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Football: OH BHOY; UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE GROUP STAGE ONE DRAW Larsson coming back to Celtic and O'Neill curses his luck.

Byline: IAIN CAMPBELL

MARTIN O'NEILL could not believe his luck yesterday when the Champions League draw pitted Celtic with Henrik Larsson's Barcelona.

Call it fate, call it kismet, yesterday O'Neill was more in the mood to call it bloody bad luck than welcoming a returning hero.

The Swede will receive a homecoming fit for a king when he returns to Parkhead on Tuesday September 14, but in some respects his old boss wouldn't have been too disappointed had the return been delayed for a year or two at least.

Celtic's fans - and every football lover on these isles - will welcome the imminent arrival of the Catalan giants and Serie A superstars AC Milan.

But O'Neill was just as inclined to describe the club's programme - which also includes tricky Ukranians Shakhtar Donetsk - as a group of death that is even harder than the section including Real Madrid and Roma.

In the minutes after the draw, the Derry man was carrying out a debate with himself whether he should be thinking about winning two or three games in the group or two or three points.

The competitive spirit will be firmly in place by the time Celtic's newest No7 Juninho goes head-to-head with the other Magnificent 7, but the manager's first reaction was to question the UEFA seeding system which included a joker like the Italian champions in the second group of seeds.

He said: "It couldn't be any harder. I said to the boys that I'd have rather taken Real Madrid and Roma.

"It wasn't so much about avoiding Henrik and it will be nice for him to come back.

"One of the reasons was that when you saw the second group of seeds one major thing stood out - AC Milan.

"They won the competition the year before last year (but) they were in the second group. They really should be in the first group."

The return of Larsson is the big story though and O'Neill admitted that he felt Celtic and the Swede were fated to be reunited, though only after Milan and Barca were drawn together.

He said: "Our chief executive predicted we would be paired with Barcelona and he got it right. There was as feeling at the club.

"Certainly when I saw Milan and Barca in there I got the feeling myself. That's why I'd have gone for Roma and Real.

"The minute AC went in alongside Barcelona I could honestly have predicted it. I would have gone to Ladbrokes if I had had the time. It was an absolute cert!

"After getting the draw there was part of you wondering, 'will we qualify for the UEFA Cup?'

"Getting Barcelona and AC Milan make is it very difficult. Normally you're looking to see where you can get three or four wins. Here we're just looking to see where we can get a couple of points!

"I swore a couple of times when the draw was made but now I've just got to settle down.

"Getting Barcelona on the roll they were on last season is just incredibly difficult.

"They added Henrik, they've still got Ronaldinho and they've bought Deco as well."

But as the sheer shock of drawing two of Europe's biggest names passed, O'Neill admitted he was just glad that Celtic are very much involved in Europe's elite tournament - in stark contrast to Rangers.

And he even expressed a word or two for city rival Alex McLeish. He said: "We're in the hat because we won the league. If ever there was a delayed bonus for winning the league this is it.

"When you see Rangers go out and Liverpool experience some uncomfortable moments after Graz had scored, being there is what it's all about.

"I saw Rafa Benitez with five or 10 minutes to go. He's a fantastic manager but when they conceded a goal they were worried they might concede something more.

"And for those seconds you're just pleased you haven't had to go through it - you're already in there.

"That's why I feel for what Alex went through last night."

Celtic are there though and Henrik Larsson will soon be back to prove it.

CAPTION(S):

BARCA BHOY: Henrik Larsson with former boss Martin O'Neill; RETURN: Henrik Larsson
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:The Mirror (London, England)
Date:Aug 27, 2004
Words:705
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