Death, glory and Rocky Balboa

After Michel Platini slumped over a restaurant table in South Africa, I was curious to see how he was on his annual ‘meet the press’ session in Monaco.

His scare seemed to have reinvigorated him, not chastened him. Much as it may disappoint those in Britain who regard the UEFA president as a bureaucrat who insists on interfering with English football purely because he is French, he was in fine fettle and seems almost certain to be unopposed when he stands for re-election next year.

In a wide ranging Q&A, Platini stated that using two extra assistant referees meant there would be “zero tolerance” for bad referees. And the man enforcing that zero tolerance policy is none other than Pierluigi Collina.

In a more relaxed bull session with a few football writers on the terrace at Monaco’s Le Meridien Beach Plaza hotel he revealed, among other things, an  amused and critical admiration for the Rocky movies, his memories of being humiliated by Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town when he was at St Etienne and his unswerving belief that technology – even in the innocuous guise of a TV set watched by a fourth official who could radio the referee to tell him if he’d blundered horrendously – was the last possible resort in the game’s continued efforts to improve the standard of refereeing and the quality of refereeing decisions.

Michel and Gary discuss the finer points of Rocky IV

At one point, he stood up to physically demonstrate the black art of committing fouls on attackers in the box that are invisible to the referee.

It was a bravura performance which had the English press eating out of his hand. As he finished, I thought how odd it was that so little of the goodwill and sheer delight in his company showed by the assembled journalistic throng is reflected in the British media’s coverage of him.

Asked about the quality of the last World Cup, he shook his head in comedic exaggeration to show how woozy he was in hospital when the final was played. But he did suggest that if this tournament was anything to go by, “football is becoming too standardised, there used to be different flavours of football – a South American way or an African way, as well as the European way. Now the African teams are coached by Europeans and the best South Americans play in Europe so everything has become much more homogenous.”

Did you know this season ends in a 1?

And so to the draw. Monaco seemed to be crawling with Spurs fans, drunk on success. If I’d have had a pound for every time someone sang “Spurs are on their way to Wembley” or mentioned that this season ended in a 1, I’d have been able to buy trebles all round at Le Meridien’s bar. (And, given that a pint of cooking lager costs £11 at this upscale establishment, that is some statement.)

After the draw for what the sublime Melanie Vinegar kept referring to as the “Wafer Champions League”, the Spurs fans I met all wore virtually identical expressions of quiet satisfaction. Group A looked like a mission possible for Spurs and the tussles with Werder Bremen, a team with a flair for melodrama that the great Cecil B. De Mille would have envied, could be spectacular.

Wes looks thrilled to be travelling to White Hart Lane...

The Group of Death – Group G – is also the Group of Glory. Real, Milan and Ajax have won this competition 20 times between them.

The revolutionary Ajax of the 1970s were inspired by Alfredo di Stefano, Gento and Ferenc Puskas.

Milan and Ajax have met in two finals, winning one each – the Rossoneri triumphed in 1969, the Amsterdammers in 1995 – but the Italian press had no doubt about the real significance of this draw – as Gazzetta dello Sport’s headline put it: “Milan contro Mou”.

The Italian sports dailies, having already fallen into that pining, puppy dog state of longing for the Special One which has also afflicted Richard Keys on Sky Sports, gleefully seized on the excuse to plaster Jose over their front pages.

Without Mourinho, Inter are hard to read.

They have pretty much the same squad. The art for Rafa Benitez, one Nerazzurri fan in the European footballocracy told me, will be to change just enough to keep them successful.

Teams that stand still, even great ones, don’t often succeed. Benitez’s team talk, this Interisti suggested, should be: “If you don’t succeed, everyone will say it was all down to Mourinho. This is your chance to prove that it was you, the players, who won it.”

Meanwhile in Brazil, Alan Brazil…

If Group G is the Group of Death (or glory), Group H is the Group Of Logistical Awkwardness, with Arsenal having to travel to the opposite ends of Europe if they are to progress at the expense of Braga, Partizan Belgrade and Shakhtar Donetsk.

The draw was kind to Inter, Lyon, Manchester United (hailed by Gazzetta as the “loose cannon everyone wants to avoid”), Barcelona, Bayern and especially Chelsea. And Rubin Kazan, the surprise package of 2009/10, have a decent shout at the last 16, if they can find their scoring boots at home. They didn’t lose in Kazan in 2009/10, but they didn’t win either.

Spurs’ qualification makes London the first city to have three clubs in this competition in the same season since Athens in 2003. And William Gallas, if he features in the competition this year, will become the first man to play in this tournament for Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs.

So could London break its duck at Wembley next May? Platini declined to speculate when asked over buffet on the terrace and then denied that Spurs were his favourite English team. Ipswich, he suggested, now there was a team: “Wark, Mariner, Brazil, Butcher...”

Am off now to fur up the arteries with a continental variation on the great British breakfast.

One final thought which occurred to me in the lobby as football’s great and good greeted and avoided each other: David Dein really does look like David “cheep as chips” Dickinson, albeit with the day-glo orange tan turned slightly down.

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