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We Are the Champions

by Rick Deere |  Published: Mar 01, 2008

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An Inter-esting Choice
The way the tabloids keep churning out quotes from sources and friends around Anfield, it's hard to imagine Rafael Benitez will still be in charge of Liverpool when this article is finished, let alone when it's published. Ignoring the gossip mongering, and assuming the Spaniard will make it to the end of the season, what happens beyond then depends on what the team does out on the pitch in the meantime.

In Inter Milan, Liverpool probably has the ideal opponent from the five on offer; it could have drawn any one from Inter Milan, AC Milan, or Seville. Historically, the Nerazzuri are a well-organised defensive outfit, and the current team is no different. It's running away with Serie A, not with expansive, attractive football, but by being very difficult to beat.

Inter Milan did lose in the opening Champions League group game in Turkey, but otherwise cruised through to the knockout stage. They're scoring plenty of goals, if not an eye-catching amount, and more importantly, they're conceding very few.
Samuel Walter marshals an experienced backline, in front of a decent goalkeeper, which is well protected by a compact midfield. Fernando Torres is tough to defend against, and his pace and movement will create openings, and Liverpool fans will be hoping he doesn't have one of those games in which he misses hordes of chances. Who is likely to partner "El Nino" will be a mystery up until kickoff. Peter Crouch has more to offer with his height and good touch than either of the limited Kuyt and Voronin, and he's a better finisher, too. His height will cause problems if good balls can be put into the box, a common failing of Liverpool's attacks.

Steven Gerrard breaking through the centre will be a source of concern for Roberto Mancini, but a deep-lying Cambiasso will counteract that threat. For Liverpool's all-or-nothing captain, this could be a nothing game. Cambiasso may not have had his first-choice partner alongside him, but Vieira's absence hasn't been noticed on the results sheet.

Maxwell and Dacourt are similarly defence minded, while Figo offers width, but with less effect than of old. With either Alonso or Mascherano, perhaps both, in midfield, Liverpool is unlikely to be going all out, foretelling a close, hard-fought battle with few chances - just how the Merseysiders like it.

Whoever plays in front of Reina will offer height and defensive solidity. Agger's return will be much welcomed. Hyypia in particular will struggle with the clever running of Hernan Crespo. Cruz and Ibrahimovic are the types of players Carragher and Agger can contain with relative ease, so there are no obvious problems for Liverpool to worry about. Even if they progress past Liverpool, Inter Milan won't win this competition. They lack the magic needed to become the best in Europe, they lack the adventure to make the impossible happen. Liverpool, on the other hand, has some of that magic, and as heart-breakingly inconsistent as it is, in Europe, it just needs to get its timing right. With Liverpool, you just never know.

The Blues Could Be Lifting
Injury problems, players buggering off to the African Cup of Nations in Ghana, and even suspension problems make predicting who will be playing for Chelsea in this game perhaps a little more difficult. Although all players, barring further injuries and suspensions, should be available for the first leg in Greece, the necessity for cover during January and early February means there should be a few new players kicking about Stamford Bridge.

Whether they are simply short-term solutions or big-star signings will be known come kickoff. Chelsea, when it turns it on, is good enough to be in Moscow. Olympiakos isn't, and unless it blags some tickets, it won't be.

The well-worn adage that there are no easy games at this stage of the Champions League holds a little less true in this game. From the best goalkeeper to two of the best centre-backs and perhaps the best left-back in the world, the Blues are as solid as they come. If they are back at full strength, Olympiakos will be relying on luck or a flash of brilliance to gain any advantage. Darko Kovacevic is the Greek side's main threat; he's a strong, tough, battler of a player, and you suspect Carvalho and Terry might be looking forward to meeting this big lump.

Otherwise, they have former Newcastle and Portsmouth striker Lomana LuaLua. Wherever he's been, his back-flip celebrations have always been more impressive than his goals-to-games ratio, and you suspect we won't be seeing his acrobatics in either game, particularly not at Stamford Bridge. Playing the second game at home will make a draw in the first leg a reasonable result for Chelsea, with Avram Grant confident of his side's home form.

Even just a little bit of adventure in the first leg could see Chelsea return home with a comfortable advantage. Little more than a good professional effort from the Londoners is needed to continue on into the quarterfinals. With Drogba back in the side and perhaps a new partner, they'll always be a danger in front of goal. If the Ivorian provides the goals and the calls go their way this time, Grant can deliver what "The Special One" couldn't.

Gunners Still Blazing?
This game will come at a crucial period in Arsenal's season. The big question that has been asked on many occasions throughout the season is not whether the Gunners had the talent to win the major honours, but whether they had the legs.

Wenger's uncanny talent for spotting and developing young players has reaped many rewards. Cesc Fabregas looks like one of the greats, and there are plenty more nipping at his young heels. All of this youthful exuberance must come at a price, though, and it'll be around February when it could start to pay. Expecting Fabregas, Flamini, Da Silva, and others to lose their legs at this point of a hard season could be pure scepticism. Wenger has revolutionised training and diet in English football, so who's to say the Professor won't have them fit enough to last the pace?

The rigours of the Premier League race will be another big factor, and, in reality, success on either front would be a massive achievement; being too ambitious could prove Arsenal's downfall. Wenger may not admit it, but as the cliché of the loser goes, going out early could be a good thing, because it means they can concentrate on going for the league.

AC Milan has a whole different set of problems, the first being its shocking performances in Serie A; at the time of writing, the European champions will need to retain their title and then appeal to the Italian FA for special dispensation if they are to stand any chance of reappearing next season. A near perfect record in the remainder of their domestic games may change that, of course, but they may not have it in them.

