Winner takes all


With Premiership sides drawn in mouth-watering ties, Daniel Keenan suggests that this is where the Champions League gets interesting.

England cricketer, Matt Prior, said last Tuesday, that the quarter finals are “the sexy part of the competition”. He was, of course, talking about the Cricket World Cup, but he makes a very valid point.

The Champions League group stages have always been a massive bore, where bigger clubs often send out second-string teams to grind out results against clubs whose name you struggle to pronounce. This year’s round of 16 served up equally dull football, with only Barcelona and Arsenal, putting on exciting two-legged ties. We now finally stand on the edge of potentially exciting matches, where the world’s best can show their splendour.

Manchester United and Chelsea will face off in a repeat of the 2008 final. Chelsea will be aching to put the demons of Moscow behind them, where John Terry slipped while taking a penalty to deny Chelsea their first Champions League trophy. The newly reinstated England captain will hope to get off on the right foot (pun not intended) as his side welcome United to Stamford Bridge in the first leg.

The two sides have of course met numerous times since that famous final but not in the Champions League, which does bring about a particular edge. European competitions bring different tactics and playing mentality and there is also a real feeling that this is the only competition that either manager really wants to win.

Roman Abramovich has made no secret of his longing to see a Champions League trophy in Chelsea hands for the first time. Managers have come and gone because of their inability to win Europe’s top trophy, and Carlo Ancelotti’s job may rest upon doing just that.

With eleven Premier League titles and five FA cups under his belt, Alex Ferguson will be eager to add to the two Champions League trophies he has amassed over a quarter of a century at the club. What’s more, with United in such financial turmoil, the calls from the boardroom will be to focus on European glory, which carries higher television revenue.

The match itself is tough to call. Chelsea are resurgent since January after their mid-season horror shows, but will be without David Luiz, a central figure to that revival, because of cup tie. And whether or not £50 million man Fernando Torres can hit top form this season is up for debate.

United haven’t hit good form all season, failing to impress even during their 29-game unbeaten run. With a long list of defensive injuries, coupled with the sketchy form of star man Wayne Rooney, they look vulnerable. However, with the form of Hernandez and Berbatov, along with the return of Antonio Valencia, and possible returns of Vidic and Ferdinand, United would have to be favourites.

Two of the other ties seem more clear-cut. Champions, Inter Milan should avoid upset against Schalke 04, while few would doubt Barcelona in their tie against Shakhtar Donetsk.

Any neutral will be divided with the draw between Real Madrid and Tottenham Hotspurs. Spurs, once the underachievers who struggled to come out of the shadow of fellow North Londoners Arsenal, have now eclipsed their rivals in the Champions League this season.

Everyone loves an underdog and Tottenham’s goal-strewn path to this stage has captured the imaginations of many, with victories over both AC and Inter Milan accompanied by footballing masterclass from the Welshman, Gareth Bale. Madrid, though, are the team everybody loves to hate.

Ever since the big-spending Galàcticos of the early 2000s continued, they no longer enjoy the support of anyone outside their immediate fanbase. Barcelona’s homegrown squad of Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and the exquisite Lionel Messi trump Madrid’s manufactured international squad of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ángel di María, in both popularity and class.

Nevertheless, support for the North Londoners may be lost among neutrals since Barcelona are their probable opponents in the semi-final and the mouth-watering possibility of two more El Clásico ties on the calendar may sway some fans to support Los Galàcticos.

Injury news is positive for Madrid: Ronaldo has an outside chance of making it back for the first leg while Gonzalo Higuain will be fit after hernia surgery in January. News from the Tottenham camp is not so positive. They will sweat over the fitness of Bale, who picked up a hamstring injury while on international duty last Wednesday.

A repeat of Spurs’ uncharacteristically defensive show against Milan is unlikely – the game plan simply didn’t suit Harry Redknapp’s side. Displays against Inter earlier in the competition highlight Tottenham’s true strength – quick counter attacks, launched from a gritty defence.

If Tottenham can grab an away goal at the Bernabéu, even a losing result will set up a thrilling encounter at White Hart Lane. Should they play to their strengths, and with a bit of luck, Tottenham can progress next Tuesday, but with a likely tie against Barcelona to follow, it is difficult to see this Cinderella story ending in silverware.