Friday, December 15, 2006

Champions League Sweet Sixteen

Podgy Swiss fingers were put to their best use other than the consumption of stacks of luxury handmade chocolates today as the Champions League second round (or last 16, if you wish to make it sound more exclusive) draw was made.

As is the norm when plastic balls are plucked from erstwhile goldfish bowls, some protagonists fare better than others. For every club exec chuckling with confidence during the post-draw canap├ęs, there is another suit bawling in the corner, crying "Why??!"

On the face of it, Liverpool secretary Bryce Morrison, representing the 2005 champions in Nyon today, would be the inconsolable wretch, seeing as his club was paired with Barcelona. With admirable optimism, however, he refused to be cowed by the prospect of playing last season's free-flowing champions.

"We hope we can go all the way once again, starting with this big one!" quoth he, presumably too woozy from the complimentary wine to conjure the image of Ronaldinho slithering past a statuesque Sami Hyypia.

Whereas the Pool were ill-rewarded for their group-topping feats, the other English teams got the spawny draws one might expect from being seeded. As if to continue the theme of retribution for last year, Manchester United, having exacted revenge on Benfica in the group stage, will now get an opportunity to pay back Lille for defeating them at the Stade de France in the 2006-06 competition.

As with their superiority over Benfica, United have come on more than enough since losing to the French to go through comfortably.

Arsenal will undoubtedly make heavy work of PSV Eindhoven, but should also progress. The return of Jose Mourinho to Porto will provide what is generally dubbed "spice" to their tie, but the bold Jose is well used to whistles and boos - and his team will have little trouble there.

While all over Milan, impeccably shod and coiffed folks may have been rattling their improbably tiny coffee cups in pleasure at their team's draw against Celtic (arguably the weakest of the second seeds on paper); the corresponding celebratory clank of Tennents Special Export cans in the East End of Glasgow might also have been heard.

Milan are in what is known as a 'period of transition', which is a euphemism for being rubbish. Even without their 8 point deduction for match-fixing naughtiness, the Rossoneri would only have been in fifth in Serie A, rather than the 15th place in which they now languish. The loss of Shevchenko's goals has not been properly addressed, their three main strikers - Alberto Gilardino, Filippo Inzaghi and Ricardo Oliveira - only managing four league goals between them. Meanwhile Paolo Maldini and Cafu continue to wearily police the defence, and the team is generally over reliant on Kaka's creativity.

The other ties are rather tasty; perennial powerhouses Real Madrid and Bayern Munich meet, Valencia take on Inter and Roma face Lyon. Lyon are the team to tip these days when trying to show how shrewd a football judge you are, and it will be intriguing to see if they can finally reproduce in the latter stages their scintillating group stages form.

Its hard to see past old money, however: Barca, Real and Inter are still the front runners, with Chelsea the only new name that might get on the trophy.

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