That brings us to AC Milan's second major problem - old age. At 25 years old, Kaka and Gilardino are the babies of the team. Maldini and Cafu could, if only biologically, be their fathers. Neither of the really old-timers are sure starters these days, but they are possibilities, and against a side who is ruthless against flagging prey, this will be a concern for Carlo Ancelotti. Even Clarence Seedorf is finally getting as old as we all thought he was five years ago, and though he can still provide a touch quality around the box, AC Milan's biggest attacking weapon is Kaka.

He's officially the best player in the world, and who could argue. Stopping the Brazilian's runs through the middle can prove impossible once he starts to gallop, and Gallas and Toure are going to have to show us every bit of pace they have. Shackle Kaka and you stop AC Milan, keep an eye out for the sneaky Inzaghi, don't give away any free-kicks on the edge of the penalty box, and the Italians are a simple proposition. Wenger knows this, and if he gets his tactics right and the legs hold, there's a big-name scalp on offer for the young Gunners.

Devilishly Devastating
Alex Ferguson looks close to creating yet another great Manchester United team, and as always, they're all attack, attack, attack.

Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, and Giggs (when he's up to it) are capable of breaching any defence, especially one as leaky in Europe as Lyon's. Although still on course for a seventh consecutive Ligue One crown, Alain Perrin is still in the process of losing key players, with Fred possibly bound for Man City, and he is unable to produce a side as dominant as Gerard Houllier.

Queue a string of messages from Liverpool fans to Lyon fans, telling them to start worrying. Perrin does have a more than able replacement for Fred in Karim Benzema. The 20-year-old French striker has been sensational this season, repaying his manager's faith with 15 goals in all competitions. He's one to look out for in the Premier League in the next few seasons, perhaps, but Vidic and Ferdinand have played against better and should keep him and whichever of his goal-shy partners Perrin picks.

Any chance the French team is to have will come either attacking straight through the middle or isolating Wes Brown if he's still playing right-back. Hargreaves will protect the defence, and Scholes, if fit, or Anderson should play further forward, dictating the play and setting up attacks. In France, Ferguson can allow his team to sit back and wait for an opportunity to counterattack at speed. So good are United's attackers and, even with Cris fit, so suspect is Lyon's backline at this level that this tie could be put to bed in France.

No Nou Hope
From this point on, no matter how things end in the Camp Nou, everything is a bonus for Celtic. Gordon Strachan may want to pretend otherwise, but the Scottish champions are punching above their weight. Resilience, pride, and honest effort will only get you so far, and this is the end of the line.

Relying on your home form is enough to squeak you out of the group stages, but come knockout time, you have to do it on foreign soil, too. Frank Rijkaard will be praying that Samuel Eto'o comes home from Ghana unscathed, and the sooner Cameroon gets knocked out, the better. Eto'o may talk too much, but he is a vital part of Barcelona's game plan. With him, Rijkaard has a direct option; he's fast, powerful, and more skillful than he's given credit for, and his threat alone causes defences to drop back, creating space behind the midfield for Ronaldinho and Messi to get on the ball.

No member of Celtic's back four is quick enough to keep up with the striker, and they'll either step back to give themselves a head start or play the offside trap. Get the latter wrong once, and Eto'o can punish them. Celtic will get some chances, though, as Barcelona's defence will gladly offer up a few opportunities, but the Scottish champions are going to have to take whatever they can.

If Barca can even get into third gear, it'll open Celtic up enough times to end the dream for another year. There's also the possibility that Henry will have found some form at long last, but that's just not worth thinking about for Hoop's supporters. Boruc will be the busier of the two goalkeepers and, even with an inspired performance, there may be only so much he can do. A win at home, thanks to Scott McDonald scrambling a dropped catch over the line in the final minute, would a nice memory, but one fears still not enough. It's simply too hard to see Celtic go to the Camp Nou and outplay what is simply a far better team, faults and all.

Eur All That's Left
Of the remaining games, Roma versus Real Madrid looks the most glamorous, but there has been little of the old razzmatazz with Bernd Schuster, and Real Madrid has too often been what they most despise in the Bernabeu - boring! Fabio Capello suffered due to a lack of flair from his side, and there's the very real possibility that winning La Liga and the Champions League may not be enough to save Schuster's job. The customary dodgy defence is tightening up with Cannavaro and Pepe starting to gel, and Real Madrid is a serious threat and worth backing to do the double.

Van Nistlerooy and Raul may be on their last legs, but they have at least one great half of a season left in them. The competition's all-time top goalscorers will be the key to Real's hopes. Roma is a team for punters to avoid in Europe, especially in the knockout stages. Remember how they fell apart against Man United? Totti rarely shines on this stage, and never when it's needed. The Italians will need Real Madrid not to show up to progress.

Porto is unsurprisingly dominating at the domestic level, and qualifying as its group winner gives it a big chance of playing another two games. Schalke has so far failed to replicate the excellent form in the Bundesliga, which nearly saw it lift the title last season. A limited and lightweight German side is well within the capabilities of a talented, if only slightly less lightweight, Porto.

The final game has a certain smack of the UEFA Cup about it; Sevilla, of course, because it won the last two, and Fenerbahce, because that's probably where it should be playing. With Kanoute back from the African Cup of Nations and Fabiano in such good form so far this season, the Spanish side is the dark horse of the competition. It'll be tight, but Seville can be expected to get through this round and maybe even the next one.