Tue, Mar 09, 2004 - Page 19 News List

Champions League reaches point of no return

REUTERS , LONDON

Manchester United were named as the wealthiest soccer club in the world last week -- but all their riches will appear to account for nothing if they are knocked out of the Champions League this week.

There could also be somewhat untimely European exits for Bayern Munich and last season's runners-up Juventus after the second legs of the first knockout stage of the competition takes place tonight and tomorrow.

It is the point of no return for Europe's leading clubs with the field cut from 16 to eight teams following the introduction of the first knockout stage this season after only one group stage.

But European champions AC Milan, nine-times champions Real Madrid and London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea all look likely to make it into the quarterfinals.

Manchester United, bidding to reach the quarter-finals for the eighth successive season, are likely to face a tough task against Portuguese rivals Porto who came from behind to win the first leg 2-1 with goals from South African striker Benni McCarthy.

Although they have a poor record over the years in England, having lost all six European matches they have played, including a 5-2 defeat at Old Trafford in 1977 and a 4-0 defeat there in 1997, coach Jose Mourinho saw Porto largely dominate United in the first leg.

His side will also be strengthened by the return of Costinha, who was suspended for the first leg while United will be without their skipper Roy Keane, suspended after being sent off for stamping on Porto keeper Vitor Baia.

United prepared for the match with a 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final win over Fulham on Saturday, with two goals from Ruud Van Nistelrooy.

Bayern Munich, who last won the European Cup in 2001, face a tall order in Madrid against Real, who escaped from Germany with a fortunate 1-1 draw after a mistake from goalkeeper Oliver Kahn allowed Roberto Carlos to equalize Roy Makaay's goal for Bayern.

Kahn, who symbolically left his gloves in the center-circle after the match as a sign of disgust with himself, has vowed to win the match "single-handedly" for letting his team mates down at home. But both sides are depleted for the return.

Real will miss Ronaldo, who injured a thigh in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Racing Santander, and the suspended Roberto Carlos.

Bayern will almost certainly be without defender Willy Sagnol who broke his left arm in Bayern's 3-1 win over Bayer Leverkusen on Saturday. Fellow French defender Bixente Lizarazu will also miss the match -- the 16th between the two clubs in European competition, a European record.

Bayern's coach Ottmar Hitzfeld believes that if Bayern win it will restore their reputation in Europe where they have struggled for the last three years -- and it is not beyond Bayern to do so.

While one big club will definitely be eliminated in Madrid, Juventus will be hoping they are not shown the exit door at home against Deportivo Coruna.

The Spaniards won the first leg 1-0 two weeks ago and all seven matches between the two sides in the last four years have been close.

Juve will be without the suspended Antonio Conte and warmed up for the match with a 3-2 Serie A win at Brescia on Saturday.

European champions AC Milan beat Sampdoria 3-1 to stay six points clear of Juve at the top and should be too strong for Sparta Prague in Milan.

Arsenal, on a high both domestically and in Europe, should also see off Celta Vigo following their 3-2 win in Spain in the first leg. Chelsea should continue their advance with a win over VfB Stuttgart at home following their 1-0 away leg victory.

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