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England's elite in pole position

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Phil McNulty | 22:01 GMT, Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The English elite were all handed hazardous assignments in the last 16 of the Champions League - but Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have established a solid platform to move forward into the quarter-finals.

Qualification is still a work in progress for all four, but there is now a clear opportunity for the Premier League to take up half the allocation of places in the last eight of Europe's elite competition.

Liverpool take top honours for an outstanding 1-0 win against Real Madrid in The Bernabeu, but there was real merit in the work of the rest of the so-called "Big Four" as they once again attempt to place their imprint on the latter stages of the tournament.

Not a goal conceded at home or away and a lead in three out of four ties tells the story of a job well done after the first round of games.

Rafael Benitez may have his failings when it comes to putting Liverpool top of the Premier League and keeping them there, but no-one can have any doubts about his expertise at navigating his way around Europe's most difficult locations.

And after more, in this instance groundless, speculation about his future as Liverpool manager in the hours leading up to the game, he delivered another example that he serves his case best when he sticks to football as opposed to the game's boardroom politics.

Liverpool's win was richly-deserved, based on the trademark Benitez template of solid defence setting the foundations for growing supremacy as the game progressed.

It was a match that exposed the supposedly resurgent Real under Juande Ramos as one-paced and carrying all the appearances of a spent force and Yossi Benayoun's late header was no more than Liverpool merited.

And victory was achieved, at least until the closing minutes, without the injured Steven Gerrard and despite the loss of an limping Fernando Torres on the hour.

There was little evidence that Real will enter the Anfield fortress and spring a surprise in a fortnight. Liverpool can plan for the quarter-finals and we are reaching the stage of the competition when their confidence grows and the other teams in the tournament have no particular wish to be drawn against them.

It is unwise to write off any side containing the talents on offer to Real, but Liverpool's fans will not have travelled home from Spain with any sense of trepidation after what they witnessed in The Bernabeu. I back them to qualify with comfort.

Chelsea were less convincing in their 1-0 win against Juventus, but make no mistake new coach Guus Hiddink would have taken that result before the start. The importance of not conceding a goal at home is self-evident and that priority was taken care of, albeit with the odd anxious moment.

It was a performance that mirrored Hiddink's opening win at Aston Villa, with early domination giving way to nervy times as the game went on, but two wins out of two is the start he and Roman Abramovich will have craved.


Claudio Ranieri's side may be ageing in parts, but veterans Pavel Nedved and Alessandro del Piero showed there is still life in mind and body yet and Juve will approach the second leg with genuine hope.

But Hiddink now has more time to work his methods into Chelsea's system and they will feel they can transform a slender advantage into a place in the last eight.

Arsenal and Manchester United will also be happy with their respective positions, but may just harbour a sense of opportunities missed after their encounters with Roma and Inter Milan respectively.

A 1-0 lead was a poor return in exchange for Arsenal's domination against Roma. The Italians are formidable on home territory, as Chelsea will testify, and boss Arsene Wenger must hope over-generosity in front of goal does not cost them in the second leg.

Arsenal's recent difficulties in breaking down defences has over-shadowed their outstanding defensive record in the same period, and it is a quality they will be called upon to demonstrate in Rome.

Most intriguing and finely-balanced of all is the latest round in the ongoing battle of the master managers Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho after the goalless draw between Manchester United and Inter Milan on Tuesday.

Manchester United looked vastly superior for long periods in the San Siro, but the presence of Mourinho in the equation will make Old Trafford a nervous place to be when they meet again.

Is there more to come from Inter? Will United, like Arsenal, be forced to sweat because of a failure to turn dominance into goals?

And will the enigmatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic actually prove that he can terrorise top English defences - something he has spectacularly failed to do so far in his career?

Taken at face value, Tuesday's game demonstrated that United - even without Wayne Rooney in the starting line-up - are much the more accomplished side and should see off their great old adversary's Inter side in front of their own fans.

"The Special One" will no doubt inject his own unique brand of mischief into preparations for the second leg, but realism suggests United will have too much firepower for the Italians.

Four games, no defeats, no goals conceded although no ties settled yet - but the smart money must be on the usual quartet of Premier League suspects being present in the next stage of the Champions League.


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