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Football: I'd rather be facing Real and Roma than have Henrik come back to haunt us; O'Neill: We've got group of death.

Byline: By Hugh Keevins

MARTIN O'NEILL last night claimed Celtic had been drawn in the Champions League's group of death. And the Celtic manager admitted he would rather have gone in with Real Madrid and Roma than confront Henrik Larsson with Barcelona as well as the AC Milan side who won the competition two seasons ago.

O'Neill said: 'When it got down to the stage when the third pot was opened and we knew what our alternatives were, I could have gone down to the bookies and put a bet on what would happen next.

'It wasn't that I wanted to avoid Henrik. I just couldn't understand why a side like Milan should be in pot two when they have won the competition so recently.

'The Italians should have been in Pot one with Barcelona. But it's a great draw for the fans and terrific trips for the players - even if I was asking myself 'Do we qualify for the UEFA Cup?' by the time our section was completed.

'Barcelona are on a roll because of the way they finished last season in Spain, plus the signings they have made in the summer.

'They've got Henrik and Deco from Porto, as well as that other fellow we met last season, Ronaldinho.

'There were easier groups - if there is such a thing in the Champions League - and we were hoping to avoid this one as the draw was being made.

'I think we would even have taken the one with Real Madrid and Roma before this one.

'Henrik knows every blade of grass at Celtic Park because he covered all of them. He'll be the very one who'll comeon to the club looking for tickets for the game here as well.'

Complimentaries might be a problem, even for former 'Magnificent Seven,' because Larsson's second coming will rival anything in the club's history for melodrama, with the obvious exception of winning the European Cup in Lisbon in 1967.

O'Neill said: 'The section will be as hard as any we have ever been part of. Hopefully the rest of the teams in the group will think we are a formidable team as well.

'But I look at what has happened as a delayed action bonus for winning the league last season and I feel on a bit of a high. It is impossible to play down what has happened, since it involves Henrik's return to Celtic Park.'

O'Neill admits his side's chances would be improved if he could strengthen his squad but claims he is uncertain of how much money he has at his disposal for new faces.

He said: 'To bring in a couple of new players would be nice. We have a few days left and we are actively pursuing that just now.

'I think there could be more money in the pot now but I'm not too sure exactly what that would be. We had been given a budget and had that set aside anyway, although how much of that we have now, I'm not sure.'

O'Neill's day was made complete with the news Juninho's work permit problems have been resolved and heis in the squad to face Rangers on Sunday. The new number seven will take centre stage until the old one gets here for the opening tie in Champions League GroupF next month.

And his enthusiasm in training was so great yesterday O'Neill is apparently stuck for a reason to keep the Brazilian out of his starting 11.

O'Neill also revealed the Champions League is keeping him happy at Celtic Park while he suffers the frustration of knowing his club should get out of Scotland to further their ambitions.

He has responded to the persistent speculation which links him with a move elsewhere by offering up the reasons why entry to Europe's elite club tournament satisfies his personal aspirations.

He said: 'My club is in the wrong environment in Scotland at a time when money dictates everything in football. When I was a player at Nottingham Forest in the seventies there was still some kind of parity between us and the bigger clubs.

'So much so Forest could become the first club to pay a million pounds for a player when they bought Trevor Francis. But now money runs to money and a club of Celtic's size can't hope to earn what a provincial club in England can get from television fees.

'That is what can help create a difficulty when it comes to getting major players to come to Scotland.

'Celtic would have to get out of this environment for that to change. But another part of me suspects Scottish football could die if Celtic and Rangers went away because both contribute so much to the scene here.

'In the meantime, I am looking forward to the Champions League immensely.'

O'Neill is consistent in his reply to stories linking him with every big club down South - and suggestions he could be in the frame to replace Sven Goran Eriksson as England boss if the FA ever part company with the Swede.

The Parkhead boss said: 'Apparently I've been leaving every day since I arrived.But there is no truth in any of the stories about me and other clubs.

'If I could be the manager of Celtic playing Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United on a weekly basis instead of having to wait for the Champions League that would be the most exciting thing of all for me.

'But I'm just happy to be in work as a manager. I still get great excitement from the game and I have lost none of my enthusiasm for the job.

'Stories about Sven are hypothetical and I am happy to leave it at that.'


BOUNCING; BACK: Celts fear Larsson's return
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Aug 27, 2004
Previous Article:Football: CHAMPIONS LEAGUE SPECIAL.
Next Article:Football: Flop Gers hand Celts pounds 2million Euro boost.

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