Our European guru educates and enlightens
Hallelujah, the Champions League is back!
The greatest football show on earth has reached the knockout stage, pitting contenders against pretenders, the best against the slightly above average and promising to humiliate at least one European giant.
When the French revolution was at its bloodiest, Paris was teeming with cackling old crones and bloodthirsty oafs who liked nothing more than to watch the guillotine do its dirty work. Their spiritual heirs in the media will gather tonight at Anfield for a match which is being anticipated, with grim relish, by a monstrous regiment of hacks.
The only light relief for Reds is the hope that Avram Grant may be courting headlines that contain the words “Greek” and “tragedy” by sidelining Lampard and Terry in Athens against Olympiacos.
Moving swiftly on, there are four other ties of particular interest, previewed here with the aid of a joke that is almost as old as Jimmy Tarbuck, lite numerology and a rustle around for any omens which the superstitious – or desperate – might latch on to.
Celtic v Barcelona
On paper, the most one-sided tie. But – to quote Tarby – games aren’t played on paper but on grass. Boom boom! On grass, Celtic’s record against Barça is respectable: Played 4, Won 1, Drawn 2, Lost 1, For 3, Against 4.
Like his mentor Rinus Michels, who flirted with the long ball when coaching Cologne, Frank Rijkaard is conducting a difficult experiment: trying to persuade Barca to play the ball forward quickly to exploit Thierry Henry’s natural game.
So far, this has had mixed results – the blaugranas are catching Real in la Liga but in 10 league games they have only twice scored more than one goal in a match. And Lionel Messi hasn’t scored for so long he’s forgotten what his celebration is.
The returning Samuel Eto’o is hoping his goals can silence speculation about Rijkaard’s future. But even if Rijkaard moves on this summer, it will take a major blow – like being knocked out by Celtic and coming a distant third in la Liga – to persuade president Joan Laporta to contemplate Jose Mourinho’s winning ugly brand of football.
By contrast, Celtic are on a roll. Aiden McGeady is fulfilling his immense promise and his trickery could unnerve Barcelona while Shunsuke Nakamura will hope to float in a free-kick. This is probably going to curse Gordon Strachan’s team but this tie could be much more fiercely contested than many anticipated.
Lyon v Manchester United
Years ending in eight often prove historic for Manchester United. The club was founded in 1878, won the FA Cup in 1948, lost their greatest team at Munich in 1958, won the European Cup in 1968 and, in 1998, came second to Arsenal, a finish that set up the treble in 1999.
For all of Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals and Carlos Tevez’s brilliance, as Jonathan Wilson has pointed out, Wayne Rooney is the key to United’s performances. Like Joe Cole, Rooney is a natural No.10 who has the misfortune to play in a country that doesn’t know how to use them.
Lyon have been consistently inconsistent all season but the pace and technique of Karim Benzema, aka the umpteenth “new Zidane”, will test Rio Ferdinand’s powers of concentration.
Sir Alex Ferguson, who watched Lyon destroy Sochaux 4-1 recently, approaches this tie in a sunnier mood than Lyon coach Alain Perrin. Damned with faint praise by his chairman after the last 1-0 loss to Le Mans – Jean-Michel Aulas said the club had “excellent players and competent staff” – Perrin may find that these games define his future.
Roma v Real Madrid
A fascinating clash between two charismatic teams who can be a bit rubbish away from home. Roma haven’t won away in three in Serie A. Real Madrid have lost seven away from home in all competitions this season, haven’t won away in 2007/08 Champions League and, as they have kept only one clean sheet in the tournament, probably need a goal in the Stadio Olimpico.
Luciano Spalletti’s Roma are good to watch, tactically innovative with a fluid midfield and may fancy their chances here. Real’s defending this season has occasionally exhibited a comic absurdity worthy of Norman Wisdom.
Much may depend on which team can manipulate the other into playing against type. Real and Roma both like to counter-attack so the team that presses – in Rome and Madrid – may get hurt by a sucker punch.
Real have not had a German manager since 1988 when, under Jupp Heynckes, they won the UEFA Champions League after a 32-year-old drought, so could Bernd Schuster yet prove Real’s lucky talisman?
Schalke v Porto
You might think this isn’t a glamour but I’m flying to Gelsenkirchen in confident expectation of goals. In Schalke’s 25 Champions League matches, the goal-per-game ratio is 2.96. Mind you, the Royal Blues’ only 0-0 draws this season both came in the Champions League.
Porto did look like they had the Portuguese league sewn up but Benfica are now starting to making a fight of it. The Dragons like to defend by playing keep ball and the tactic has worked well – except for 30 minutes at Anfield – but Schalke like to dominate possession too. It’s been part of the club’s DNA since they perfected the Schalke Kreiser ‘whirligig’ style of play – based on short, quick, man-to-man passing –in the 1920s.
The papers will be full of key battles this week – Ferdinand v Benzema, Kaka v Toure, Scudamore v Blatter – but this may come down to which of the tie’s reigning enigmas – Kevin Kuranyi or Ricardo Quaresma – is on song.
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