Thursday 14 August ~

This season’s Champions League final will take place on May 27, 2009 in the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. For English clubs, the slow plod towards this event began last night and the two teams taking part in the qualifying rounds both came through the first legs with a large amount of good fortune. Liverpool survived a penalty and a goal-line appeal to come away from Standard Liège with a goalless draw. The English press, already revving up the “Liverpool in Europe” hype, were very upset with the performance – the Daily Mail’s John Edwards saw Liverpool “flirting with the unthinkable of qualifying-round elimination at the hands of Champions League novices”. The second leg is on August 27 and though Liverpool’s performance was comically bad at times, last night’s draw should help ensure that the “unthinkable” is avoided.

Arsenal got a positive result, winning 2-0 despite being outplayed for much of the evening. Match reports focused on FC Twente’s manager Steve McClaren, who seems to be enjoying some sort of popular revival and was duly given credit for his side’s good performance. Of course it’s going to be a long time until the press forgets that game against Croatia and the wally/brolly rhyme appeared on most of today’s back pages along with an varied assortment of weather related puns. It was also widely reported that McClaren’s programme notes last night included the phrase “Grote underdog”. At least this was actually in Dutch rather than the bizarre and amusing heavily accented pidgin English McClaren appears to adopt in interviews these days.

Liverpool could have done with Gareth Barry last night but that particular transfer saga (recently challenged for tediousness by Dimitar Berbatov’s slow-motion move to Man Utd) may soon be at an end. Aston Villa, playing FH Hafnarfjordur in the UEFA Cup in Iceland tonight, have included Barry in the squad at his own request. If he plays he’ll be cup-tied in Europe until January, something that will end Liverpool’s interest, at least until the next transfer window. This is Villa’s first game in Europe since September 2001 when they were knocked out of the same tournament by Croatian side NK Varteks, courtesy of a first-leg collapse at Villa Park. In his final months of the job, John Gregory had left out Paul Merson, Lee Hendrie and Dion Dublin, and stated: “I live and die by my decisions and I stand by my team selection.” Despite the fact that FH Hafnarfjordur knocked out Dunfermline at this stage in 2004, Martin O’Neill’s Aston Villa are a very different prospect to John Gregory’s side and they should win tonight.

Villa’s opponents on Sunday, Man City, are also competing in the UEFA Cup tonight against FC Midtjylland of Denmark. After Mark Hughes’s emphatic declaration that he is in control at the club fans will be hoping for a combative team performance. However, today’s reports that Blackburn have rejected a Man City offer of around £12m for Roque Santa Cruz should come as no surprise given that most of City’s funds remains frozen in Thailand.

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