The UEFA Champions League group stage may only just have finished, but some clubs can be forgiven for turning their thoughts to the 2006/07 edition. Just as this season's tournament has been enlivened by the presence of newcomers Villarreal CF, FC Thun, FC Artmedia and Real Betis Balompié - all of who remain in Europe competition - several teams know that if they can maintain their current domestic form in spring, they too will be emerging to the familiar anthem come autumn.
Some sides sitting in qualifying positions would be newcomers to Europe's premier club competition, others familiar names returning after long absences. One of the latter would be Tottenham Hotspur FC, lying fourth in England. Despite having played more than 100 European games, the Londoners have made only one continental appearance in the last decade, a short UEFA Cup run in 1999/00. As for the European Champion Clubs' Cup, their only campaign was in 1961/62, when they reached the semi-finals.
Now, though, Martin Jol has assembled a team built around young English talent like Ledley King and Jermain Defoe. They also have a determined streak, twice wiping out deficits on Sunday to hold Middlesbrough FC 3-3. Jol said: "This was the sixth time we've had to come back this season and it showed we have a great team spirit, physical strength and character." They will beware the fate of Everton FC, who gained fourth place last season only to crash out of Europe and see their league form evaporate this term.
Osasuna making waves
The team that did for Everton in UEFA Champions League qualifying, Villarreal, are still going strong but domestically in Spain it is Osasuna who are making waves, running FC Barcelona close and mighty unlucky not to hold on for victory at Real Madrid CF last weekend. Still, coach Javier Aguirre is keeping a sense of proportion. He said: "
I ask for caution but people keep talking about the club more than we would like. I had to talk seriously to [the players] a few days ago because I can sense they're relaxing."
Whereas Osasuna have never had a European Cup campaign, Hamburger SV won the trophy in 1983. However, in the UEFA Champions League era they have qualified only in 2000/01, but since lifting the UEFA Intertoto Cup this summer they have been on a fine run and are second in the Bundesliga. Thomas Doll has blended a formidable unit and after Hamburg came from behind to finish 1-1 against Werder Bremen last week he said: "A few years ago we certainly would not have drawn such a match."
Like Hamburg, another team once used to European sucess, ACF Fiorentina, are well set for a UEFA Champions League chance in Italy - just three-and-a-half years after predecessor club AC Fiorentina went bankrupt and reformed in the third division.
Also contemplating a return to the big time are R. Standard de Liège. They have taken the unofficial Belgian 'winter champions' crown for the first time since 1982/83, the season of their last league title, with RSC Anderlecht and Club Brugge KV trailing in their wave. Indeed they have beaten the rest of the current top seven. Captained by Sérgio Conceição, and having recently signed his Portuguese compatriot Jorge Costa, Standard could yet recapture the days of the 1960s, when they were European Cup regulars.
Michel Preud'homme kept goal for Standard in the 1982 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup final against FC Barcelona, and as sporting manager has ensured that the key men in Dominique D'Onofrio's squad have stayed put. "Only that way we can fight for a Champions League spot or even more," Preud'homme believes.
While two clubs have dominated in Belgium recently, three sides have monopolised Portuguese honours since time immemorial. Only Boavista FC have ever emulated SL Benfica, FC Porto and Sporting Clube de Portugal in competing for the European Cup, but CD Nacional from Madeira could change all that. Like Osasuna's Aguirre, though, Nacional coach Manuel Machado is keeping calm. "Our first goal is to avoid relegation," he said. "However, we can now think of another goal which is to qualify for UEFA competition. I don't like to look at the table.
I know we are in a comfortable position but we are not yet at the end of the season. There are too many matches left."
Indeed, that is the case for all the winter pacesetters, though group stage regulars Rosenborg BK already know they will be absent in 2006/07, their 13-year run as Norwegian champions ended by Vålerenga IF. However, it is an enticing prospect that old favourites like Tottenham and Hamburg could join fresh faces such as Osasuna and Nacional in next August's draw.
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