The 16th of March marks a momentous day. The top eight teams in Europe hustle and bustle into the cauldron of the auditorium in Nyon, Switzerland. The multi-lingual UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino takes centre stage to offer his condolences to the victims of some flood (or fire, I wasn’t really listening- “our thoughts are with them in these difficult times”), to offer his best wishes to Eric Abidal (“Our thoughts are with him”- your thoughts like to wander evidently), to dole out “witty” one-liners and “hilarious” segways with Paul Breitner (yes, even I have no idea what he was doing there- Shakira would’ve opened the draw balls just fine), and just (since they happened to be there) to draw the teams for the quarters and semis of Europe’s Premier Club competition- The UEFA Champions League.
The draw itself was hilarious for a number of (mostly unintentional) reasons. I won’t get into that, because Paul Breitner is a friend of mine and this could sour our relationship. Also I don’t like to bicker. Alright, even I didn’t believe that. The result of the draw however makes for rather more stimulating discussion (unless you’re a Paul Breitner critic- then I highly recommend you watch the draw again). Apoel Nicosia (everyone’s favourties for the tournament) have drawn meager 9 time-winners Real Madrid. No contest this, why are they even playing? Bayern Munich will travel to Marseille. Don’t know if Marseille will travel back though; Deschamps is pushing to play both legs at the Velodrome. Benfica take on John Terry's Chelsea. Also in attendance will be assistant manager Frank Lampard and water-boy Roberto Di Matteo. Finally, 7 time-winners AC Milan have scored the draw everyone was hoping for- acting (sorry, I mean defending) champions Barcelona.
Jose Mourinho saw this draw and is reported to have said, “Hmm, it will be difficult. Bayern are very good at home”. That tells you everything you need to know about the first tie. A waste of time and space, most people feel. Ah, most people. I pity their limited mental faculties. Apoel Nicosia has proven rather conclusively thus far that it completely deserves its top 8 birth. The players have shown grit, determination and tremendous resolve to not only top the group in the group stage, but to knock out Olympique Lyonnais- a team I was most looking forward to seeing in Nyon. Mostly because I wanted to say- “Look, it’s Lyon in Nyon”; but also because they have been there and been knocked out for the last 3 seasons. Tradition is important in life, and Apoel ruined that for Lyon. This won’t be easy for Jose, even as he chooses to think beyond. Apoel have been very good at home in this competition and they will have to be again if they are to go through. The prospect of a daunting second leg for Apoel at the Bernabeu though clearly shifts the tide of this tie firmly in favor of Madrid. I too think Madrid will qualify, but funnier things have happened in this game. Like Paul Breitner.
The second quarter final is the biggest no-brainer for me. Why? Marseille are poor. They have been all season- domestically and in Europe. They are so bad even Inter beat them (ouch, that must’ve hurt. Sorry Ranieri.). The fact that they needed an away goal (gifted to them by the kind of quality defending we’ve seen all season from Inter) to beat a side as poor as Inter shows clearly why Apoel for Madrid won’t be nearly as easy as this for Bayern. Marseille cannot defend, pass or score. It’s a miracle they can stand really. Bayern all the way on this one.
The third and fourth ties are more tantalizing. Benfica have a real shot in their fixture against Chelsea, who will obviously be buoyed by their fantastic victory over Napoli. But if Benfica are to go through, they must win heavily at home and not concede an away goal. Something happens to Chelsea at the Bridge, even the most staunch of Chelsea critics (read Gary Neville, me and I guess AVB now) have to admit. Maybe it’s the atmosphere, maybe it’s the fans, maybe it’s the rich, angry Russian in the VIP box threatening to put them out of work- something really happens to them at the Bridge.
As for Milan against Barcelona, all bets are off. They’ve faced each other in the group stage and Milan scored two away goals. So this is the closest of the four ties for me. Milan can score at the Nou Camp but the crucial game for them has to be the first leg. If Barca score a couple or more goals at the San Siro, the tie is dead- even if Milan win say 4-3. The reason of course is that Barcelona have been rampant at the Nou Camp all season- scoring 15 goals in the Champions League alone in four home games, including seven in their last outing. This tie also hinges on Milans ability to keep up with Barca in mid-field. Though they seemed to manage in the group stage, they will get battered if they play Seedorf and Van Bommel because they won’t have the legs to chase the ball. Just ask Ryan Giggs and Michael Carrick. I’m sure if Manchester United make a third final against Barcelona and they see their names on the team-sheet in a 2 man central mid-field they’ll simultaneously wonder- “Why always me?”
So what have we learnt from the draw? Infantino is a linguistic genius (seriously, I think he should begin to write his own dictionaries); Paul Breitner is the “UEFA Ambassador” for this season’s final (the less said the better); their “thoughts” are capable of being simultaneously with Eric Abidal and the victims of the flood (or fire. I’m leaning towards fire); and possibly most pertinently, the world is in for another cracking finish to Europe’s premier club competition which could end (possibly) in the grandest of all grand Finals. Marseille against Chelsea. Though I suppose I would settle for the far less exciting prospect of an El Clasico. But only if I had to.