LONDON — He may not a player who springs readily to mind when talking about all-time greats of the Champions League, but in one respect Manchester United’s Gary Neville is out on his own.
The defender has made more appearances — 68 — in UEFA’s premier club competition than any of the 2,485 players who have taken part in the Champions League over the past 10 years from Thor Hogne Aarby (Rosenborg) to Clemens Zwijnenberg (Feyenoord).
Neville made his Champions League debut in 1994 and 67 games later he is two ahead of his best friend David Beckham and Real Madrid striker Raul, whose 34 goals are a competition all-time best — and 34 more than Neville has managed.
The United player is close to full fitness after sustaining a foot injury in April which forced him to miss the World Cup finals. He may not be ready for United’s Champions League opener against Maccabi Haifa next week when UEFA’s flagship competition gets under way again when Beckham and Raul should move closer to Neville’s total.
UEFA statistician David Kennedy has painstakingly compiled a list over the Champions League’s first decade which revealed that an elite group of 25 players have made 50 or more appearances.
Eight of those are from United, whose players dominate the list.
Interestingly, 17 of the top 25 have remained faithful to one club during their Champions League careers.
Kennedy’s homework reveals enough facts to keep any pub quiz in questions for a month. For instance, which Arsenal player has made the most Champions League appearances? Kanu — 45 — of which 16 were with Ajax.
Steve McManaman is thought of as a permanent reserve at Real Madrid yet the winger has played in 37 Champions League ties, more than any Liverpool player and only seven fewer than Zinedine Zidane.
It will be at least two years before any player reaches the 100-appearance mark while Raul will probably have to wait a similar period to notch up a half century of strikes.
The Champions League goal-scoring list makes fascinating reading, too.
Few would have realized that Tottenham’s Sergei Rebrov (19 in 35 games for Dynamo Kiev) and Thierry Henry of Arsenal (seven in nine games with Monaco and 12 in 29 with the Gunners) have scored the same number of Champions League goals.
In terms of goals-per-game — 18 in 25 — United’s Ruud van Nistelrooy takes some beating. The Dutch international managed eight in 11 matches for PSV while his United tally is 10 in 14 ties.
By comparison, Andy Cole’s 18 for United took 48 ties to accumulate.
However, bar injury Raul seems set to extend his lead at the top of the goals chart, helped by the almost inevitable progress of Real Madrid in the competition.
Raul equaled one record last weekend when he scored in Spain’s 2-0 win in Greece. It meant Raul joined Real captain Fernando Hierro at the top of Spain’s all-time scorers list with 29 goals. It is just a matter of time before Raul holds the record — and a few others — outright.
His new Real teammate, Ronaldo, is almost a Champions League rookie having made just six appearances and scoring one goal for Inter Milan. It looks like the Brazilian will have to wait for his seventh outing after picking up a leg injury in practice during his first training session with the European champion.
Of all the 32 teams who will be in next week’s first group stage it is unlikely any will be prouder than Maccabi Haifa, the first Israeli side to reach this stage.
Because of civil unrest Maccabi must play its home games in Cyprus while it opens with one of the hardest fixtures possible — away to Manchester United.
When asked if he was worried coach Yitzhak Schum joked: “I am sleeping like a baby. One hour asleep, one hour awake.”
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