Last updated : 15 December 2006 By Ed

From the Guardian

Today sees the draw for the knockout phase of the Champions League, and it also heralds the start of an entirely new competition. Events in the groups matter a little because of the signs of promise they contained, but coming top did not bring a great benefit. Runners-up have to play the return leg of their last 16 tie away, but there are several clubs who will none the less feel sure they can step up their bid for the trophy.

The holders Barcelona are the most obvious example, with their form improving markedly and the sort of reinforcements expected that cannot be bought in the transfer window. The presently injured Samuel Eto'o and Lionel Messi ought to be in full flow again fairly soon. Frank Rijkaard's side finished behind Chelsea, but the other three English clubs who topped their groups will find that success bitter if it sentences them to a tie with Barcelona.

La Liga's contingent have signalled their attacking flair. Although Fabio Capello's Real Madrid appear rugged they also had the skill to be the highest scorers, with 14 goals, in any of the groups. Only they struck more than Valencia, Barcelona and Lyon, who all notched 12. The champions of France, however, forced Real into the runners-up slot in Group E.

The English clubs, on the other hand, have the chance to show that they can dominate the competition for years to come. La Liga's representatives have that aim as well and they, just like the Premiership forces, are heartened by the perceived decline of Italy. Milan are in need of reconstruction just to cope with Serie A and Inter's prowess has still to be shown beyond the domestic scene. A 3-0 defeat by Lazio last weekend also raised doubts about Roma.

Winning the Champions League will be a Stamford Bridge job requirement for Jose Mourinho sooner or later and the exploits against Barcelona left people wondering whether this tournament could suit Chelsea more than the Premiership in the current campaign. The reverse could hold true for Manchester United, if their 1-0 defeats in Copenhagen and Glasgow are to be taken as a guide to their readiness. Since they cannot face Celtic again immediately, United would presumably dream of being pitted against Lille, particularly since it would let them atone for ending up bottom of the group a year ago, behind Claude Puel's side.

PSV Eindhoven, not fully recovered from Guus Hiddink's departure, will be greeted with relief by whoever meets them. Porto, too, are moderate. Liverpool will be phlegmatic about whoever is placed in their path. The 2005 winners show signs of belatedly integrating the batch of signings introduced in the summer. Even when the Premiership was a misery to them, their showings against continental sides illustrated that Rafael Benítez is suited to the challenges of European events.