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Next Season's Europe Chasing Clubs
Before focus turns towards the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland this summer, it is a good time to look forward to the European qualification for 2008/09 and see who has direct entry to the Champions League and who has to battle through qualification.
In England, the two Champions League finalists managed to secure first and second place in the Premier League so Manchester United and Chelsea are guaranteed group stage Champions League football next season. Behind them, Arsenal and Liverpool will face qualification rounds in their quest to ensure that English football is once again seen as the dominant force in European football. With three out of the four semi-finalists hailing from England and Arsenal being defeated by Liverpool, there is every chance that the strength of the English teams in Europe’s premier trophy is likely to continue.
English Clubs in the Uefa Cup
With regards to England hopes in the Uefa Cup, Everton return once again as they reap the rewards of another fine season where they finished 5th. Given the size and stature of the big 4, it would take something special to finish above one of these teams and Everton have been one of the more consistent challengers in recent years. The Toffees were knocked out of the UEFA Cup at the last 16 by eventual semi-finalists Fiorentina, and will no doubt want to progress further.
Joining them on their European campaign will be FA Cup winners Portsmouth, League Cup Winners Tottenham Hotspurs and Fair Play entrants Manchester City. Given the FA Cup remains the showpiece tournament of the English FA and their strong performances throughout the season, no one can deny that Portsmouth had a great season and deserve their first European adventure. However, qualification through winning the League Cup is a bit of a farce.
Aston Villa’s sterling efforts throughout the campaign would have been far better rewarded with a European spot but instead, Spurs have been granted another opportunity to threaten to win the tournament before no doubt being humbled out of the competition at the very moment other teams start to take it seriously.
As no one knows who will be in charge at Manchester City next season or which players of the current squad will remain it would be difficult to make any prediction regarding their chances of European glory. Thaskin Shinawatra may be able to entice a better class of manager and player with the incentive of European football but given the way that it seems likely Sven Goran Erikson will be out of a job after a successful season, many managers think twice about taking the job.
Spanish Surprise for Villarreal
In Spain and Italy some of the more unfashionable clubs have given themselves a great opportunity to make progress in the Champions League. La Liga champions Real Madrid gain automatic entry to the group stages where they will be joined by Villarreal.
The Yellow Submarine finished comfortably in second place and with a Champions League semi-final still relatively fresh in the fans memories, there will be a lot of excitement surrounding the clubs opportunity to make an impact on the big cup.
Not only does this mean that Villarreal are guaranteed their Champions League income, it means that Barcelona will have to play through the qualification round. A lacklustre finish to the season saw Barca slump to third and with Frank Rijkaard already replaced by Josep Guardiola and many changes in personnel expected, there will be a lot of pressure on Barca to bounce back strongly. Athletico Madrid join Barcelona as Spain’s Champions League qualifiers.
No Champions League for AC Milan
Although Barcelona have to qualify to ensure they have group stage Champions League matches next season at least they have this opportunity.
In Italy, AC Milan finished in 5th place and are definitely in the Uefa Cup. The 2006/07 Champions League winners have had a dramatic fall from grace over the past season with time finally catching up with their experienced squad.
It was a very good Rangers side that year and they would have been capable of hammering Dunfermline that day but when you have the management team making pointed remarks about the destination of the title in days leading up to the match, it can be no wonder that the integrity of the game is sometimes called into question. Thursday night will be the test of whether "the two Jimmies" are able to put their own fans considerations ahead of the club that they love so dear.
It is unclear if Carlo Ancellotti will remain in charge of the Rossoneri but there is no doubt there will need to be an influx of new blood to the red and blacks. One of the most frequently linked names is Ronaldinho with the Brazilian star looking for an exit route from the Camp Nou. The player has been linked to both Milan clubs but as of press time, an announcement regarding his decision is still awaited.
Rest of Serie A + Other European Entrants
The other Milan club, Internazionale, clinched another Scudetto on the final day of the Serie A season where a Zlatan Ibrahimovic double ensured they held off the challenge from AS Roma. Both Roma and Inter received direct entry to the group stages of the Champions League with the qualifying spots going to Juventus and Fiorentina.
The third place finish for Juventus has been a vindication of the club and a swift return to success after their demotion for match fixing and the club looks well placed to continue their return to the more pleasing aspects of football.
Champions of the Bundesliga Bayern Munich will be looking to make up for a season out of the Champions League and their direct entry after winning the league is a fine reward for a strong and commanding season. Other notable Champions League entrants will include French favourites Lyon and Scottish champions Celtic.
Title Drama in Scotland
Celtic have progressed into the last sixteen in the last two seasons and due to a dramatic title win can once again look forward to group nights in the Champions League.
Just over a month ago Celtic were six points behind Rangers having played two games more but a thrilling end of season run saw them triumph over bitter rivals Rangers. As the hoops fans partied at Tannadice not only were they roaring in support of their teams title triumph, they knew that they would be automatically entered into the Champions League group stages whilst Rangers were faced with two qualifiers in the same qualification.
It's one thing to win a title, its entirely another to deny your most bitter opponents, especially when they felt the league was in the bag. The Rangers fans had been singing for months about how Celtic would never win the league but now, after their collapse at home and defeat in the Uefa Cup final, it is the Rangers fans who are looking back on a season with regret and sorrow when only three weeks back, it promised so much.
If Rangers can continue their Uefa Cup form into the qualifying rounds they should be able to join their nations champions in the Group stages but it will be four extra games they could do without out. Given their moaning about fixture congestion for the season just past, Rangers fans may be fretting about an additional four games being added to their workload for next season already. A notable mention must also be made to Motherwell, who qualified for the Uefa Cup.
It has been a traumatic season for the Fir Park after the on-field death of Phil O’Donnell in December but the club have easily been the best of the rest in Scotland.
It may seem as though football never stops and for many, it is time to head to the beach and relax for some time but it will not be long until the quest for European glory begins again with many teams looking to steal the glory from Manchester United and Zenit St Petersburg, the two holders of Europe’s major club competitions.
By Andrew Reilly
for The Silver Circle at www.footballtip.co.uk
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