Usual suspects make showpiece too familiar

Just occasionally, even for the biggest clubs, European competition is still about venturing into the unknown. Earlier this season several Real Madrid players were sent home for their passports after arriving for a flight to Serbia with just their identity cards. The presumption was that, if Partizan Belgrade were in the Champions' League, their country must also be in the European Community. David Beckham, incidentally, was not among them. As the United Kingdom is not in the Schengen Agreement he always has to take his passport.

For the most part, though, once the competition hits its stride the Champions' League is about the familiar. Thus even a blanket of snow thick enough to close Munich airport yesterday morning could not disguise the Olympic Stadium when Real Madrid arrived to train here last night. Madrid now visit Munich as often as they do Mallorca and while tonight's first-leg meeting between these two giants of the game remains the glamour tie of the second round the allure is in danger of becoming jaded.

If ever a match highlighted both the attraction and perils of the Champions' League concept it is this one. Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are two of the competition's genuine heavyweights, with 13 European titles between them including three of the last four. They are also masters of their domestic leagues, claiming 44 Spanish and German titles in the last 50 seasons.

Yet while their early meetings captured the imagination of players, supporters and television companies alike, the fixture is in danger of becoming mundane. Prior to the introduction of the Champions' League they had played six times in 47 seasons. By the conclusion of this tie they will have met 10 times in five years.

Too much? Arsenal v Manchester United still retains an edge after nearly a century of competition, which suggests this tie will do so as long as both clubs remain contenders. That there is a mutual antipathy between them, borne of contrasting fiscal and playing philosophies, also fuels the rivalry. The last meeting ended with Hasan Salihamidzic being dismissed for kicking Santiago Solari as Real played out time before moving into the semi-finals. If there are any empty seats tonight it will be due more to the lack of cover in an arena that, while still looking futuristic, will be superceded before the 2006 World Cup, than boredom with Real.

Cross the Alps to Turin, however, and it is hard to imagine the Stadio Delle Alpi even half-full in a fortnight when Juventus host Deportivo La Coruña for the fourth successive season even if, for the first time, it is a knock-out tie. This latter development is because Uefa, responding to their and television companies' concern about overkill, this season eliminated the second group stage. The clubs, always reluctant to forgo income, were unimpressed but the revised format is a smart compromise. Retaining one group stage guarantees clubs six matches, just about enough to finance their extended squads. Moving to the knock-out process then provides the competition with mid-term impetus.

It also presents coaches and players with a new challenge. Claudio Ranieri derided the competition as "bingo" compared to the more searching 38-match programme of the Premiership. True, it places undue emphasis on the vagaries of form and incidence of injury, but two-leg fixtures have merit besides knock-out drama. They are a test of nerve and tactics, especially as law changes make it more difficult for teams to close up games.

A lottery element is no bad thing either, because it balances the need to find the best team in Europe with the prospect of surprises. In a league system Sparta Prague, with their limited resources, have little chance of heading Milan. Over two games, given an inspirational performance or two, plus luck, they could achieve a result to stun Europe. Ajax were within seconds of knocking out Milan, the eventual winners, last season, and not so long ago Internazionale lost to Helsingborg.

Despite such results the Champions' League is increasingly weighted in favour of representatives from the big four western countries: England, Italy, Spain and Germany. For the last four seasons they have provided seven of the quarter-finalists. And they are usually the same names; six of last year's octet were making at least their fourth appearance at that stage.

This year's draw guarantees at least one interloper, the winner of the Lokomotiv Moscow v Monaco tie. If the Muscovites win they will be the first Eastern European team in the last eight since 1999. A far cry from the appearances in the final of Steaua Bucharest (1986 and 1989) and Red Star Belgrade (1991). The winner of the Real Sociedad v Lyon tie will provide a virgin quarter-finalist. The probability, though, is that while Monaco have the talent to cause a surprise, and Arsenal look formidable, the bulk of the semi-finalists will come from the usual suspects: Milan, Juventus, Manchester United and either Real or Bayern.

Of the latter pair Real are clear favourites, a position that their coach, Carlos Quieroz, tried to play down last night when talking of Bayern "playing the victim". It may be closer than anticipated. Real are clear in La Liga and possessed of the most spectacular attack in the modern game, but their defence has suffered from the emphasis on flair with Real conceding more than a goal in each game in Spain. Los Galacticos may soon be close to exhaustion, for there is no rotation policy at Madrid.

