Forget Christmas, yesterday's Champions' League draw made many football fans think only of February and a spine-tingling brace of Anglo-Spanish heavyweight collisions. Opening the bill in the Champions' League knock-out stage on 21 February will be the first ever visit by Arsenal to Real Madrid. The following night, at Stamford Bridge, comes the rematch between Chelsea and Barcelona.
This fixture, between the two nations' champions, reprises their incendiary tie at the same stage of last season's competition. That led to a Uefa inquiry, death threats, the retirement of the referee, Anders Frisk, and Jose Mourinho being charged with disrepute and branded the "enemy of football" - before finally threatening to quit Stamford Bridge. The football was not bad either.
The pairing of Real and Arsenal pits the London club against the nine-time winners who seek to poach their manager, Arsène Wenger, their talismanic striker, Thierry Henry, and already believe they will secure left-back Ashley Cole. As a sub-plot the Highbury leg will mark a first return to England in club competition for David Beckham.
Continuing the Iberian flavour Liverpool, the holders, were paired with Benfica, of Portugal, Manchester United's conquerors. In addition Rangers, in their first foray past the group stages in the competition, meet the other club to qualify from United's group, the comparatively small but highly dangerous Spanish club Villarreal.
"Pure show business," said the Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein of his club's fate but - along with Milan drawing Bayern Munich - it was nevertheless relegated to a support act by the first two names picked from the plastic bowls shortly after 11am at the headquarters of Uefa in Nyon, Switzerland.
It appeared fated. Indeed, the Chelsea chief executive Peter Kenyon pointed out the clubs had been paired in the rehearsal. "I didn't think lightning would strike twice," he said. "But at this stage you expect to get a big team and we have got one. At the moment they are as hot as we are in the UK."
With 16 goals already in Europe this season, and a sense of wonderment about their play, Barcelona are hotter. Indeed, Kenyon's fixed smile betrayed his apprehension especially as, with the second leg at the Nou Camp where Chelsea have lost four times before, Mourinho's blasé claim that he did not care if they came first or second in the group stages, so avoiding the possibility of meeting Barça, will now be severely tested.
Liverpool, of course, topped Chelsea's group and their club secretary, Bryce Morrison, said pointedly that the draw "shows the importance of winning the group". Chelsea will also have to complete the tie without Michael Essien, with his two-game ban for his challenge on Liverpool's Dietmar Hamann another legacy of that recent goalless draw.
It was the memory of Chelsea's previous tie with Barcelona that was debated yesterday, especially with Mourinho's unfounded accusation that Frisk had been influenced following an alleged half-time visit by the Catalans' coach Frank Rijkaard. It should not be forgotten that Chelsea won the tie 5-4 on aggregate. But even their epic victory, in the face of an unforgettable cameo by Ronaldinho, was tainted by rows and a contested winner. "We want to put that behind us now," Kenyon said. "We want to look forward. We had two fantastic games against them last year. Memorable."
Mourinho declined to speak to the media yesterday, although Rijkaard took a conciliatory approach. "Revenge is not the correct word," he said of the draw.
"The past is not important - all that is necessary is that we win this time." Barcelona officials, led by the director of sport Txiki Berguirstain, who also hold an interest in signing Chelsea players such as Arjen Robben and Frank Lampard, believe the crucial difference is that the second leg is in Spain.
In that respect Arsenal - who play at Highbury in the return fixture - hold the advantage over Real Madrid but, as with Chelsea, they have not been rated as favourites to go through, despite the continued chaos at the Bernabeu. Wenger called it a contest between two clubs with "an attacking philosophy.
"It's a difficult draw but makeable," the Arsenal manager added. "It's Real Madrid and they have some of the best players in the world, so it will always be a difficult game. If the ball gets to Ronaldo, Robinho or [Zinedine] Zidane, you can never relax completely as you know they can always do something special." Beckham, too, Wenger believes, is " back to good form".
Nevertheless, Real have shown plenty of interest in Wenger's players in the past - signing Nicolas Anelka and trying for several seasons to acquire Patrick Vieira, while Thierry Henry, although more likely to go to Barça, is also often linked.
