Europe's cream rises to the top
© AFP

For a time, it seemed this would be the year of the underdog in the UEFA Champions League. The first two rounds of group matches ended, after all, with Romania's CFR Cluj and Anorthosis Famagusta of Cyprus unbeaten and on course to qualify, and Belarussians BATE Borisov proving a match for the likes of Juventus and Real Madrid.

For Michel Platini, who had long championed the right of clubs such as these to be represented at Europe's top table, this was manna from heaven. "That is what makes football so great," beamed the UEFA President.

Fast forward a few months, however, and all it takes is a glance at the line-up for the last 16 draw to see that this was a David versus Goliath story with an unhappy ending for the little guy. Indeed, Anorthosis, Cluj and BATE finished bottom of their respective sections, while every one of the pre-tournament favourites have moved on to contest the knockout rounds.

If anything, the big leagues' stranglehold on club football's richest competition was actually strengthened, with half of this season's last 16 hailing from just two nations: England and Spain. All eight of the Premier League and Liga representatives made it through, in fact, and only Fiorentina's third-place finish prevented an identical clean sweep for Italy's hopefuls.

Never before have so few nations provided such a large proportion of the field at this stage, and yet although this developing dominance will be viewed with understandable concern, it should also be pointed out that not everything has run to script. Take Panathinaikos topping Group B ahead of Inter Milan, for example, or Sporting reaching the last 16 for the first time with two games to spare.

One or two new stars have also emerged. Shakhtar Donetsk's Jadson and Aalborg's Anders Due depart the competition with four goals and four assists respectively, while the eye-catching Juan Culio of Cluj provided some moments of genuine inspiration. Again, however, some extremely familiar names dominate the top scorers list, with Messrs Messi, Gerrard, Klose and Benzema tied at the summit on five.

No team will want to draw us. Who would like to draw the champions? 
John O'Shea on Manchester United.

Gerrard and Klose's goals were instrumental in helping Liverpool and Bayern Munich qualify with the joint-highest points tally (14), while at the other end of the spectrum Jose Mourinho's Inter squeezed through with just eight, one fewer than eliminated Shakhtar. Atletico Madrid, meanwhile, were one of the group stage's most notable success stories, advancing with a game to spare and ending the group phase without having tasted defeat. "Atletico are now one of the best teams in Europe and we deserve to be here every year," beamed their coach, Javier Aguirre. "I'm very proud."

Four other teams emerged unbeaten, among them the holders, Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson's side didn't always sparkle, drawing four of their six games, but Villarreal's defeat at Celtic Park last night assured them of top spot. And defender John O'Shea believes they remain the team to beat. "No team will want to draw us," he said. "Who would like to draw the champions?"

United, whose attentions now turn to the FIFA Club World Cup, certainly remain prominent on the list of favourites, although bookmakers appear to have identified Barcelona as the frontrunners at this stage. Sporting and Panathinaikos, meanwhile, will not be surprised to learn that they are odds-on to fall at the next hurdle.

For the moment, however, these unlikely contenders remain the focus of envy for many of their peers, especially those who fell during the group phase. A parachute into UEFA Cup is at least providing some consolation for the likes of Zenit, Fiorentina and Marseille, but for a clutch of Champions League veterans, this season's European adventure is over altogether.

Fenerbahce, for example, who reached the quarter-finals last season, failed to win a single match, while PSV's leaky defence and Celtic's miserable away record put paid to their respective hopes. They will now be left to enviously peer in from the outside as the world's richest clubs do battle for the coveted title of European champions.

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