Well, the English interest in the European Cup began in earnest this morning, when Liverpool and Arsenal got their draws in the European Cup (“Champions League”, my arse) third qualifying round. Both of them should, theoretically, sail through, though Liverpool’s players and supporters have justified reasons to be more than a little bit nervous at the prospect of a trip to Israel to play Maccabi Haifa, given the somewhat tense situation at present, especially when this is coupled with Tony Blair’s continuing kow-towing to America’s repulsive foreign policy. There’s talk that the away leg will be moved to Tel Aviv, and Liverpool are already lobbying to get it played the hell away from Israel altogether. If I was in charge of UEFA, I’d get them to play it in Baghdad. I’m not sure what it would prove, but it would amuse me.
Arsenal, on the other hand, are already talking about going “one step further” than they did last season, which seems a little rich coming from a team that finished some distance off third place and only just limped into fourth place last season. Indeed, the “Dodgy Lasagne” incident before the Spurs-West Ham match in May has already entered the lexicon of the Spurs Conspiracy Theorists’ Hall Of Fame, in the “Cheating Arsenal” section. FK Ekranas (Greek, I think), or Dinamo Zagreb lie in wait for them. As an aside, I’ve often thought that if I started a football team, I’d call it “Sparta”, “Dynamo”/”Dinamo”, “Spartak”, or “Lokomotiv”. It makes them sound like much bigger clubs than they actually are. One hopes that one of them will get booted out early on, but I’m not particularly optimistic that it will happen.
Hearts, who have more or less booked their place in the next round with a 3-0 win against Siroki Brijeg (though one should never put anything past them in the “spunking things away” department, considering the way they handed the SPL to Celtic on a plate in 1986 and then followed this up by losing the Scottish Cup final to Aberdeen a week later – shades of the early 1970s Leeds United there), will, presuming the ban on all Greek clubs doing anything hasn’t been re-imposed, be playing AEK Athens. Most intriguingly of all, though, Cork City have drawn Milan in the final qualifying round, if they can overcome a 1-0 home loss against Crvena Zvedzde. I thought UEFA were still debating whether to allow Milan into this year’s European Cup, but a quick check shows that they have decided to let them in after all. So much for doing everything they can to stamp out corruption in football. Money, it would appear, really does talk.
There was also good news for the teams from south of the border in Ireland. Derry City may not physically be in the Republic of Ireland, but they play in (for – you guessed it- sectarian reasons) the Eircom League of Ireland, and they beat former UEFA Cup winners IFK Gothenburg in the week, whilst Drogheda United saw off HJK Helsinki. Of Wales’ representatives, TNS and Rhyl are out, whilst Llanelli beat the MIGHTY Gefle. I don’t know where “Gefle” is. Sorry about that. Having said that, I daresay that someone from Gefle might well have been forgiven for not knowing where Llanelli is until a couple of weeks ago.
Finally, a quick word about the match-fixing back-pedalling in Italy. As predictable as it was depressing, really. To summarise – Juventus are still down, but they’ve had a more or less insurmountable 30 point deduction reduced to a quite easily achievable 17 point deduction. So, that’s saved them a year in Serie B. Fiorentina and Lazio have been reinstated to Serie A – no further comment required. Milan have been reinstated into the European Cup (which will probably net them £30m or so, all-in), and have had their points deduction commuted from 15 to 8. Not bad, considering their still-likely plundering of Juventus’ squad. Juventus, who appear utterly, utterly shameless, are set to appeal again. They should demoted again for merely mentioning another appeal.