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Mourinho will relish Man Utd test

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Phil McNulty | 12:04 GMT, Friday, 19 December 2008

Jose Mourinho announced that he wanted an English club in the last 16 of the Champions League - and "The Special One" usually gets what he wants.

So it was with a degree of inevitability that Mourinho's Inter Milan were paired with holders Manchester United in a draw that will have Europe's football community drooling.

Mourinho is box office and big headlines all wrapped up in an expensive black overcoat, and that will be some walk down the touchline for the second leg at Old Trafford.

United's meeting with Inter is the main news - but the rest of the draw is littered with reunions and mouth-watering games that also give England's quartet every chance of reaching the quarter-finals.

Liverpool meet Real Madrid in a game that gives Rafael Benitez a return to his old club (who have wanted to make him their manager on countless occasions allegedly) and Juande Ramos the chance to show the Premier League he was not the hapless figure he cut so often at Spurs.

Chelsea welcome back The Tinkerman himself in the shape of Claudio Ranieri and his Juventus side - a manager with a personality much-loved at Stamford Bridge, even if the same did not always apply to his tactics.

Arsenal, meanwhile, will be cautiously optimistic, despite being paired with the dangerous AS Roma, who beat Chelsea convincingly in the group stage of the Champions League.

For Chelsea and Arsenal, the main business of the draw was avoiding Barcelona, no matter how many brave words were issued on that subject from inside Stamford Bridge and The Emirates.

But there is only one place to start - and that is with Mourinho's meeting with the old foe Sir Alex Ferguson.

I am an unashamed Mourinho fan and it is my conviction - without any mischief-making whatsoever you understand - that he will be United's next manager once Sir Alex decides to abdicate.

Mourinho will relish being the centre of England's attention once more and will drink in every second of the huge attention his return will create.

He enjoyed a cordial relationship with Ferguson off the field, and a successful one on it, effectively rounding off his Chelsea reign with an FA Cup Final win over United in 2007.

And just wait for those endless re-runs of Mourinho's 100-yard dash down the Old Trafford sidelines when he ended United's hopes of winning the trophy in 2004, when Francisco Costinha's last-minute leveller allowed Porto to take a huge stride towards claiming the prize themselves.

United will have the usual pressure applied to the holders, but the weight of expectation will be on Mourinho's shoulders.

Inter Milan may lead Serie A, but he has not been brought in to win a domestic title - those have been commonplace for the great old Italian club in recent seasons.

Mourinho has been employed by Inter to win the Champions League, a trophy that has eluded them in its different guises since 1965, an astonishing statistic their hierarchy expects him to put right.

And for all his tactical awareness and knowledge of how to beat Ferguson, United will start as favourites because Inter's European form has been patchy, losing at home to Panathinaikos and away to Werder Bremen.

United will prey on an ageing defence that has proved vulnerable in Europe, although the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be a threat if he finally chooses to demonstrate to an English audience what all the fuss is about.

Liverpool dealt with Inter comfortably at this stage last season, and Ferguson will be relaxed about the task awaiting United.

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I expect United, with the attacking riches on offer in the shape of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov, to have too much for Inter.

But with the cunning, intelligent - and more importantly hugely successful - Mourinho at the helm, it would be wrong to write Inter off.

Liverpool will feel confident of seeing off a disjointed Real Madrid side, but there is time for Ramos to cure some of their ills before the first match in late February.

Real will also have Klaas Jan Huntelaar eligible to play after his £17m move from Ajax, while Portsmouth's Lassana Diarra looks certain to be another recruit.

And will former Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek, now understudy to Iker Casillas and the hero of Liverpool's 2005 Champions League win against AC Milan, pass on a few of Benitez's European tactical secrets?

Real will be stronger for those arrivals, but with the second leg at Anfield I would expect Liverpool to be too strong for Real over two games.

Juventus will also provide stern opposition for Chelsea, but Luiz Felipe Scolari will be happy to have missed Barcelona, and I fancy last season's runners-up to navigate what will be a tricky assigment.

Chelsea will hope to have almost a full compliment of players by the time the ties are played, and even though Juve topped their group and improved from earlier in the season when Ranieri's post was under threat, they should reach the last eight.

Arsenal, again, will feel they can harbour realistic ambitions of beating Roma, although they will prove especially dangerous on their own territory and are still inspired by the talismanic figure of Francesco Totti.

If Arsenal can avoid having one of those off-colour performances that have damaged their Premier League bid this season, then they can reach the quarter-finals for the second successive season.

But if they let their standards slip, as they have done too often recently, then Luciano Spalletti's side will punish them.

It is a superb draw full of quality and intrigue. Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea can be optimistic of progress, as can Arsenal if the right team turns up against Roma.

But we all know who will be claiming the headlines - Mourinho's return cannot come soon enough.

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