Whether Bayern can take advantage is another matter. They trail Werder Bremen by seven points in a non-vintage Bundesliga with a series of poor performances putting Ottmar Hitzfeld under pressure despite his huge success as coach. Felix Magath, whose VfB Stuttgart team face Chelsea tomorrow, has done nothing to dispel rumours linking him to the post. Roy Makaay, Bayern's record £13.6m signing, is Hitzfeld's best chance of survival but while the Dutchman, last year's European golden boot winner, has the sharpness to punish Madrid he may lack sufficient service.

The teams' record in their recent rivalry is revealing. Bayern have won six games to Real's two but Madrid's victories have been more crucial. They have knocked Bayern out of the competition twice while only being dismissed once themselves.

An English side-plot is the midfield contest between Beckham and Owen Hargreaves. Beckham is new to this fixture but not to Bayern. Underlining the insular nature of the competition, he played Bayern seven times in five seasons with Manchester United, including the 1999 final. He returns tonight after suspension. With Luis Figo also fit, Real are at full strength.

Michael Ballack should play for Bayern after suffering from bronchitis but Sebastian Deisler, back in training after treatment for depression, is unlikely to figure. Oliver Kahn, who missed Saturday's game because of a painful back, returns to reacquaint himself with Ronaldo. It will be their first meeting since Kahn's error in the 2002 World Cup final handed Ronaldo a goal and Brazil the trophy.

Asked about this last night, Ronaldo grinned and said he accorded Kahn full respect. Where the players are concerned familiarity has not yet bred contempt but Uefa must remain careful that it does not do so among the public.

FORM GUIDE HOW THE LAST 16 ARE SHAPING UP

By Nick Harris

CELTA VIGO v ARSENAL

European Cup/Champions' League best: Last 16 (2004).

Manager: Raddy Antic.

Current League position: 16th.

Transfer window signings: Mauricio Pinilla (on loan from Chievo).

Form: Troubled Celta have won only twice at home in La Liga this season and sit just above the relegation zone. They have kept just three clean sheets in 25 games. But Raddy Antic has steered them to two wins in their last three matches to indicate a corner has been turned.

Tournament odds: 66-1.

European Cup/Champions' League best: Quarter-finals (1972, 2001).

Manager: Arsène Wenger.

Current League position: 1st.

Transfer window signings: Jose Reyes (£17m from Seville).

Form: Unbeaten in 26 Premiership games, their 2-1 win over Chelsea on Saturday left them five points clear at the top of the table on 64 points, a top-flight record at this stage. Their form in Spain is a worry, Arsène Wenger having overseen five defeats and one draw there.

Tournament odds: 6-1.

SPARTA PRAGUE v MILAN

European Cup/Champions' League best: Quarter-finals (1966, 1968, 1985).

Coach: Jiri Kotrba.

Current League position: 2nd.

Transfer window signings: Jiri Stajner (on loan from Hannover 96).

Form: Sparta are unbeaten in any competition since November but saw their hopes of retaining the Czech title dented again by a 0-0 draw on Saturday with mid-table Pribram. On-loan striker Jiri Stajner is in form, scoring last week as the Czech Republic drew 2-2 with Italy.

Tournament odds: 150-1.

European Cup/Champions' League best: Winners six times (1963, 1969, 1989, 1990, 1994, 2003).

Manager: Carlo Ancelotti.

Current League position: 1st.

Transfer window signings: Nicola Pozzi (£1m from Cesena).

Form: Milan came back from 2-0 down to win the weekend derby against Internazionale 3-2 and take a five-point lead in Serie A, where their sole defeat was in November. Defensively they are conceding more than usual.

Tournament odds: 7-1.

BAYERN MUNICH v REAL MADRID

European Cup/Champions' League best: Winners four times (1974, 1975, 1976, 2001).

Manager: Ottmar Hitzfeld.

Current League position: 2nd.

Transfer window signings: None.

Form: Bayern have had an indifferent start to the year, wining two, losing one and drawing one of their last four games in the Bundesliga, where they trail the leaders Werder Bremen by seven points after 21 matches. A 1-0 win over Hamburg was unconvincing but Oliver Kahn insists: "We know when to win."

Tournament odds: 20-1.

European Cup/Champions' League best: Winners nine times (1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1966, 1998, 2000, 2002).

Manager: Carlos Queiroz.

Current League position: 1st.

Transfer window signings: Sebas (goalkeeper, free from Cordoba).

Form: Saturday's 4-2 win at Espanyol was Real's fourth in a stretch of six unbeaten games in La Liga. It took them five points clear at the top of the table. Much depends on Ronaldo, who has 21 La Liga goals in 24 games.

Tournament odds: 4-1.

LOKOMOTIV MOSCOW v MONACO

European Cup/Champions' League best: Last 16 (2004).

Manager: Yuri Syomin.

Current League position: 4th.

Transfer window signings: Deividas Cesnauskis (from Dynamo Moscow).

