Mourinho's master plan is no illusion

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The Independent Football

One of the reasons for hoarding football programmes is the fascination of revisiting them with hindsight; and not just for the confident manager's notes about a "must-win game" before another demoralising home defeat.

Take the matchday magazine for Barcelona's last visit to Stamford Bridge, in April 2000. Here, spookily, are no fewer than two photographs of Sven Goran Eriksson, then with Lazio, "a man once invited to come to Chelsea"; pen pictures among the visitors of Winston Bogarde, who would become history's most costly reserve, and Boudewijn Zenden; and, next to Luis van Gaal in the team photograph, an assistant coach with jet-black hair looking young enough to be one of the players. If we had known then what we know now...

Almost five years on, Jose Mourinho has emerged as a manager of such influence that even Champions' League pairings conform to his Great Plan. "Barcelona, senhor? Certainly. And Milan next, or would we rather keep them for the final?" Be careful what you wish for. Self-confident as ever, he wanted a test against the best and has now been granted it.

The draw is a thrilling but lopsided one, in which eight of the nine most fancied teams have been thrown together: Chelsea, who had been 9-2 favourites, against Barcelona (11-2), Milan (11-2) against Manchester United (9-1), Juventus (15-2) against Real Madrid (11-1) and Arsenal (7-1) against Bayern Munich (20-1). The exception, and therefore the greatest beneficiaries, are Internazionale, whose tie against Porto, holders but rank outsiders, offers the easiest stepping stone to the last eight.

Not that it will be a formality for the Milanese side, who have Serie A's leading scorer in the mercurial Brazilian Adriano (coveted, naturally, by Real Madrid) but, uniquely, have won more games in the Champions' League this season than in their domestic competition, where their extraordinary record is three wins and 12 draws from 15 high-scoring matches.

Inter's traditional rivals, Milan and Juventus, have taken a stranglehold on the Italian league by more normal methods - like conceding far fewer goals - so their ties against Manchester United and Real Madrid respectively promise to be familiar cultural clashes.

United's claims that their previous meetings with Milan were too long ago to be of any significance ignore that cultural dimension, reflected in distant memories of black-and-white days. In the semi-finals of 1958 and 1969, United teams battered the defensively minded visitors without securing more than a one-goal win (Carlo Cudicini's father barring their way in Milan's goal on the latter occasion) and were outplayed in the San Siro. The odds-makers foresee a similar outcome and now have Milan as favourites to win the competition, which they last did two seasons ago when beating Juventus on penalties at Old Trafford.

Juve's tie has a similar feel to it, as their previous meetings against Real have done. Each time Madrid have taken only a single-goal advantage from their home leg, then lost in Turin - most recently, the season before last, by 3-1, with Zinedine Zidane not snatching a consolation goal until the final minute.

Bearing in mind that much can happen between now and late February, it is still possible to see a distinct Anglo-Italian flavour to the quarter- finals, with as many as six of the eight survivors from those countries. What Liverpool's Rafael Benitez is hoping for is a return to form and fitness of a striker or two, allied to the signing of at least one new one. Even so, Bayer Leverkusen should not be under-estimated on the basis of lying "only" eighth in the Bundesliga. Their league record is virtually identical to Liverpool's and in winning their Champions' League group they took four points each from Real and Roma, and drubbed Dynamo Kiev 3-0.

Bayern Munich may be top as usual in Germany but, for all the talent of Michael Ballack and scoring ability of Roy Makaay, do not look a vintage side. Arsenal, unlike Liverpool, have the advantage of playing their second leg at home and know that, as Arsène Wenger put it, "at least four big teams will go out at this stage".

Bayern, United and Juventus were the heavy fallers in the first knock-out round last season, before Arsenal, Real Madrid and Milan took unexpected tumbles in the quarter-finals. That should have opened things up for Chelsea, but instead it was Porto who kept their nerve best, keeping three successive clean sheets when it mattered most.

Those three games alone ensured that whatever happens at the Nou Camp and Stamford Bridge next spring, Mourinho will never again be an anonymous figure in a team photograph.

Latest odds (William Hill): 11-2 Milan, 13-2 Barcelona and Chelsea, 15-2 Arsenal, 8 Juventus, 11 Manchester Utd and Internazionale, 12 Real Madrid.

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