Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Champions League Knockout Under Starters Orders - Part One

It could be you (if you're a European footballing superpower)! The Champions League heaves itself back into our attentions this evening, taking on the might of Desperate Housewives for televisual dominance, and this year it's a lottery. The likely winner of the 2006/07 tournament appears completely open, to the extent that UEFA may hire Dale Winton to present the trophy.

There are two main reasons for the lack of obvious winners ths year.

Firstly, most of the thoroughbreds are limping around the parade ring somewhat. Secondly, recent seasons have shown us (Porto and Monaco being finalists in 2003/04, Liverpool winning in 2004/05 and Villareal's incredible run to the semifinals last season) that there is value to be found in the outsiders.

An example of each of these contrasting steeds takes the field at Parkhead tonight, as discussed yesterday. However in this case the 100/1 shot (Celtic) is probably too far off the pace, and, despite having course and distance, the thoroughbred (AC Milan) is carrying too much weight.

(The horse metaphor will now be mercifully put down).

Similarly with the fixture which sees Manchester United take on one of their conquerors in last season's ignominious campaign, Lille.

The tiny French club didn't make it out of their group last year, but in going one better this year achieved arguably the performance of the round. That is, aside from the fact that they emerged from the Group of Dross, edging out serial group stage fodder Anderlecht and AEK Athens to follow Milan through.

You'd think United would be considered a raging hot favourite, given them being top of the greatest league in the world and all. But at some point (not in this round, where they will dispatch Lille like they were a gallic Watford) they will have to play a good team, a pesky irritation indeed, especially for the team that have won only once in four games against those closest to them in the league. Suspicions about their mettle remain.

PSV Eindhoven are wily campaigners, regulars in the latter stages and only failing to reach the final in 2005 on away goals against Milan. Arsenal should have their measure though, as they have done in previous group stage encounters.

The Gunners could be ones to watch again this year. Cesc Fabregas, the man who choreographed their run to the final last time is a year older and Gilberto Silva emerged as a real leader in Thierry Henry's absence earlier in the season. And will those couple of weeks off in November and December mean we'll see a fresh and ferocious Henry come spring?

And finally today (resurrecting the horse metaphor) there's Red Rum (Real Madrid) and Arkle (Bayern Munich). But are they destined for the winners enclosure or the glue factory?

A glance at their respective domestic league tables and behind the scenes of both behemoths shows them toiling badly. Both clubs are fourth, Bayern a massive 12 points behind Schalke and 5 precarious points from their customary Champions League berth. They have also just sacked their manager (Felix Magath).

In a far from vintage year in the Primera Liga Real Madrid are only four points behind leaders Barcelona, despite managing to lose seven games. They have been forced to deny rumours that manager Fabio Capello had offered his resignation following a string of dire results, and ignominy of ignominies, been forced to recall bloated lounge entertainer David Beckham to the team.

Given that Capello was supposed to put the 'real' into Real, and steel them from show ponies into classic winners, it looks rather like that their horse has bolted.

Wednesday night's eight nags and stallions tomorrow. And no more of the horse metaphor.

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