Form: Due to the Russian close season, Lokomotiv have not had a competitive outing since their 2-0 defeat by Arsenal in their final group-stage match on 10 December. Prior to that they had scored 14 goals in four games to secure three wins and a draw in all competitions.

Tournament odds: 100-1.

European Cup/Champions' League best: Semi-finalists (1994, 1998).

Manager: Didier Deschamps.

Current League position: 1st.

Transfer window signings: None.

Form: Monaco thrashed Montpellier 4-0 last Friday - with Emmanuel Adebayor scoring a hat-trick - to take a four-point lead at the top of their domestic table. But they had failed to win four of their six League games prior to that as Didier Deschamps' hopes of a first managerial title took a wobble.

Tournament odds: 25-1.

PORTO v MANCHESTER UNITED

European Cup/Champions' League best: Winners once (1987).

Manager: Jose Mourinho.

Current League position: 1st.

Transfer window signings: Carlos Alberto (£1.5m from Fluminense).

Form: Porto won at the weekend to extend their unbeaten run to 23 matches in all competitions dating back to the start of October and a 3-1 Champions' League defeat at home to Real Madrid. They are now seven points clear at the top of the Portuguese league.

Tournament odds: 50-1.

European Cup/Champions' League best: Winners twice (1968, 1999).

Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson.

Current League position: 2nd.

Transfer window signings: Louis Saha (£12.8m from Fulham).

Form: United have taken only eight points from their last six Premiership games which tells its own story, as do 10 goals conceded in the last five of those games. Frail at the back and looking less than fluid going forward, a renaissance could not arrive at a better time.

Tournament odds: 7-1.

DEPORTIVO LA CORUNA v JUVENTUS

European Cup/Champions' League best: Quarter-finals (2001, 2002).

Manager: Javier Irureta.

Current League position: 3rd.

Transfer window signings: None.

Form: Deportivo La Coruña missed a good chance to put pressure on the top two in Spain when they were held to a goalless draw at Atletico Madrid on Saturday. They are now six points off the pace in third. Four wins in five prior to that were encouraging, as is the seven-point advantage over fourth-placed Barcelona.

Tournament odds: 25-1.

European Cup/Champions' League best: Winners twice (1985, 1996).

Manager: Marcello Lippi.

Current League position: 3rd.

Transfer window signings: None.

Form: It was an unconvincing win, but the weekend's 1-0 victory over Bologna, secured by Mark Iuliano's goal in the second half, kept Juventus in touch with the Serie A leaders Milan. The gap is six points between Juve and Milan, with Roma (the only club to beat Juventus in their last 16 games) in between.

Tournament odds: 7-1.

VfB STUTTGART v CHELSEA

European Cup/Champions' League best: Last 16 (2004).

Manager: Felix Magath.

Current League position: 3rd.

Transfer window signings: Boris Zivkovic (free from Portsmouth); Dmitrijus Guscinas (on loan from Osnabrück).

Form: A 1-0 defeat at Kaiserslautern left Stuttgart nine points off the pace in the Bundesliga behind Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich. Their stuttering form is highlighted by one win in 10 games in all competitions since beating Rangers in the group stages in November.

Tournament odds: 33-1.

European Cup/Champions' League best: Quarter-finals (2000).

Manager: Claudio Ranieri.

Current League position: 3rd.

Transfer window signings: Scott Parker (£10m from Charlton).

Form: Not the form you would want if you had spent £121m on players. Saturday's Premiership defeat by Arsenal, the season's third home League loss, followed their FA Cup defeat. Now Chelsea have only this trophy to aim for. They beat Stuttgart to win 1998 Cup-Winners' Cup.

Tournament odds: 8-1.

REAL SOCIEDAD v LYON

European Cup/Champions' League best: Semi-finalists (1983).

Manager: Raynald Denoueix.

Current League position: 11th.

Transfer window signings: None.

Form: Sociedad lie 13th in La Liga, five points from the relegation zone and 25 points behind the leaders Real Madrid. They lost 1-0 against Seville at the weekend, their 10th League defeat of the season. Sporadically superb - they have recently beaten Celta Vigo 5-3 away and Real Madrid 1-0 - they lack any consistency.

Tournament odds: 40-1.

European Cup/Champions' League best: Last 16 (2004).

Manager: Paul Le Guen.

Current League position: 2nd.

Transfer window signings: None.

Form: Lyon won 2-0 at home against Le Mans at the weekend to stay second in the French league, four points behind Monaco, the only side to have beaten them in their last 14 games. Sidney Govou is their man in form, scoring at the weekend after netting for France last week against Belgium.

Tournament odds: 33-1.

Comments