Our European guru educates and enlightens
And so 32 have become eight.
Four of the 16 possible permutations for the final in Rome would reprise old finals (1987: Porto vs Bayern; 1999: United vs Bayern; 2006: Barcelona vs Arsenal; 2008: United vs Chelsea). Four of the eight teams left standing are English and the draw ensures that at least one will reach the semi-final. But as we look ahead to the quarter-finals what else can we sure of?
Riise: Revenge for Garcia's ghost goal
Not very much. Arsenal and Porto should be wary of the John Arne Riise principle of karmic recompense. The Norwegian’s own goal in last year’s semi-final against Chelsea was explicable only as a karmic equaliser for the ghost goal of 2005. Villarreal and United both enter their ties convinced that fate owes them a favour.
Barcelona vs Bayern
The most romantic tie of the quarter-finals, dripping in European pedigree, a veritable clash of the titans, etc etc. These sides have scored 48 goals between them in the 2008/09 UEFA Champions League, so don’t be surprised if this is 0-0 after 210 minutes and goes to penalties.
Actually that would be a turn up. The Italians, as Ray Wilkins never tires of noting, do know how to defend. Barcelona and Bayern don’t. Not all the time. Pep Guardiola’s men have not kept a clean sheet at Camp Nou in Europe this season, while Bayern have twice shipped five in the Bundesliga (against Werder Bremen in September and last weekend against Wolfsburg).
Bayern won this competition in 2001 but have lost at this stage in 2002, 2005 and 2007. Jurgen Klinsmann’s hopes of defying that dismal record sank when Miroslav Klose ruptured a tendon. Though Klose doesn’t grab the headlines as often as Luca Toni, he works harder and is more pivotal to Bayern’s play.
Klose: Crucial to Bayern's cause
In the latest Champions, Bastian Schweinsteiger says Bayern dream of a final against United and vengeance for 1999.
Klinsmann should check out his old deputy Joachim Low’s gameplan for the Euro 2008 final. If Bayern are to progress, they must seize the initiative, disrupt Barcelona’s possession play and expose the Catalans’ rearguard to the physical and mental quickness of Schweinsteiger, Franck Ribery and, possibly, Lucas Podolski. Germany almost disturbed Spain’s midfield supremacy at Euro 2008 and six of the players in that final should face each other in this tie.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s remarks about Barcelona being the main non-English threat are intriguing. As he has just suggested too much media flattery has upset his team’s rhythm, is this praise designed to flatter Barca? Or wind up Bayern by suggesting they have already been discounted?
With no karmic debts to be repaid here, there is everything to play for.
Chelsea vs Liverpool
In a world of sequels, the fifth clash between these clubs in as many Champions League seasons could be as compelling as The Bourne Ultimatum or as unsatisfactory as Pirates Of The Caribbean 3.
The media will package this recurring melodrama using familiar plotlines – key battles (Torres vs Terry, Gerrard vs Lampard, Drogba vs Carragher) and all that, but nobody – not pundits, journalists, players nor coaches – has any idea how this quarter-final will pan out.
Rafa Benitez and Guus Hiddink almost faced off in Istanbul in 2005. Hiddink’s PSV showed up the Rossoneri’s defensive deficiencies in the semi-final that year.
In the second leg in Eindhoven, Hiddink brought on Brazilian striker Robert who very nearly put PSV 3-0 up and won the tie. But the gamble – Robert replaced defender Wilfred Bouma – backfired, giving Milan the space to gain a foothold and score that crucial away goal. PSV lost 3-3 on away goals. Benitez won the final after another 3-3 – and, Brian Glanville suggests – erring tactically by fielding the patently unfit Harry Kewell.
Hiddink's PSV denied in '05
Benitez’s six-year record in Europe with Valencia and Liverpool is phenomenal – 2004: UEFA Cup winners; 2005: Champions League winners; 2006: last 16 of knockout round; 2007: losing finalists; 2008: semi-finalists. Hiddink won the trophy in 1988 and, if he beats Liverpool, would have a good shot at being the third coach (after Ottmar Hitzfeld and Ernst Happel) to conquer Europe with two different clubs.
This will be portrayed as a battle of tactical wits. But Chelsea under the not so inspirational Avram Grant won the 2008 semi, the most one-sided instalment in the franchise. Sometimes, as Drogba showed in that tie, coaches are helpless because players write the script.
Manchester United vs Porto
81-1. Those are the odds on this UEFA Champions League season ending with a reprise of the 1987 final. Porto beat Bayern in that thriller, partly due to the most famous backheel in a European Cup final – courtesy of Rabah Madjer – and conquered Europe again in 2004 after a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford in 2004, a result Ferguson still regards as robbery.
It would take a Madjer or Mourinho-style upset for Porto to reach the semis – they are 10-1 to win at Old Trafford, astonishing odds for this stage in a major competition – and their hopes rest on Lisandro Lopez sneaking an away goal, Lucho’s midfield leadership, the Hulk unsettling United’s central defence and the Red Devils having two bad days at the office in the competition Ferguson prizes above all others.
This may be one of the United manager’s last chances to become only the second coach, after the great Bob Paisley, to win this competition three times.
Karma – with Paul Scholes’ goal dubiously disallowed at Old Trafford in 2004 – favours United. As do the stats. Porto’s away record in England is W0, D1, L10. United’s home record against Portuguese opposition is W8 D1, L0.
Scholes goal chalked off in 2004
Villarreal vs Arsenal
Almost as finely poised as Liverpool vs Chelsea. William Hill are offering 2.6/1 on a victory by either side in El Madrigal and 2.8/1 on a draw.
The form book, injury news and the fact that Arsenal play the second leg at home should help the Gunners. Adebayor, Fabregas and Walcott are back, while a dislocated fibula rules out Villarreal midfielder Santi Cazorla, their only ever present in the 2008/09 Champions League.
Arsenal’s 17-game unbeaten run is the longest in the 2008/09 Premier League, while Villarreal have, coach Manuel Pellegrini admits, developed a worrying habit of just not turning up for games.
You may hear talk of Villarreal’s mean defence. This is based on a memory of their miserliness in 2006 and against Manchester United in the group stages. After their 3-0 defeat by Almeria, they have kept just four clean sheets in their last 30 games.
Robert Pires, sent off against Almeria, must keep his emotions in check to torment the Gunners. The Frenchman played 18 minutes of the 2006 final for Arsenal, before being sacrificed after Jens Lehmann’s dismissal. He admits that when he saw his number being held up on the touchline in Paris he thought it was a practical joke.
His team-mates aren’t short of motivation either. The feeling in Villarreal’s dressing room after the 2006 semi-final was that they so vastly superior to Arsenal in the second leg that they deserved to win. So, on the Riise karmic recompense principle, Pellegrini’s team might surprise everyone with an undeserved victory.
Cazorla: Stuffed, along with Villarreal's chances
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