Ferguson keeping tabs on German powers
This week the great German clubs that are so admired by Alex Ferguson clock off for the winter.
They can watch today's Champions League last-16 draw knowing they will not see action again until mid-January. By then, Ferguson's Manchester United side will have played six times in a manic Christmas schedule.
In the Champions League stats since 1992, United head the list for most ranking points, most wins and most consecutive appearances (17).
But while the great powers dominate this year's draw as usual, there are hints of a wider democracy with Celtic, Shakhtar Donetsk and three group stage-winning Bundesliga clubs challenging the old order of England, Italy and Spain, where Tito Vilanova, the Barcelona coach, has been forced to stand down on health grounds.
The jolt to Barcelona is less deserving of sympathy than the shock to Vilanova himself, and the news of his illness adds a more poignant human aspect to the sharing out of treasure next May.
Schalke's coach, Huub Stevens, lost his job for much more mundane reasons (four domestic defeats in six).
Yet there is no mistaking the strength of the Bundesliga trio completed by Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, who beat Hannover 5-1 last night and will not be seen again until the Werder Bremen fixture on January 19.
United will not face German opposition in the first knockout round but Ferguson is known to be especially impressed by Dortmund, who were knocked out in the group stage last year and have prioritised European games this time. Marco Reus, Robert Lewandowski and the centre-backs Mats Hummels and Neven Subotic excelled in an unbeaten group campaign that saw England's champions, Manchester City, fail even to make the Europa League.
Bayern Munich are steaming away in the Bundesliga title race but Dortmund would offer daunting opposition to Arsenal or Celtic, the 1967 European champions who defeated Barcelona in Glasgow.
The ignominious counterpoint to Celtic's victory over the world's best team was Chelsea – who beat Barcelona in last season's semi-final – becoming the first defending champions to fall at the group stage.
Celtic's advance to the second round should not be Anglicised, but Roy Hodgson's England will feel the benefit if Fraser Forster finds himself defying Dortmund, Juventus or United in an all-British tie.
"Ideally, I want to keep pushing Joe (Hart)," said the Celtic goalkeeper as staff and officials at the club rolled out the old line about "fearing no one".
Forster said: "That's the plan for me – to stay in the England squad – and the only way I can do that is playing well for my club and doing well in the Champions League."
The ebbing of English power at Europe's highest level comes in a year when the Champions League road leads back to Wembley, where United were eviscerated by Barcelona in the 2011 final.
In his Harvard Business School lecture, Ferguson spoke of the difficulties of balancing continental and domestic strategies.
He said: "We are in a country where tribalism is rife. There is strong competition between regions and top clubs, with Arsenal, Chelsea, and Tottenham based in London, two clubs here in Manchester, and Liverpool.
"That puts tremendous pressure on you to win your league. But the European Cup is the biggest trophy. Last season, when we went out in the group phase, I made a mistake. I was playing a lot of the young players. Although that had worked in the past, we got careless in our games.
"It was a shock, because it was only the third time I've not qualified for the knockout stage. I decided I wouldn't be taking the risks I took in Europe last year."
To see City and Chelsea drop away accentuates the skill of Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, who have learned over decades how to deal with the myriad tests presented by European styles.
Regular Champions League football must have been a draw to Kieran Gibbs, Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere when they signed new deals this week, though a tie with Barcelona would remind Arsenal's supporters how often their talent pool is fished by predators.
Alex Song, who joined Cesc Fabregas in Catalonia, said: "If we draw Arsenal I'd be happy to see the fans again and go back to the club. Arsenal's a big club, but Barcelona's a level above because of the talent of the players there.
"That's no disrespect to Arsenal because they have talented players, but I think the Barcelona players are above them. I saw a lot of people come and a lot of people go at Arsenal."
In another part of Spain, all Jose Mourinho's energies are fixed on winning this Champions League with a third club before his seemingly inevitable return to England in the summer. A Manchester United-Real Madrid tie would mesmerise both cities. (© Daily Telegraph, London)