"We've always had big players and they've always wanted them," Wenger said. So will anyone leave? "I can only speak for myself, as I know what I want to do and where I am and where I belong. I've repeated that many times."
The Liverpool coach Rafael Benitez said of the pairing with Benfica that he was "pleased to have avoided certain teams, but we will face a tough match. There are only good teams left in the competition at this stage and we could have been paired with Bayern Munich, for example."
Even Liverpool's tie has an intriguing sub-plot as the main January transfer target for Benitez is the Portuguese club's captain Simao Sabrosa.
The sports manager at Benfica, Jose Veiga, claimed yesterday that a transfer may now be unlikely. "We count on Simao despite some clubs having revealed an interest," he said.
Despite that, and with so many heavyweight contests, the competition has suddenly opened up for Liverpool to retain the trophy.
Spanish practices: What lies in store for the British clubs on their Iberian campaigns
* BARCELONA (Spain)
Strengths A devastating attacking unit, usually inspired by the European Footballer of the Year Ronaldinho, who provides the interplay and incisive passes for Samuel Eto'o, a combination that proved to be devastating in a 3-0 demolition of Real Madrid last month. A strong midfield, given its craft by the Portuguese Deco, holds the team together.
Weaknesses Not many. The defence can be vulnerable, but they have conceded the second fewest goals in La Liga this season, though the keeper Victor Valdes is sometimes unconvincing. They did concede four goals at Chelsea last season, most from set pieces, where their lack of aerial power allowed John Terry to dominate.
* REAL MADRID (Spain)
Strengths A glut of superstars who, on their day, can outplay anyone, with one- touch football, backheels, flicks, long shots, dummies and outrageous individual flair. The majority of their goals this year have come from Beckham's crosses, or Ronaldo's opportunism. The young Brazilian Robinho (pictured) has impressed only sporadically.
Weaknesses Brilliant one week but beaten easily the next, the players are not working as a team. Defensively, there are not enough ball winners, or "proper" defenders - Ivan Helguera, a midfielder, has been playing as a makeshift centre-back since 2003. In the stands the fans can quickly become a hindrance.
* BENFICA (Por)
Strengths Benfica play a strong attacking game and this is the prime reason for their success both domestically and in Europe. Their attacking 4-3-2-1 formation effectively has three strikers rather than two. Nuno Gomes often plays as a lone striker, supported by Simao and Fabrizio Miccoli. However, these two support forwards can drop back into midfield creating five across the pitch to provide a barrier for the defence. This allows the team to soak up pressure and counter-attack quickly and incisively.
Weaknesses Benfica are prone to over-committing forward and then poor to respond in dropping back to help defend. Once in position they are hard to break down, but too often this season the team have been slow at reacting to the opposition's counter-attacks, failing to close down and continually being caught out of position. In the Portuguese League 1, they are fifth despite losing only three games, mainly because they have drawn games they ought to have won. The centre-backs Ricardo Rocha and Manuel Dos Santos lead the defence, but are often left exposed by their midfield.
* VILLARREAL (Spain)
Strengths The Argentine defender Gonzalo Rodriguez is key to their resilient back four, which only conceded one goal in the group stages. Going forward, another Argentine, Riquelme, is the man to watch.
Weaknesses Struggle to score - last year's top marksman Diego Forlan has scored just three league goals this season. Riquelme, an enigmatic talent, can go missing, and if he is muzzled the team often struggles.
All fixtures subject to change
First leg: Tuesday 21 February
Bayern Munich (Ger) v Milan (It)
Benfica (Por) v Liverpool
Real Madrid (Sp) v Arsenal
PSV Eindhoven (Neth) v Lyon (Fr)
Wednesday 22 February
Chelsea v Barcelona (Sp)
Rangers v Villarreal (Sp)
Werder Bremen (Ger) v Juventus (It)
Ajax (Neth) v Internazionale (It)
Second Leg: Tuesday 7 March
Barcelona v Chelsea
Villarreal v Rangers
Juventus v Werder Bremen
Wednesday 8 March
Milan v Bayern Munich
Liverpool v Benfica
Arsenal v Real Madrid
Lyon v PSV Eindhoven
Tuesday 14 March
Internazionale v AjaxReuse content