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Nov 19, 2012

Beware the ghosts of Champions League past

This week, there are a lot of ghosts of seasons past for Spanish clubs and Spaniards in the Champions League.

Perhaps the most distressing phantom is for Valencia's manager Mauricio Pellegrino, given Bayern Munich's visit to the Mestalla. Los Che played its second consecutive Champions League final in 2001 having qualified but failed to "turn up" at its first the year before.

Real Madrid, managed by Vicente del Bosque, found lifting the cup in Paris to be like taking candy from a baby in 2000 -- Pellegrino was helpless as Raul, Morientes and Steve McManaman helped themselves to unanswered goals. Valencia played like wraiths.

So the following year in Milan there was one hell of a tussle, but after a 1-1 draw with two penalties, it went to a spot-kick shootout, and who missed the decisive penalty to give Bayern the trophy 5-4? Yes: poor old Pellegrino.

It's much easier to be wise after the event, but what looked like disaster (sporting, at least) for the club -- failures to attach themselves to Valencia's ankles for time immemorial -- actually catalyzed the glory years. Hector Cuper left, Rafa Benitez began to exert a steely grip on La Liga, and another European trophy, the UEFA Cup, was won in 2004 against Didier Drogba's Marseille.

If Pellegrino feels and hears the ghosts of Oliver Kahn (who saved his penalty), Stefan Effenberg and Mehmet Scholl, he'd do well to pay attention to the fact that Jupp Heynckes' current side can destroy you if Claudio Pizarro, Thomas Muller, Mario Mandzukic and Franck Ribery are allowed to get their claws out.

The Mestalla will bay for revenge, and given the steep concrete parapets that tower over the pitch, it may feel like the gods themselves are calling out for Bavarian humiliation. They may need to shout very loud because it's a daunting task.

Munich also brings with it another man who could be forgiven if he takes a brief "what if?" moment of his own. Javi Martinez is returning to his homeland for the first time since insisting on leaving Athletic Bilbao. Eyes will be on whatever performance he's allowed to give.

But it was here in Valencia that his first senior trophy went south -- one-nil up wasn't good enough against the FC Barcelona of Pep Guardiola's first season, and Martinez's Athletic Club was shredded.

He won't forget. Footballers like him use that for fuel.

Perhaps a similar sensation accompanied Gerard Pique when he trotted out onto the Luzhniki Stadium's artificial turf in Moscow, Russia's sub-zero capital. The 25-year-old Catalan defender, who's going to be the father of Shakira's baby early in 2013, was still a wannabe with Manchester United when the club qualified (at the expense of FC Barcelona, oddly enough) for the 2008 Champions League final in Moscow. By that stage even the perpetually confident and optimistic Pique knew it would take a major outbreak of something pretty potent before he pulled on United's red strip against Chelsea for what became an epic final.

Negotiations for him to join Barca were already significantly advanced and Sir Alex Ferguson had made it clear that he felt Pique's mind might not fully be on his current work. A wrong assumption if you really know this fella, but to be fair, SAF hasn't made too many erroneous assumptions in his managerial career.

Of course it was an error for United to sell Pique, but not one that Sir Alex failed to spot in advance. He tried extremely hard to persuade the talented kid to stay (despite Carlos Queiroz advising the sale) and when Pique wouldn't listen, the Scot gave him a glowing personal letter predicting future success and his own regrets at a real character slipping through United's hands.

This week there was no room for sentiment for Pique either. He's not fully match-sharp, having just returned from injury, and Barcelona is shipping in more goals than it has for a decade. Before what became yet another Messi-inspired triumph, they had conceded five times in this competition while in their last three Champions league wins, 2006, 2009 and 2011, they'd only conceded once or three times on each occasion. In fact in 2006 they only dropped five goals the whole tournament.once or three times on each occasion.

After the seismic defeat to Celtic, it was showtime and just like United back in 2008, they showed up.

Then, of course, there are the returns of Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho to the city of Manchester.

Roberto Mancini's English champion squad is in a parlous state -- it probably won't escape the group for the second consecutive season. But Manchester City is a damn sight healthier than when Ronaldo played for United. Notwithstanding that fact, in the eleven Red-Blue derbies in which the Portuguese played, he won seven, lost three and was sent off twice.

