Europe’s big guns ready to resume fire

 
 

For a second year running, Chelsea and Manchester United’s passages into the quarter finals of the Champions League are in no way assured, writes Martin Scanlon

Whilst this summer’s World Cup may be the most anticipated event in 2010, the highest quality football will undoubtedly be in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League.

The headline stories of the first knock-out round of this year’s competition are undoubtedly the returns of two former heroes, David Beckham and Jose Mourinho, to their past clubs. In all the hype and focus on the personalities and their respective histories, less has been said about the difficulty of the match-ups for both Manchester United and Chelsea, than would have been expected.

Beckham returns with his AC Milan side to face United for the first time in a competitive fixture since he left for Real Madrid nearly seven years ago. It seems as if people have been commenting on the age profile of this Milan squad for nearly a decade, yet many of the old players remain in pivotal roles. Seven of the starters in the 2003 final – coincidently played at Old Trafford – should feature again at some stage in this two legged tie: Dida, Nesta, Kaladze, Seedorf, Pirlo, Gattuso and Inzaghi.

Real Madrid have not won since 2002

This brings a wealth of European experience to a team that some have neglected to consider as genuine threats to United. Carlo Ancelotti’s departure for London at the end of last season and the appointment of Leonardo in his place has injected freshness into those old bones, which was evident in their 3-2 away victory against Real Madrid in the group stages. They also possess a genuine attacking threat in the form of Ronaldinho and Alexandre Pato.

United themselves have come into a relatively rich vein of form since the shock loss to Leeds in the FA Cup. Ironically, that defeat could prove profitable as it reduces the number of games to be played and lessens the disruptive influence which wholesale changes for cup matches bring to the side. Much will rest on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney and if he can mirror his recent form and receive support from the recently rejuvenated Nani among others, Milan should be confidently overcome.

Chelsea, now under the watchful eye of Carlo Ancelotti, retain the same squad that has come so agonisingly close to glory these past two seasons; however, Mourinho’s Inter will prove a stern test to their ambitions. Leading Serie A by nine points, all focus will be on improving Inter’s relatively poor recent record in the competition. Nobody is better equipped to mastermind the downfall of his old club than than Mourinho, who will know many of the players intimately. Expect a tight defensive contest and a moment of brilliance from Drogba or Eto’o to decide the match-up.

Although inconsistent at home and unable to beat their main domestic rivals, Arsene Wenger will fancy his side’s chances of progression. European football tends to offer players much more time and space on the ball, suiting Arsenal’s slick pass and move style of play. However, without a top-quality fit striker, their overall chances are severely restricted.

The Spanish superpowers of Real and Barcelona will feel confident of progressing against both Lyon and Stuttgart. Real, after their extraordinary summer spending spree, will consider anything other than outright triumph as an abysmal failure – especially with their own Estadio Bernabéu hosting the final. These factors, combined with life in shadows of Barcelona, in the last year may be the key to them claiming their tenth European Cup on 22nd May.

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