to old haunts.

Poor old Arsenal, meanwhile, will regard a draw like that as a collection of local derbies. With trips to Fenerbahce and Dynamo Kiev, plus a hop to Portugal to play Porto, their mid-weeks are going to be crammed with long old hauls. In the race for several competitions at once, on such slender margins does success hang. Which would you rather do: play Bolton away the Saturday after a round trip of some 10 hours flight time? Or when you've just popped over the channel to northern Holland? It may sound like the tamest of excuses, but there is no doubt flights weaken legs.

In which case, Sir Alex Ferguson must be delighted with his draw. He takes the European champions to Glasgow, Aalborg in Denmark and Villarreal in Spain, never more than 90 minutes in the air for any of them. And when he gets there, he will not be faced by exactly the toughest of possible opposition.

True, Ferguson's team lost in Scotland the last time they played Celtic in the competition, but that was on the occasion when they dominated the game and missed a last-minute penalty (Gary Neville notably revealing that Louis Saha was shaking with nerves as he came up to strike it). It can't happen twice, can it? Surely this time even Fergie, who usually manages to imply that the European fixture computer is institutionally biased against his team, will be chuckling quietly about his draw. United should stroll it.

In fact, despite the vagaries of distance, all the English clubs should qualify. And given the methodology of the draw which keeps clubs from the same country apart until that stage, I suspect all four will once again make it to the quarters. Beyond that, however, it is a different story. I don't think an English club will win this time.

Yes, Chelsea are even stronger than last season and with the arrival of Deco have a playmaking spirit at the heart of their endeavour. They are a good bet once again to make the final (and a second trip to Rome). And yes, on their day, United are the best team around, full of spirit and vigour. But this season - at least until Ronaldo returns and who knows what mood he will be in after having his dream move postponed this summer - they lack a finishing edge. Any club where Darren Fletcher scores all the goals in a season cannot regard themselves as shoo-ins for honours.

No, I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest that, come the end of May, the biggest of all club trophies will be heading up the motorway from Rome to Milan. This, I suspect, is Inter's year. They have the players, they have the wiles, they have a decent draw (Werder Bremen, Panathinaikos and Anorthosis Famagusta are all within a couple of hours flight and none exactly represent a hurdle.) But above all they have the manager - The Special One.

Unlike Phil Scolari, for instance, Jose Mourinho has won the trophy before. He knows what is required. More to the point, he has the knack of delivery. My money is on a special victory come May. Though you may well disagree...

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