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Feb 18, 2008

Rae's Say: That's entertainment

Prepare to be spoilt rotten. The round of sixteen in the UEFA Champions League is upon us, practically guaranteeing edge of the seat theatre.

• Read Derek Rae's Champions League ChatWrap

Of course there's a certain irony in the fact that the competition only really gets pulses racing when the league format of the European autumn and early winter is replaced by two-legged cup action.

The Champions League is generally at its best around now. There is no margin for error, no sneaking through as a result of mediocre football. Plus the cautious play often associated with the semi-finals and final has yet to set in.

The draw for the last sixteen is only partially seeded, thus giving us such gargantuan ties as Liverpool v Inter and Arsenal v AC Milan. For me, these two Anglo-Milanese confrontations represent the pick of what should be a pretty impressive February harvest.

When the teams came out of the hat two months ago, Liverpool looked decided underdogs against the Italian Serie A leaders. It's hard to go against that line of thinking now.

Last season's beaten finalists have had a trying winter, on and off the pitch, and in Inter, they face a complete, fluent side who still haven't tasted defeat in domestic league action this season.

Inter simply ooze quality. Zlatan Ibrahimovich can lay claim to be the most gifted striker in the world and this temperamental, but clinical Swede has the capacity to trouble Liverpool's often capricious defence. Ibrahimovich, Julio Cruz and Esteban Cambiasso are all enjoying exceptional seasons, while 34-year-old Marco Materazzi will represent a considerable impediment to the Merseyside club's attacking ambitions.

Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez usually fancies his chances in a tactical confrontation. He'll have to be at his thinking best, if Roberto Mancini's men are to be outwitted in the first leg at Anfield.

It's becoming increasingly clear that Liverpool are more reliant than ever on the two or three individuals in their ranks of genuine quality. Steven Gerrard provides the inspiration and drive, Fernando Torres the stroke of genius in front of goal, and perhaps a case can be made for the tireless Jamie Carragher, given his wondrous Champions League displays in recent seasons.

The suspicion, based on form, is that Liverpool will do well to be on level terms with Inter, going into the second leg at the San Siro.

When Arsenal and Milan were paired together, conventional wisdom had the 2007 Champions League winners in trouble. They were too old, too slow and too stuck in the past, and seemingly the perfect opponents for Arsenal with their slick, up-tempo approach. But before we dismiss the rossoneri as the Clinton in a fight with Arsenal's Obama, there is (to keep the election theme going), momentum on the side of Carlo Ancelotti's warriors.

Inspired by the presence of young Brazilian prodigy Alexandre Pato, Milan's old guard have put their early season problems behind them. Indeed they've lifted themselves up the Serie A table to the point where qualification for next season's Champions League through their league position now appears likely.

The good news for Ancelotti is that Pato and star man Kaka are likely to be available, having overcome recent knocks. Milan will have more strings to their bow than we were entitled to expect a few months ago.

But Arsene Wenger's youthful, vibrant side will surely stretch the Italian club in way few others have of late. Arsenal, now five points clear at the top of the Premier League, have only ever lost once in 48 home games, since the opening of the Emirates Stadium.

If anything, they're an even better unit now, than when Thierry Henry was leading the line for Arsenal. Emmanuel Adebayor doesn't drift as much as the Frenchman, while Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini and Aleksandr Hleb have all become imbued with the spirit of improvement.

I see Arsenal having the slight edge in the home leg, leaving an engrossing return match in Milan. Then again, predictions at this stage of the Champions League are about as relevant as opinion polls before presidential primary elections!


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