The warning comes after your correspondent suddenly came over all Mystic Meg-like while watching the Chelsea-Inter Milan game on the box the other night. When Samuel Eto’o unexpectedly rediscovered his scoring mojo with 11 minutes left at Stamford Bridge, my better half looked up from her book and asked what this meant in terms of the overall balance of the tie. “Well, Chelsea have to score twice,” I explained, “but that isn’t going to happen. Wait’ll you see — Inter players will start rolling around on the ground, Chelsea will get increasingly frustrated and I’ll bet you anything that Didier Drogba gets sent off before the end of the game.”
Minutes later, Droggers was duly being shown his red card and my better half was regarding me with a look which I’d like to think was born of deep-seated wonder and respect but which I have to suspect was really saying: “Pity he couldn’t use his superpowers to do something useful — like the Lotto numbers.”
Of course, I didn’t want to ruin the illusion by mentioning that Mr Drogba had a bit of previous in this regard. Just as, now that I’m about to offer some cast-iron predictions for this year’s road to Madrid, I don’t think it serves any real purpose to remind readers that I’m the guy who tipped Liverpool for the Premiership this season.
But before all that, let’s spare a final thought for Chelsea who were denied the ultimate triumph by the woodwork in 2008, gave Barcelona much more of a game than finalists Man United managed in 2009 and have now seen their European dream turn to ashes at an even earlier stage, with The Special One coming back to haunt them at the Bridge. Then again, when you go through gaffers like they do in west London, sympathy will always be in short supply.
You’d like to think it’s no surprise that, in this era of expendable managers, England’s two remaining clubs in Europe’s premier competition are in the charge of the Premiership’s two longest-serving bosses. But, though the draw permits it, you’d have to think it’s unlikely that Fergie and Wenger will end up going head to head in the Bernabeu on May 22nd.
That’s mainly because it’s hard to see Arsenal getting the better of Barcelona in what should nevertheless be a mouth-watering quarter-final. It’s a truism that, in terms of their entirely admirable commitment to the ethos of the beautiful game, the Gunners are England’s answer to the Catalans, albeit with one big difference: Barcelona tend to win everything and Arsenal tend to win nothing. Actually, there’s the other big difference as well: Barca have Lionel Messi and Arsenal don’t.
Still, it should be a humdinger of a contest although, even as we all relish the prospect, I’m reminded that I was in the Stade de France four years ago when the same two teams met in a hugely anticipated final, only for the early sending off of Jens Lehmann to fatally undermine the ensuing contest. Thierry Henry ended up on the losing side that night as Barca came out on top 2-1 but I fully expect Ireland’s favourite Frenchman to enjoy the better of things at the expense of his old club this time around.
If Arsenal vs Barca is shaping up like a night out at the ballet, Manchester United vs Bayern Munich looks more like a collision of juggernauts, the clash of traditional European superpowers lent added lustre by the memory of United’s astonishing smash and grab victory in the final at the Camp Nou eleven years ago. The current Bayern’s fighting spirit was exemplified in that pulsating second leg against Fiorentina which saw the Germans lose 3-2 in the Artemio Franchi Stadium but progress via the away goal on an aggregate score of 4-4. And what a goal it was, the revitalised Arjen Robben smashing one in from 30 yards. The so-called Robbery effect — the dual wing threat of Robben and Franck Ribery — means Bayern are always likely to score but, with a notably shaky defence at the other end, Wayne Rooney could end up making hay in his current form. I have a hunch for Bayern in this one but logic says United should progress.
Elsewhere, there’s little to choose between Lyon and Bordeaux in the all-French clash, though the former’s dismissal of Real Madrid is the kind of confidence-booster which could give them the vital edge against Laurent Blanc’s team. Surprise packages CSKA Moscow, having eliminated Sevilla, won’t be underestimated by Inter but, assuming they get to grips with the Russians’ artificial surface, Jose Mourinho’s side can be expected to fly the Italian flag in the semi-final stage.
If all this comes to pass, the semi-finals would see United v Lyon and Barca v Inter and, from there, it’s hardly a great leap of faith to envisage Madrid hosting a repeat of last year’s final in Rome — and, indeed, the same outcome too.
Or perhaps not. As in politics, so in football — there’s no accounting for events, dear boy. Factor in imponderables like a bad night at the office, a dodgy referee or injuries to such as Messi and/or Rooney, and you might as well throw all your carefully-honed predictions in the circular filing cabinet.
I mean, at the beginning of the season who would have thought that the Champions League’s poor relation — the Europa League — would end up being both a lifeline for Liverpool and a path to unprecedented glory for Fulham? Like I say, not all things are as easy to forecast as Droggers losing the plot.