Zizou, Zenit and Zzzmiley faces

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I was at a party with Zinedine Zidane last week.

Granted, Zizou never knew I was in the same room as him – a brush past on the way out was the closest we came to actual contact – but I am still so sad that my pulse raced as he walked past.

Zidane was one of the guests at the party UEFA throws in Monaco to kick off the European club football season. He wasn’t the only star on hand.

"I think it was number five what did it..."  

At one point, Eusebio, Michel Platini, Prince Albert and Eusebio were all in a huddle, with His Serene Highness locked in a lengthy conversation with UEFA technical director Andy Roxburgh. Perhaps Albert, who plays at left-back for his own team, was getting a few tips on the art of defending.

The serious business – the draw for the 2008/09 UEFA Champions League group stages – had been done and dusted by then. My favourite part of the event isn’t the ceremony but the post-draw edition of La Gazzetta dello Sport. The Italian pink’ un has a charming tradition of summing up the fate of Serie A teams with an array of smiley faces.

So on Friday, its verdict was as follows: smiley faces for Inter and Roma, a face stuck in the kind of grim, neutral mode which was Blakey’s habitual expression in On The Buses for Fiorentina and a miserable frown for Juventus, trapped in a group with Real, Zenit and Belarus champions Bate Borisov.

Smiley faces for Inter & Roma, but not for Juve or Fiorentina

Gazzetta might have felt obliged to add a few teardrops if they had delivered their verdict after the Super Cup. Zenit were simply majestic against Manchester United, their passing, running off the ball, and mastery of angles suggesting that it would not be entirely daft to have a flutter on them to emulate Porto and win the UEFA Cup and UEFA Champions League in successive seasons.

The only weakness visible on the night was a certain uncertainty at the back when handling set-pieces. Their surprise Portuguese signing Danny looked a revelation, with a remarkable solo goal.

Inside the Stade Louis II, Zenit fans outnumbered United fans by upwards of five to one. To the supporters in blue and white, the result seemed as much of a triumph for their country as for their club.

Zenit: Worth a flutter to repeat Porto's 'UEFA Double' 

Victory was greeted by loud, repetitive chants of “Ra-si-ya!” a powerful reminder of the rising tide of nationalistic confidence that is sweeping across Russia. It is hard to imagine United fans chanting ‘Ing-er-lund!' with as much passion if they had won.

Smiley faces in England – but not in France

In the spirit of Gazzetta, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United should all have had smiley faces.

Barring upsets or a sudden loss of form, all three look well set for the last 16. Liverpool might have had a Blakey neutral face. On paper, the Reds should – if they play better than they did against Standard Liege – beat PSV and Marseille but Atletico Madrid, with Aguero and Forlan upfront, are a wild card. Anyone who takes a point off them on their own turf will be doing well.

Atletico: Should prove a tough nut to crack on home soil 

French football wore a miserable frown as Bordeaux have to overcome Chelsea and Roma to progress, Marseille don’t have it easy and Lyon have to slug it out with Bayern, Steaua and Fiorentina in a group that looks too even to call.

Lyon chairman Jean-Michel Aulas has signalled that this season will be ‘Operation Champions League.’ But Lyon’s campaign to reach the semi-finals (as a bare minimum) isn’t off to the best of starts.

The smiliest face must belong to Barcelona.

Pep Guardiola couldn’t have asked for a better draw with Shakhtar Donetsk and Sporting Lisbon the only real threats to their progress.

Every year, in the Champions preview of the tournament – out on September 12 at most good newsagents! – we tip Murcea Lucescu’s Shakhtar as an outside tip to win or reach the semis but somehow they never make it that far.

This year we’re not tipping them at all so, football predictions being a perverse business, they’ll probably do it this time.

La decima!

Real Madrid have been dreaming of a 10th European Cup – la decima – since they beat Bayer Leverkusen in 2002.

They haven’t really come close since 2003 but this year, as Iker Casillas says in the next issue of Champions, they are more determined than ever. The possible loss of Robinho and the failure to land Cristiano Ronaldo have not dampened their resolve.

They have a chance to wreak vengeance on Juve, who destroyed them in the 2003 semi-final, in a match Zidane referred to rather eloquently as “the derby of my heart.”

Real's last Champions League triumph, in 2002 

Real won’t be many people’s favourites but it would be good for the tournament, European football and the Premier League if the game’s traditional empires – Real, Inter, Bayern – struck back. Although you shouldn’t read too much into the Super Cup, maybe Zenit showed them how it might be done.

The editor’s punt

Here’s my guess at the last 16: Chelsea, Roma, Inter, Werder Bremen, Barcelona, Sporting, Liverpool, Atletico, Manchester United, Villarreal, Bayern, Lyon, Arsenal, Fenerbahce, Real and Zenit.
And the winner will be… one of them. An Inter vs Chelsea final would have some intriguing sub-plots. In the hackdom of European football, Villarreal are tipped by many as a likely surprise package. But can they do a Porto in 2004?