When Arsène Wenger declared, after Arsenal's despatch of Porto last week, that he hoped to draw Chelsea or Manchester United in the Champions league quarter-finals the suspicion was that he did not mean it. Instead he was seeking to build confidence within his young squad in case the Gunners were paired with their English rivals, both of whom have beaten Arsenal home and away in the league this season.
Internazionale have since removed Chelsea from this morning's draw but Manchester United, who rolled over Arsenal in last season's semi-finals, remain. It is hard to imagine that Wenger really wants to be paired with them, not when there are two French teams (useful but lacking experience at this level) and outsiders CSKA Moscow (although that would involve a wearing trip to Russia, and a plastic pitch). Bayern Munich, a former suitor of Wenger and weak defensively, if a threat offensively, are surely also preferable to United. Nevertheless, there is an opponent Wenger would like to avoid even more than United, and it is not Inter, even if Jose Mourinho's team are serious contenders.
Barcelona are the side no one wants to face. The Spanish champions, after a dip, are back to form, no one more so than Lionel Messi who followed his weekend hat-trick against Valencia with two goals in Wednesday's demolition of Stuttgart. According to Josep Guardiola, Barça's coach, the Argentine has recovered his "mojo".
The same could be said for a Barça team seeking to become the first since Milan in 1990 to retain Europe's premier club title. Milan had five players who could be described as great, the Dutch triumvirate of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, plus the Italians Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini (Carlo Ancelotti, Chelsea's current manager, also played in both finals). The current Barcelona team is still developing but arguably has only two players in that category, Messi and Xavi (currently injured), though Thierry Henry has been and Andres Iniesta leads a clutch of players who may in time be described as such.
The focus, though, is increasingly on Messi, even more than it was on Gullit with Milan. "It's kind of ridiculous what he's doing. He's amazing," Henry said. "He is the best player in the world," said the Stuttgart coach Christian Gross. "He's a fantastic talent and it's incredible to think he's only 22."
Gross's team gave Messi too much space on his deadly left foot, which helped him take his season's tally to 29 goals in 32 games in the 4-0 win, but far better defences have failed to restrain the striker, a problem which is likely to be exacerbated by a new roving commission.
Usually Messi plays wide right, coming in off the flank onto his left. On Wednesday he had a loose role behind Henry, a mobile striker himself compared to the dropped Zlatan Ibrahimovic. "Last year we won six titles. He was very decisive in those and he played wide," Guardiola said, "but we need him involved and sometimes he sees more of the ball when he plays more in the centre."
The coach added: "Every great player has a tendency to influence his team, like [Michael] Jordan with the [Chicago] Bulls. He's the best, wherever he plays." Victor Valdes went even further. "He could become the best player in history," said Barça's goalkeeper. That is a premature assessment, as is Gross's belief that "we can now compare Messi with Maradona".
Diego Maradona won the World Cup in 1986 largely off his own left foot – his team-mates were such an unremarkable group the most individually successful was Jorge Valdano, but as an administrator at Real Madrid. Despite being man-marked throughout, often brutally, Maradona scored or directly created 10 of Argentina's 14 goals. At club level, before the drugs, injuries and late nights sapped his impact, he lifted Napoli to two Serie A titles, the only scudetti won before or since by a southern Italian club, and the Uefa Cup.
Messi has a way to go to match that. Barça were successful before he arrived and would be a decent side without him. With Argentina he has been less impressive, which reflects poorly on Maradona's management since the current Albiceleste generation are collectively more talented than that of 1986.
Even the assertion he is the world's current best is arguable, not least by Wayne Rooney (32 goals in 36 games this season, and better international performances), Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, albeit that the latter pair have suffered injury and loss of form respectively. Of the quartet only Rooney and Messi are in today's draw. Wenger, surely, would prefer to see them paired together.
Club guide: Potential opponents for United and Arsenal
Pedigree Winners (3); Coach Josep Guardiola; Domestic position 2nd; Big threat Lionel Messi (Argentina).
What greater motivation can there be for the Catalan side than the prospect of a final on Real Madrid's ground? Especially as Barca draw most of their players from their youth system. Even Lionel Messi, an Argentine, has been there since he was 13. Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Carles Puyol, Sergio Busquets, Victor Valdes, Gerard Pique, Bojan Krkic are all youth products. Justified favourites.
Bayern Munich (Germany)
Pedigree Winners (4); Coach Louis van Gaal; Domestic position 1st; Big threat Franck Ribéry (France).
King Louis has taken time to impose himself but the Dutchman looks to have done so now. Impressive attacking force with Ribery, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Arjen Robben creating for Miroslav Klose. Not so hot defensively despite the presence of Phillipp Lahm, Martin Demichelis and midfielders Anotali Tymoshuk and Mark van Bommel.
Pedigree SF (1); Coach Laurent Blanc; Domestic position 1st; Big threat Yoann Gourcuff (France).
The better-known players, Gourcuff and Marouane Chamakh, are exciting, attacking ones but the team are quite functional in reality. They score two-thirds of their goals from set-pieces and rarely concede. The Girondins will miss Alou Diarra from the quarter-final first leg after the midfielder was sent off against Olympicakos on Wednesday.
Pedigree Winners (2); Coach Jose Mourinho; Domestic position 1st; Big threat Wesley Sneijder (Neth).
Any doubts about Inter's challenge were removed at Stamford Bridge on Tuesday. Domestic dominance may at last be transferred to the European arena ending president Massimo Moratti's long quest to emulate his father, under whose command the cub won in 1964 and 1965. Sniejder (right) conducts, Samuel Eto'o and Diegi Milito finish, Lucio, Julio Cesar and Walter Samuel block.
Pedigree QF (4); Coach Claude Puel; Domestic position 5th; Big threat Lisandro Lopez (Argentina).
Knocked out Real Madrid and Liverpool, and despite sitting fifth in Ligue 1 are only two points behind leaders Bordeaux, so should not be underestimated. Lisandro, inconsistent pair Sidney Govou and Bafetimbi Gomis, and Miralem Panjic, are threats, Cris and keeper Hugo Lloris the defensive keys.
CSKA Moscow (Russia)
Pedigree QF (1); Coach Leonid Slutsky; Domestic position 6th; Big threat Milos Krasic.
Surprise quarter-finalists will be big in Japan: Keisuke Honda is first Japanese to make the last eight. They should at least be fresh – the Russian season only began last weekend. They also have an excellent keeper in Igor Akinfeev, Russia's defence in the Berezutski twins and Sergei Ignashevich, and clever midfielders in Krasic and Honda. No one will relish the Luzhniki's plastic pitch.
United and Arsenal could also draw each other, of course