Our European guru educates and enlightens
Champions magazine editor Paul Simpson looks forward to the Champions League knockout games: Inter Milan v Chelsea, Lyon v Real Madrid, Milan v Manchester United, Olympiakos v Bordeaux, FC Porto v Arsenal, CSKA Moscow v Sevilla, Stuttgart v Barcelona, Bayern Munich v Fiorentina
Let’s start with the bleedin’ obvious: if Barcelona don’t make the last eight of the UEFA Champions League, it will be the biggest shock since North Korea beat Italy 1-0 in 1966.
Whatever Stuttgart say, their new coach Christian Gross – yep the very man who, as Spurs boss, waved the train ticket of his dreams in front of the British media – will surely focus on survival in the Bundesliga.
Bordeaux aren’t quite as certain to progress, but their ruthlessly efficient progress to the last 16 – they won the most points (16), conceded the fewest goals (2) and scored seven goals from set-pieces – suggests that the man still fondly recalled in Manchester as Larry White should start casting his slide rule over the other likely quarter-finalists.
Olympiakos did reach the last eight in 1998/99 but when they last made it this far – in 2007/08 against Chelsea – they played in a style football insiders refer to as “happy to be here.”
The other six ties are not that simple to call.
Being professionally obliged to do so, Alan ‘Smudger’ Smith backs Arsenal, Bayern, Chelsea, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Sevilla to win.
It’s hard to fault his reasoning but this round usually springs at least one surprise.
Few expected Fenerbahce or Roma to make the last eight at the expense of Sevilla and Real Madrid in 2007/08.
Pundits invariably bet on pedigree because that way they're right seven times out of 10.
Every so often, you look a bit daft when Fiorentina do the business and Liverpool don’t, but a platitude about unpredictability being part of the beautiful game is usually enough to spare your blushes.
So who are the Fiorentinas in this 16? Well, Fiorentina for a start.
Bayern coach Louis van Gaal said he was “not dissatisfied” with the draw.
After that 4-1 hammering of Juventus, he probably thinks anything is possible.
Bayern do look stronger and Van Gaal insists that, with Franck Ribery still to return, the best may yet be to come.
But Marcello Lippi says “Some players in purple hoped to meet Bayern to get revenge for last year.”
(In Group F in 2008/09, Bayern qualified after beating Fiorentina 3-0 at home and drawing in Florence).
I’m never sure whether revenge missions are extra motivation or a fatal distraction.
Although the Viola have won five games in a row in this competition, shipping five goals against Debreceni does suggest that, even with the outstanding Sebastian Frey in goal, Fiorentina must tighten up at the back.
Don’t bet against Porto either.
Arsene Wenger’s remark that this draw gave his team a “50-50” chance was widely interpreted as mind games, but Porto keep the ball well, are fluent in attack and will look to exploit the gaps Arsenal leave if Wenger’s team defend in their usual way – i.e. about 10 yards higher up the pitch than most other teams in the competition.
Shorn of the metronomic goalscoring of Lisandro Lopez, Porto have sometimes lacked the cutting edge to make their clever approach play pay off.
But dynamic Colombian No.9 Falcao has found new confidence since his brilliant back-heeled goal against Atletico.
CSKA Moscow may yet surprise Sevilla.
They are the first Russian team to make it this far since Lokomotiv in 2003/04, have looked rejuvenated under new coach Leonid Slutsky and will kick off their tie on an artificial pitch in Moscow in February.
Sevilla attack beautifully but, like Arsenal, are vulnerable on the counter.
And CSKA have four players: keeper Igor Akinfeev, midfielders Alan Dzagoev and Milos Krasic, and striker Tomas Necid who could turn a game.
And then, of course, there’s Inter.
Their clash with Chelsea is, to quote The Guardian’s Richard Williams, “box office dynamite.”
On paper, Chelsea have a better squad and you only have to picture Didier Drogba against Walter Samuel or Lucio to convince yourself the Nerazzurri have no chance.
For me the key isn’t the coaches, it’s the players – and for Inter, in particular, Wesley Sneijder.
If Inter’s rejuvenated Dutch magician – who amusingly called Real’s president Florentino Perez and sporting director Jorge Valdano “two mafiosos” recently – could outpass the likes of Lampard, Deco and Ballack in midfield, he might lay the basis for a truly unexpected victory.
The Blues' midfield looks good enough against most teams but often lacked creativity and control in their group games and Drogba can hardly wreak the expected havoc if his supply is cut off.
The ties don’t kick off till mid-February and, with the new elongated format, won’t be done and dusted till March.
Before then – especially with the Africa Cup of Nations – this entire blog could have been rendered thoroughly redundant.
But this is roughly how the knockout round looks to me, now, after a few hours of immature reflection.
Barcelona are still the team to beat.
The one factor which could complicate Barça’s progress is being drawn against Real or Sevilla in the last four or eight.
Domestic ties in Europe have a strange dynamic that can throw out the form book: Chelsea may have won the Premier League in 2004/05 and finished 37 points ahead of Liverpool but they still lost to the Reds in the 2005 semis.
Football has away of demolishing certainties.
On Friday, I couldn’t see how Manchester United could lose to Milan; now I’m wondering if they can beat Wigan in their next home game – but I expect Pep Guardiola’s Dream Team II to make the final.
But as Milan discovered in 1995, Ajax in 1996 and Juventus in 1997, playing that game as the reigning champions is a mixed blessing.
They may be multi-millionaires, but most footballers have a revolutionary streak: they find it more inspiring to usurp than maintain the status quo.
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I'm not so sure that on paper, Chelsea's squad is stronger than Inter's.
Julio Cesar is, in my opinion, the best goalkeeper in the world, and certainly puts the nervous Cech to shame.
Maicon is a better right-back than Ivanovic or Bosingwa for certain.
Eto'o is a match for any striker in the world.
And it could be argued that Chivu and Samuel match Terry and Carvalho for pure defensive ability, although both lack the leadership of Chelsea's captain.
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