Fireworks this time?

As for Mourinho, it was away to Manchester City that the "Special" One suffered his first defeat as Chelsea manager back in October 2004. Ghosts, ghosts.

Of course Alvaro Arbeloa, Xabi Alonso, Michael Essien, Ricardo Carvalho and Luka Modric all jousted with Manchester City during their time in England, while Javi Garcia, now at City, is just one more product of La Fabrica -- Madrid's youth development academy/selling factory. However it's the Molotov mix of past and future that is the most heady. No matter what face they put on it, Mourinho and Mancini don't like each other. Jaunty Jose's Porto hammered Mancini's Lazio 4-1 in the 2003 UEFA Cup semifinal en route to defeating Celtic in Sevilla. It was a bitter humiliation for the Romans and in due course helped as part of the CV that Mourinho could show in order to replace Mancini as Inter Milan coach in 2008.

The pair sniped at each other, with Mourinho publically stating that a portion of the players Mancini left behind were "not good enough" for Inter. The premise was perhaps proved when the Special One was allowed transfer market control in the summer of 2009 and promptly won the treble the following season.

"The two men don’t have anything in common," says Andrea Mancini, son of the City coach. "My father played top-class football for 20 years and you can see the benefits of that. He has huge experience and he knows more about football than Mourinho. Mourinho's more of a psychologist, a motivator."

Nevertheless the ghosts of football future may have Mourinho replacing Mancini once again and -- who knows? -- taking Ronaldo with him.

I was warned by a trusted source several weeks ago that City (admittedly along with PSG) have turned their minds to testing Ronaldo's resolve to stay at the Bernabeu. The striker could definitely be happier, mostly for reasons covered often in this column. Whether you accept his mentality or not, it's a fact that Ronaldo would appreciate different treatment and different levels of support from his club -- the type of all-embracing care he thinks he sees Lionel Messi receiving at Barcelona.

Now, one way or another he's fully aware that there are other clubs at which he'd earn better money than he currently does with the Spanish champions. He told France Football recently: "It's just the way it is. I don't moan about it. We all get what we deserve in life. I am not really interested even in knowing whether I'm one of the best or the worst paid players in the world. I don't play for the money but because of my passion for this game, for my love of the jersey I wear. If I was in it for the money, I'd definitely be with another club." And that club would be City. As for Mourinho -- well, he’s a proven winner. This will be the first time he's re-introduced to two of the men who were tempted to appoint the Special One as Barca coach back in late 2008. (Only one of them was at City on Matchday 1.)

His agent Jorge Mendes had pushed and pestered Ferran Soriano (then a vice president at the Camp Nou) and Txiki Begiristain (then football director) to interview and then appoint Mourinho as Frank Rijkaard's successor. Begiristain interviewed Mourinho in Lisbon and told me that he came away quite clear that the Portuguese would return trophies, hard work and a 4-3-3 playing style to the Camp Nou -- but might not be worth the constant "fire fighting" caused by his provocative media management.

Now reunited as football director and chief executive at Man City, Begiristain and Soriano may have their eyes on Guardiola, but he has suitors galore -- Chelsea, Milan, Bayern Munich and, hypothetically, Manchester United should Sir Alex decide to retire (I know, I know).

The prospect of Mourinho and Ronaldo being seduced by the lure of petrodollars and writing a new chapter of history at Manchester City -- where knocking United off their perch and winning the Champions League are now "AAA" priorities -- is far from impossible.

Soriano and Begiristain sanctioned the Barca interview with Mourinho and were impressed. Plus they tried extremely hard to sign Ronaldo from United for Barcelona in order to thwart Real Madrid.

If, and it will be no easy task, the Spanish champions come to Manchester City's glamorous, atmospheric home and put it out of its Champions League misery, then Mancini's days are not only numbered, they're counting down like Cape Canaveral. The Italian would have to head to Houston to get away from his problems.

How soon that scenario would lead to Mourinho being offered a reason to break his Real Madrid contract is the subject of your and my best guess, particularly if Guardiola remains in the frame. But amidst the guts and the glory at the Etihad Stadium, I'm sure you'll be able to see the ghosts of football future while the ghosts of football past are troubling other Spaniards and Spanish clubs around Europe this week.