Real Madrid, Arsenal, Inter Milan all contenders for the Treble in 2008

Bernd Schuster is going for it. Jose Mourinho almost had it. Only four men in the history of the game have done it but Gerard Houllier thought he’d got it – only it turned out to be plastic.

The Treble: European Cup (or Champions League) in the same season as the domestic double of league and cup. Jock Stein (Celtic, 1967), Stefan Kovacs (Ajax, 1972), Guus Hiddink (PSV Eindhoven, 1988) and Alex Ferguson (Manchester United, 1999) form the elite — and there’s three new candidates vying for approval to the exclusive club.

Arsene Wenger presides over arguably his most talented squad at Arsenal, Roberto Mancini has an embarrassment of riches available in Inter Milan while Real Madrid have made their best start in over 20 years under Schuster.

Last week Marca reported that Real Madrid president Ramon Calderon is ready to offer his players bonus payments of 900,000 euros apiece in a bid to write an even more glorious chapter in their glittering history.

As if they need the extra motivation. The champions of Spain are desperate to sweep the board this season and Schuster, who won the domestic double as a Real Madrid player in 1989, is ready to field full-strength line-ups in the Copa del Rey to boost their chances of a triple trophy haul.

Barcelona stand seven points off the pace in La Liga, but remain most bookmakers’ favourites for the Champions League. However, Frank Rijkaard’s side have pulled a very tricky opponent in the Copa’s last 16 — Sevilla – and may be the first of 2008’s serious contenders to fall.

With the Champions League on hold until late February, the upcoming Copa, Coppa and Cup rounds could hold the key to which club emerges in the best shape to clinch the first treble of the 21st century.

Mourinho’s Porto came agonisingly close in 2004, his last season at the helm, when only an extra-time golden goal from Nuno Gomes denied them the hat-trick in the Portuguese Cup final.

The Dragons are on course again this year, but many would favour the claims of Internazionale — who have the squad to land Italy’s first treble. They go into their last 16 second leg Coppa Italia tie with Reggina 4-1 from the first leg.

Arsenal have the young, hungry squad that reminds many of the youthful Manchester United side which did it in the most dramatic fashion almost nine years ago. Wenger’s cubs could even land an unprecedented quadruple if they can go one better than last season in the Carling (Football League) Cup.

And what of Manchester United ? Is the scent of a treble in the noses of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and the returning Gary Neville ? As course and distance winners they demand respect.

Key fixtures:

Copa Del Rey last 16 (1st legs)

Barcelona v Sevilla

Real Mallorca v Real Madrid

FA Cup last 32

Arsenal v Newcastle or Stoke

Manchester United v Tottenham or Reading

Coppa Italia last 16 (2nd legs)

Internazionale (4) v Reggina (1)

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