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Champions League 2008/09


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Talking of Anorthosis - did anyone see this from Jim White?


And now for someone completely different


Mon Sep 15 04:13PM


After stuttering false starts, after international breaks and the frantic closure of transfer windows, it seems like the football season finally, properly gets underway this week.


It is the start of the Champions League, the competition that midweek nights were made for. This is the time when the big boys engage in serious work, where the finest talents on the planet compete in a fortnightly, rolling World Cup. And this season there is something new.


We have grown used to the big names taking part; we relish at some point Juventus playing Manchester United or Bayern Munich taking on Barcelona. We have also enjoyed being introduced to clubs such as Artmedia Bratislava, FC Thun and Maccabi Haifa. Here's how democratic this competition can be: in 2001 Leeds United got to the semi-final.


But this time round, the roster of competing clubs is the most exotic it has ever been. This season the Champions League has something of the romantic air of the third round of the FA Cup: there are real minnows in there. And just like the third round of the FA Cup, the big boys underestimate them at their peril.


Take Anorthosis Famagusta (pictured). They are the first representatives on this stage from the Cypriot League, having knocked out the substantially experienced Olympiacos to qualify.


There is clearly something in the water in Cyprus. Apoel Nicosia and Omonia Nicosia both made it to the mainframe in the UEFA Cup, beating Red Star Belgrade and AEK Athens on the way. Though Famagusta's manager Temuri Ketsbaia, the former Newcastle stalwart, puts it down to something a little more substantial than chance.


"In football, you don't achieve your dreams by going to bed at night and waking up in the morning to discover that you are in the Champions League," he said. "You need to work and that's what we will continue to do now that we are in the group stage."


Famagusta will, over the course of the next couple of months, be entertaining Internazionale, Panathinaikos and Werder Bremen. Though none of them will get anywhere near Famagusta itself. Since the invasion of northern Cyprus in 1974 by the Turks, Anorthosis have played their matches in exile in Larnaca.


Meanwhile, Chelsea fans will soon be stocking up on precautionary garlic when their team heads out to Transylvania to face CFR Cluj. The first club from outside the capital, Bucharest, to win the Romanian championship in twenty years, Cluj's advance has been jet-fuelled: six years ago they were in the country's third division.


Now they are in the same group as Chelsea, last year's finalists and - until last month - the world's most richly endowed football club. They must be pinching themselves (though taking care not to impale each other on a stake).


Even Cluj, though, are giants in comparison to FC Bate Borisov, statistically the lowest ranked team in UEFA's ratings ever to make it this far in the continent's senior competition and the equivalent of one of those clubs consisting entirely of milkmen and taxi drivers that always used to make John Motson's day come the start of the FA Cup.


The team from Belarus, the club where Alexander Hleb first kicked a ball in anger, are the only ones from their nation so far to make it to the league stage. And the first game the Belarussians face is away in the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, about as magnificent a reward for endeavour and belief as can be contemplated.


Indeed the thrill of such teams' participation lies not so much in the prospect of them emerging next May clutching the largest trophy in club football. That simply isn't going to happen. It is that it gives hope to the followers of every small club in the continent that one day they too might be observing their heroes performing on the biggest of all stages.


It is the dream that drives football. And you never know, spurred on by the likes of Anorthosis, Cluj and FC Bate, a genuine minnow, a real outsider, someone from way below football's top table might emerge to compete next season. You know, someone like Newcastle United.

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