Rae's Say: Jam-packed European action

February 29, 2008
By Derek Rae
(Archive)

With the second leg matches in the UEFA Champions League's round of 16 fast approaching, I'm curious as to what you thought about the first legs. Did you find them sufficiently gripping? Were you bowled over by the quality of football?

My own answers would be 'yes' to the first question, and 'at times' to the second. Come on now: we can't expect every one of these midweek football feasts to have an extra layer of jam on top.

GettyImages / LluisGeneBarca's Samuel Eto'o bows before the talent of Leo Messi.

The fact is, seven of the eight ties could conceivably go either way, with only Barcelona appearing to be as good as through to the quarter-finals. Barca were at their dizzying best at Celtic Park and should, in fact, have prevailed far more comfortably than 3-2. No wonder Celtic manager Gordon Strachan views the Catalans as favourites to be crowned European club champions. In terms of pure ability, there is no better side in the competition.

Their rivals for the Spanish League title, Real Madrid, will face a far more challenging second leg, after letting Roma off the hook in the eternal city. That the game finished 2-1 to the Italian side, says much about Real Madrid's inability to kill off their opponents while leading early on in the game.

Francesco Totti brought his considerable influence to bear and the supremely gifted Roma captain must surely have another massive European night, if the Spanish champions are to be eliminated.

Real Madrid are starting to look vulnerable. Their defeat last week at the hands of Getafe was Los Merengues' first at home in La Liga or the Champions League this season. Still, despite one or two reservations, I still think Bernd Schuster's men will edge it.

The third Spanish side left are Sevilla, the neutral's choice. I must confess to feeling truly pampered whenever commentary commitments entail covering the attack-minded Andalucians. It was no surprise that their initial match against Fenerbahce in Istanbul was the most entertaining of all the first legs. Why? Because both teams share the same penchant for stylish, open football. Perhaps it was no coincidence that eight of the starting 22 at the Sukru Saracoglu Stadium were Brazilian by birth. Look for Sevilla, the UEFA Cup winners in 2006 and 2007, to overturn the 3-2 deficit.

The four remaining English standard bearers are all in with at least a fighting chance of reaching the quarter-finals.

Manchester United will rightly believe themselves to be in the driving seat going into part two against French champions Olympique Lyonnais, on the heels of a 1-1 draw in France. Lyon, seeking their seventh Ligue 1 title on the bounce, are in a tighter than expected domestic race with Bordeaux. It's hard to see past United at Old Trafford, but if they have even a sniff of an off-night, the precocious Karim Benzema will be waiting to punish them.

Arsenal face a much more arduous task. They travel to the San Siro, for what should be another riveting meeting with club world champions, AC Milan.

Arsene Wenger's youngsters carried the first leg to the urbane rossoneri. Yet Milan proved that defending can be first-rate, without ever being cynical. The closest they came to conceding was deep in stoppage time when Emmanuel Adebayor's header clipped the crossbar upon receipt of the night's best delivery from substitute Theo Walcott. With Adebayor's striking partner Eduardo da Silva now ruled out for possibly the remainder of the calendar year, Wenger will ask Alexander Hleb and Cesc Fabregas to push up in support of Adebayor. If Arsenal score in Milan, I see them going through, although getting that away goal will be the difficult part of the equation.

At Stamford Bridge, Chelsea, still reeling from their Carling Cup final defeat should nevertheless be too strong for Greek champions Olympiacos, but 0-0 is always a dangerous score for the home team in the second leg. There's that uneasy feeling that you're just one slip-up, or one brilliantly executed set-piece (an Olympiacos strength) from elimination. The absence of injured playmaker Luciano Galletti won't help the visitors. Avram Grant's selection policy is coming under ever greater scrutiny, and surely the Chelsea boss can ill-afford to leave out the on-song Michael Ballack.

The last of this week's games will see German side Schalke try to defend a 1-0 lead away to Porto. My instinct tells me this tie has extra time written all over it. Still, Schalke, if Kevin Kuranyi is at his striking best, have enough quality in their ranks, to spring what would be a minor Champions League surprise.

Oh, and don't forget we then have a whole week to look forward to the return leg of the Inter v Liverpool tie.

Perhaps I was wrong to question the whereabouts of that extra layer of jam!


Here's a quick synopsis of what we're covering on ESPN in the week ahead.

On Tuesday we'll have live coverage of AC Milan v Arsenal on ESPN2 for our US viewers, and also in many parts of the world on the normal ESPN channel. Tommy Smyth will join me in the commentary box for that game, then again on Wednesday when we'll bring you Chelsea v Olympiacos from Stamford Bridge.

The ESPN Classic matches on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively, will be Barcelona v Celtic, and Real Madrid v Roma. Viewers should consult local guides, or ESPNSoccernet.com, to find out about transmission times in your part of the world.

Finally, don't forget to join me for the one-hour Champions League analysis programme on ESPN2 on Friday, starting at 2pm ET. Again, those of you in other parts of the world, stay close to this site for information.


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