Rae's say: Forgone conclusions?
Twelve months ago, we had it all worked out. Favourites and underdogs were equally easy to identify before three of the four UEFA Champions League quarter-final ties.
Chelsea surely wouldn't as much as lay a finger on the Arsenal untouchables, while AC Milan appeared far too sophisticated for an ageing, cumbersome Deportivo.
Real Madrid lose to Monaco? Are you having a laugh? That left the meeting of French champions Lyon and their Portuguese counterparts, FC Porto, as the tie in which parity might prevail.
Oh, how wrong we were last season. The spring of 2004 saw conventional Champions League wisdom turned upside down.
If anyone correctly backed Chelsea, Deportivo and Monaco, with their local turf accountant, they're very likely reading this with JP McManus and Dermot Desmond on a beach in Barbados.
Last season's quarter-final action was gripping in the extreme. Who can forget Wayne Bridge's late winner at Highbury, ending Chelsea's run of seventeen matches without a win against the Gunners? Or Deportivo's economical destruction of the rossoneri? Or indeed Real Madrid's horrific collapse at the hands of the resourceful Monegasques?
Of course, while all this was going on, Porto were quietly but emphatically overcoming their French opponents.
Based on last season's unpredictability at this very stage of the competition, we are probably well-advised to hesitate before getting overly voluble about who should and shouldn't emerge victorious.
Still, it's hard not to make the case for Juventus, AC Milan and Lyon this time around. Chelsea's two-legged meeting with Bayern Munich is the one tie that at first glance, appears to have extra time written all over it.
There's a steely quality to the Bavarians this term under the aegis of Felix Magath; such resolve was missing at the end of Ottmar Hitzfeld's time in charge. Magath's fitness programmes are legendary, but no one can argue about their effectiveness.
Never for any significant period during their two matches against Arsenal in the first knockout round, did Bayern Munich look uncomfortable.
Chelsea will surely require a lead of some description to carry with them to the obsolete Olympiastadion, although one can't really imagine their cause being aided by kamikaze defending from the opposition, along the lines of Barcelona.
Chelsea's width in attack will be crucial with Joe Cole and Damien Duff asked to put Willy Sagnol and Bixente Lizarazu under constant pressure. Frank Lampard faces the difficult task of trying to cancel out Michael Ballack in the centre of midfield. Yet set-pieces, an area of the game in which both sides excel, might well turn out to be decisive.
|“||I believe Milan are stronger, not in every position, but certainly in most, a fact only accentuated by Adriano's injury. ”|
Inter can perhaps take inspiration from Chelsea: the old Chelsea, managed by Claudio Ranieri! The build-up to the forthcoming Milan derby meetings, is uncannily reminiscent of the pre-match talk ahead of Arsenal v Chelsea at this corresponding stage last season.
Like Arsenal then, AC Milan now, have the Indian sign over their city rivals. Inter haven't beaten them in a Serie A fixture for three years, and lost out to Milan on away goals in the Champions League semi-final in 2003.
But just who is Inter's answer to Wayne Bridge? More to the point, are the players in Roberto Mancini's squad even equipped to win this tug of war?
My difficulties with Inter are twofold. For starters, I find it impossible to name their best team (again shades of the Tinkerman here), and that's not something that can be said of Milan.
Secondly, I believe Milan are stronger, not in every position, but certainly in most, a fact only accentuated by Adriano's injury.
As much progress as the nerazzuri have made this season, they're still some distance short of the standards set by Milan and Juventus. But of course, we said the same of Arsenal in comparison to Chelsea twelve months ago. Inter supporters, there is hope!
Neutrals have rallied around Olympique Lyonnais this season, attracted by their commitment to skilful, attacking football. There's nothing fortuitous about the progress made by Paul LeGuen's technically gifted side.
Well on course for their fourth consecutive French championship, Lyon fans must feel the magic, pace and all-round daring of Juninho and Govou; Essien and Malouda will give them the edge over PSV.
That the Eindhoven side are regarded by many as the weakest team left in the competition will bother manager Guus Hiddink not one iota.
Hiddink's cosmopolitan blend of experience and lively youth has taken PSV beyond anyone's wildest expectations. One suspects the quarter-finals will represent the point of departure for the Eredivisie leaders.
You might have noticed I've kept Liverpool v Juventus until the end: the first meeting of the two clubs since one of football's blackest nights. Heysel, and its thirty nine deaths, caused all football lovers to stop and think.
At the time of writing, it's not clear how Liverpool FC will pause to reflect on that ill-fated 1985 European Cup Final, but we can be certain it will be tasteful.
Relations between the two clubs are close, and frankly it's time these two integral characters in the modern story of European football lined up against each other again.
Viewers in the USA can join our live international coverage from Anfield via ESPN2 on Tuesday.
Make no mistake, Liverpool are up against it. With Didi Hamann definitely ruled out of both games due to a knee injury, a huge responsibility will fall on the shoulders of skipper and Scouser, Steven Gerrard.
A cautious approach is probable from Liverpool, but Juventus are not known for throwing caution to the wind themselves.
Still, if the Old Lady is as ordinary as she was in the first leg against Real Madrid in the last round, Milan Baros and Luis Garcia will get more than the odd chance to construct a platform with the second leg in mind.
A fascinating Champions League week awaits.