Europe the only test for runaway thoroughbreds

Some of the Continent's giants have been thrown together for this week's knock-out stages. Glenn Moore savours the delights to come
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The Independent Football

The Champions' League, with its cheesy anthem and ersatz tradition, its Occidental bias and hyperbolic titling, is back. For once, it should be welcomed everywhere. The knock-out draw has thrown up three mouth-watering ties - as well as the two we all know about, there is Bayern Munich v Milan, who between them have won nine more European Cups than Barcelona and Chelsea combined. And there is precious little going on in the major domestic leagues to distract.

With Chelsea, Juventus and Bayern Munich running away with the titles of England, Italy and Germany respectively, and Barcelona and Lyon holding on to long-standing leads with relative comfort in Spain and France, attention in the big five European leagues has been reduced to an examination of the apparent crises being suffered by Manchester United, Arsenal, Real Madrid and others.

The return of the Continent's premier club competition comes as a welcome relief to all that schadenfreude and ennui, not least because it has become one of the game's least predictable competitions. Who could have imagined, at the start of each campaign, the last two winners would be Porto and Liverpool? Not even the clubs themselves had dreamt of it. In two seasons the Champions' League has thrown up a new member of the coaching pantheon, in Jose Mourinho, and a comeback, in Istanbul last May, which ranks alongside anything in the sport's 134-year competitive history.

Whoever emerges from the Chelsea v Barcelona tie, which opens at Stamford Bridge tomorrow, will become the new favourites but the winner could come from any of a dozen teams. While Barcelona, Juventus and, less obviously, Werder Bremen, have declined to strengthen their squads, several teams have made potentially significant signings in the transfer window. Arsenal have been the biggest spenders, even after the cup-tied Emmanuel Adebayor is excluded, with a £12m investment, followed by tonight's opponents Real Madrid. Ajax have spent heavily, for them, but Klaas Jan Huntelaar's arrival may not compensate for the loss of Julien Escude, Nigel de Jong and Maxwell. The vote for the most intriguing signing is split between Liverpool's acquisition of Robbie Fowler and the capture by their opponents tonight, Benfica, of Laurent Robert.

Benfica, struggling in Portugal, Rangers, adrift in Scotland, Ajax, trailing in the Netherlands with a team steadily depleted, and Villarreal, the back country ingénues, are perhaps the only teams without much hope. But even they cannot be ruled out, either Rangers or Villarreal will be in the quarter-finals and then they may be just a bad refereeing decision, or an inspired goalkeeping display, away from the last four. And as Mourinho noted, in the wake of his team's laboured defeat of Colchester at the weekend, in a knock-out competition surprises are always possible.

Up to a point, anyway. It is no surprise that a large part of Europe has little interest in the Champions' League's knock-out stages. Of the 52 clubs to have entered the Champions' League in its 14 seasons, only 16 have come from behind the old Iron Curtain and only four of those (Hadjuk Split, Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw, and Dynamo Kiev) have reached the last eight. Despite heavy investment in Russian and Ukrainian teams none survived the group stages.

The author Jonathan Wilson, who last week published a book about East European football, said: "It's down to money. Most East European clubs can't afford to buy players, and can't afford to keep them. Anybody who is any good leaves at the age of 18, 19, 20. This creates a problem because a lot of them don't settle in the West, and don't play regularly, so when they return, at 23, they've lost their touch. Under Communism players were not allowed to leave before they were 28 and anyone in football there who is not a player, or an agent, would be happy to see that rule return.

"One consequence is that there is a lot of multi-fandom. Fans will follow their local team and a Western one, or two, especially those with a connection. A lot of Ukrainians follow Milan because of Andrei Shevchencko, while Chelsea have had Russian fans since the days of Dmitri Kharine."

The reach of the competition has certainly increased pan-European awareness. In Italy, said James Richardson, who presents Bravo's coverage of Serie A, there is a lot of interest in this week's Chelsea and Arsenal matches.

"The main focus is on Milan v Bayern Munich, then on the Juve and Inter games, but Italians are very interested in all football, especially in a World Cup year," said Richardson. "They enjoy the English game and they are looking at these matches because they involve most of the other main contenders.

"Juventus and Inter are expected to progress but there is concern about Milan's inconsistency," said Richardson.

Italian media are well represented among the 223 press applications Chelsea received for tomorrow's match. This figure does not include the many television commentators and summarisers who will be broadcasting the match around the globe. While the Champions' League will never match the patriotic pull of the World Cup, Arsène Wenger is not alone in believing it produces the superior football.

That may be underlined this week.

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