Barcelona against Chelsea, Arsenal v Real Madrid, Milan at home to Bayern Munich, Internazionale against Ajax and Liverpool entertaining Benfica; if a European League had ever come to fruition, this is what it would have looked like. The Champions' League, well into its 14th season, was the compromise forced upon Uefa by the biggest clubs, and the public clearly love it.
Understandable as tradition-alists' objections may be, the appeal of a competition includ-ing teams other than champions was underlined a fortnight ago when eight thrilling ties in the first knock-out round were watched by average crowds of 53,500. Virtually every ground was full, and for the second legs the figures will be even more impressive, as Chelsea's game is at the Nou Camp (capacity 98,500), while the San Siro (85,000) will stage two matches, Inter's having to be delayed a week to accommodate Milan's.
Then there are the 320 million television viewers in 227 countries who watch each week of the competition. If the initial stage before Christmas can throw up some dull games in one-sided (or two-sided) groups, the brave decision two years ago to dispense with a second mini-league in favour of an extra knock-out round offers the best of all possible worlds: cup football, with most of Europe's best teams still involved, along with one or two potential killers of giants.
All the more galling then for Manchester United to be playing Wigan Athletic tomorrow instead of Rangers or the Euro-pean champions, Liverpool, later in the week, which would have been the prize for winning just one of their three drawn group matches. Instead, Villarreal and Benfica will provide the respective opposition, while London takes on the best of Spain again elsewhere.
Even without United and the long-lost Everton, British interest remains intense, and who would have expected Arsenal to be in the strongest position after that dramatic first week of football? Catching Real Madrid at their lazily indisciplined worst, Arsène Wenger's team were able to bring back a thoroughly deserved lead to Highbury. Since then Spain's most glamorous club have been thrown into further turmoil by the resignation of their president, Florentino Perez, the archi-tect of a policy that has seen them become the world's richest club (as long as debts are excluded) but a side who have not won a trophy since David Beckham joined the cast list in 2003.
As Beckham said after England's game against Uruguay at Anfield in midweek: "There's been lot of distractions in the past three years. I've had six managers in that time. For me it's different from what I'm used to, but you've got to deal with it. You've got 11 quality players paid a lot to play football and you've got to do that whatever is going on outside. It's not nice, not good for stability of the team and the players, but we have to get on with it."
As to what he now calls Real's biggest game of the season: "We didn't play well against Arsenal and if we play the same way in the second game, we won't go through. I wasn't surprised by Arsenal because I know they're a great team with great players and Arsène Wenger had probably done his homework from the day the draw was made. Thierry [Henry] is one of the best players in the world and when you give him space, he can exploit that. I'm looking forward to playing at Highbury, but I'll only enjoy it if we win."
If Beckham is serious about urging his team-mates into an English-style pressing and harrying game, he will find a willing ally in the former Evertonian Thomas Gravesen, who would like to impress Sir Alex Ferguson into bringing him back to the North-west this summer. The squad's superstars will need to shed considerably more sweat than in the home leg, but if they were to score first on Wednesday, the tie would be wide open again.
As for Chelsea, that first goal is even more imperative, and all the strategies that Jose Mourinho considers over the next couple of days will be aimed at scoring it. For Joe Cole, confidence high after his Anfield performance and enthusiasm as touching as ever: "It's a magic game in the Nou Camp, and I can't wait for it. There aren't many weaknesses in our team and if we can keep 11 on the pitch, we can get a result. We will go for it, there's no doubt we'll go for it, because we've got to score two goals and we're capable of doing that."
With all last season's niggling between the clubs now intensified by Asier Del Horno's dismissal at Stamford Bridge and Ricardo Carvalho's idiotic ramblings about attempting to con the referee on Tuesday by play-acting (preferably don't do it, but, even worse, don't talk about it), it is harder to imagine either a footballing feast or an English victory in Catalonia than at Highbury.
Liverpool, 1-0 down at home to Benfica, are relying on the spirit of last season's extraordinary campaign, when Anfield shook and Olympiakos, Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and Chelsea were shaken into defeat as a result. "Last year, with the crowd behind us it was so difficult for the opposition," said Steven Gerrard. "We strangled them in their half.
"High tempo, that's what we need to do on Wednesday. We get that first goal and a few heads will drop on their team, and with the crowd behind us we can take it from there." Easy, really.
Rangers benefited from a supportive crowd in holding Villar-real at Ibrox, despite being outplayed for much of the game. Their followers will make themselves heard at the little Madrigal stadium on Tuesday, but with the Croatian striker Dado Prso suspended after one booking too many, the pipes may be playing a lament by the end of the night.
The four other ties are surprisingly well balanced, the slightly unexpected developments being that Ajax and Werder Bremen respectively started and finished so strongly against Italian opposition. Ajax led 2-0 at half-time before Inter recovered the deficit, Julio Ricardo Cruz's late equaliser re-establishing the Italians as favourites to progress. In contrast, Juventus, the competition favourites, were in control until Bremen, easily the top scorers in the Bundesliga, hit them with two late goals for a memorable 3-2 victory.
Those away goals should ensure that Juve are in Friday's draw. They ought to be joined by Milan (who drew 1-1 at Bayern), Inter and Gérard Houllier's Lyon, who have a 1-0 advantage at home to Guus Hiddink's PSV Eindhoven. All of which would ensure that however many Brit awards there are this week, the quarter-final ties will cause mouths to water all round the world.
Operation Europe: The four-way British challenge
TUESDAY BARCELONA (2) v CHELSEA (1)
Attempting to survive a second leg at Anfield a year ago must seem child's play compared to Chelsea's task in the Nou Camp, even if William Gallas (badly needed at left-back) and Frank Lampard are both fit. Not winning their group, and unnecessary fouls in the first leg, look more costly than ever.
Danger man: Lionel Messi
TUESDAY VILLARREAL (2) v RANGERS (2)
Once again Rangers managed to shake off their wretched domestic form for a European tie, twice coming from behind to draw with a Villarreal side who normally concede few goals. Nicking a victory in Spain might appear to be beyond them, though it would merely be another twist to a contrary season.
Danger man: Juan Roman Riquelme
WEDNESDAY ARSENAL (1) v REAL MADRID (0)
Sooner Galacticos than Have-a-gos against Arsenal, who prefer opponents to stand back and allow their pretty passing game. Real will give Arsène Wenger's team a chance to play, as they did in Madrid, and a fine, open match should result. If the superstars on both sides were to rouse themselves, it could be a classico.
Danger man: Robinho (pictured)
WEDNESDAY LIVERPOOL (0) v BENFICA (1)
All was going swimmingly for Liverpool in the first game until Luisao became the latest opponent to expose the deficiencies of what Rafa Benitez insists is a successful zonal marking system at set-pieces. If it fails once again at Anfield, the holders will need three goals to go through, which would probably mean giving up the cup.
Danger man: Simao SabrosaReuse content