Friday, March 20, 2009

The draw is here.

Simple as that. The draw is hear. Is this gonna be the Year of the Blaugrana although no one seems to give them a chance?

Can Liverpool and Chelsea ever be pulled apart in the Champions League? Five years in a row of footballing tedium and we're back for more. Rafa Benitez will face his third different Chelsea boss when his team entertains the Blues at Anfield for their quarter-final tie.

Strangely, for all Jose Mourinho's tactical reputation, only Avram Grant has got the better of him in the competition, after his team were given the whip hand by John Arne Riise's inexplicable own-goal in the first leg.

The last meeting, the second leg of last season's semi-final, was a far better footballing display than any of the previous, with Chelsea powering home in extra-time just when it seemed Benitez might again get the better of them. It is to be hoped that there will be more of the same and not the rank boredom of the two group games the pair played against each other in the 2005-6 season. Those rota-ed in the office to work the shift are hardly licking their lips.

Liverpool are riding high. Which team would not be after their wins over Real Madrid and Manchester United? Will this draw and Steven Gerrard's ongoing court case take them out of their stride? Guus Hiddink, a European Cup winner in 1988 and who took PSV to the semis in 2005, will fancy his chances after planting the green shoots of recovery at Stamford Bridge. If he is to leave the club in the summer, a despatching of Liverpool could leave quite a legacy.

Manchester United and Arsenal can breathe easier. For now. Most would fancy them to beat their next opponents in Porto and Villarreal respectively. The big deal, notwithstanding the challenge of two opponents who are both experienced on the European stage, will be a potential semi-final. That could take place in the last week in April and first in May. The two are set to meet domestically on May 16 anyway, with a potential FA Cup Final to follow a fortnight later. United v Arsenal could yet turn out to be this season's drama mini-series ratings winners.

Of course, Manchester United have form in slipping up against supposedly lesser opponents, with Galatasaray, Monaco, Bayer Levekusen and Porto themselves, in their vintage Mourinho era, all taking advantage of complacency or adopting the gameplan to beat them. Arsenal meanwhile face the team they were within a Juan Roman Riquelme penalty of losing the semi-final to in 2006. And United could tell them about the Spanish club's defensive qualities, having played out four straight 0-0 draws against them.

The predictability of the second round and group stage is gone. The business end is upon us.

Two of the continents' very biggest names meet in the other, non-English leg. Bayern Munich have met Barcelona twice previously in European competition. Back in 1998, Bayern beat the Catalan club home and away in the group stage, the season in which they were losing finalists. Two years previously, Bayern beat a Johan Cruyff-coached Barca on their way to winning the UEFA Cup.

So, Barcelona, despite their status as co-favourites, face opponents with a great record against them. Jurgen Klinsmann gets the chance to dine at the top table of European football in his first season as a club coach. But then again, the same goes for Pep Guardiola. Two inexperienced bosses at two of Europe's most seasoned campaigners at this late stage? Whatever the qualities of each club's playing talent, Hiddink and Benitez may fancy their chances in the next round.

The Champions League format has matured to a level where every encounter has sub-plots and past history. The stark fact that no team has defended their European crown since AC Milan under the old format in 1990 reflects the difficulty of a winning campaign. And counts against United. The predictability of the second round and group stage is gone. The business end is upon us.