Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Champions League It's a Knockout - Part Two

This evening's contenders represent the juicier octet of this round's last sixteen, and, given the events of the last few days and weeks, Barcelona v Liverpool is of particular interest.

As recently as Sunday morning, it appeared that Liverpool had chanced upon an inconceivably good moment to take on the European champions; certainly the tie appeared more winnable than win the draw was made in November. The row involving Samuel Eto'o, Franck Rijkaard and Ronaldinho was divisive and probably went to the heart of the club, with Barca president Juan Laporta and vice-president Sandro Rosell (an Eto'o partisan) reportedly at odds also.

Despite the fact that they once again lead the Primera Liga, Barca have toiled this season in comparison with last, the injury enforced absence of Eto'o and Lionel Messi hampering their famed devastating attacking play. Eto'o's return from injury should have cheered them, instead the Cameroonian's jealousy toward Ronaldinho's special status leaves Barca looking shaken.

Not as shaken, however, as John Arne Riise must have been if the allegations concerning Craig Bellamy's prowess with a fairway wood are true. There has been much retraction and obfuscation since the revelations from Liverpool's training camp came out, but the picture presented is hardly one of ideal preparations for the test in the Camp Nou tonight.

Jose Mourinho's Chelsea are one of those teams (like AC Milan, perhaps) for whom the Champions League is all this season, completing as it would the Portuguese's record of winning league and Champions League in two different countries. They can expect a torrid test against an improving Porto, only now recovering from the post-Jose hangover. If the league looks like slipping away, Chelsea will focus even more strongly on Europe.

Inter Milan are the opposite. For them, the challenge of winning the league title outright - they received it by default following last season's match fixing scandal - is the central goal of this season. They look as if they are on their way to doing that, and a Valencia side coming off a win on Sunday night over Barcelona could take advantage of any lack of focus in this tie. Valencia still boast real quality in the much-coveted likes of David Villa, Joaquin and David Albelda, and 'El Raton' - Roberto Ayala - at the back, they could be last four material if any of the bigger guns take their eyes off the ball.

Lyon - the early front runners and much-fancied to finally make a Champions League breakthrough - have has a rough winter. They've struggled a little of late in the league (albeit they are still on course for yet another Ligue 1 title) and swapped John Carew for Milan Baros up front during the January window, hardly the transfer business of future European champions. Roma will provide just the test to reveal if Lyon have really progressed from the serial flatterers-to-deceive, Francesco Totti is having a good season for them as they toddle along in Inter's wake at home. Both of these sides look like they might have a quarter or a semi-final in them at a stretch, but probably little more.

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