Rae's Say: Nothing certain in the next round
The prestigious UEFA Champions League trophy is one of those instantly recognizable pieces of football silverware. Many of us in the commentary business have dubbed it 'the cup with the big ears.'
Recently, old big ears has been on tour in South America. However, if many in England are to be believed, you might as well shuttle the prized trophy between London, Liverpool and Manchester over the next few weeks. Four of this season's eight quarter-finalists are English Premier League sides: grist to the mill of those who claim the top flight in England to now be far superior to its equivalent in Italy and Spain.
Adherents to this argument would like nothing better to support their case, than an all-English final in Moscow on 21 May. Certainly, it would be folly to bet against at least one English standard bearer lining up at the Luzhniki Stadium.
Before we get too carried away, there's the small matter of an all-English quarter-final to occupy our thoughts. Arsenal, beaten finalists two years ago and Liverpool, the most successful English club in the history of European competition, will cross swords on Wednesday in North London; then again six days' later at Anfield. As if to test the old adage that familiarity breeds content, the two teams will also meet in a Premier League game next weekend. Too much of a good thing? Time will tell.
Arsenal were rightly euphoric after knocking out last season's winners, Milan. Alas, little has gone right for the youthful cosmopolitans since then. Indeed Arsene Wenger's squad have lost form at the worst possible time.
Liverpool, in the European context, are not a team anyone would ever willingly face, especially with a crisis of confidence taking hold at the Emirates Stadium. Anfield boss Rafa Benitez has come in for constant criticism this season, much of it unfair, but even his detractors must acknowledge that the man knows more than most, how to achieve a positive result in a two-legged European tie.
For whatever reason, Liverpool's victory at the San Siro over Serie A leaders Inter, just a week on from Arsenal's triumph at that same ground, didn't generate nearly as many headlines. Perhaps we just view such proficient Liverpool displays as 'par for the course' in Europe. Never mind that beating Inter on their own patch is the football equivalent of finishing 7 or 8 shots under par at Augusta National!
This tie poses interesting problems for me, as I predicted Arsenal would win the Champions League before the group stage back in September. On current form, and taking European nous into account though, it's hard to go against Liverpool over the two matches, particularly with the decisive second leg being at Anfield.
If Arsenal against Liverpool promises to be spellbinding, the tie of the round for me involves Roma and Manchester United. Twelve months ago, Roma got flattened by the United steamroller at this same stage of the competition. You'll no doubt recall that Sir Alex Ferguson's men handed out a ruthless 7-1 thrashing after Roma had won the first leg 2-1.
I expect it to be a lot tighter this time, and can see a possible route to victory for Luciano Spalletti's up-tempo, unconventional side. The 'revolving door' attack favored by Spalletti leaves three attack-minded players behind the main striker, usually the highly gifted Francesco Totti. The problem for Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand will be identifying whom to pick up and when, given the constant shifting of positions.
Still, Manchester United are a better, slicker team than they were last season. It's hard to believe that in 2007 at the Stadio Olimpico, we were expressing doubts about the ability of Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney to deliver on the Champions League stage! United will rightly go into the quarter-final as favourites.
For the winners of that tie, a semi-final confrontation with Schalke 04 or Barcelona will await. Schalke can hardly have anticipated getting this far back at the beginning of the season. Their Bundesliga form has been erratic and coach Mirko Slomka appeared on his way out just a few weeks ago.
In Kevin Kuranyi, the Gelsenkirchen club have a genuinely opportunistic striker, and he'll be hoping Barcelona are in the sort of benevolent mood that's been such a perplexing feature of their domestic form.
Barca's brittle qualities are often in evidence on their domestic travels. Now, that can't really be said of their away performances in the Champions League, but they did ship two goals away to the only side of real quality they have faced so far, Olympique Lyonnais in the group stage. Barcelona should be too strong for Schalke, but it's hard to be certain.
Meanwhile, Turkish representatives Fenerbahce, in the quarter-finals for the first time, will try to make more history by eliminating Chelsea. Coached by Brazilian legend Zico, there's a fair smattering of samba rhythm throughout the Fener side.
Alex, Deivid and Mehmet Aurelio will give the Premier League team plenty to think about, as will the capacity crowd at the jam-packed Sukru Saracoglu Stadium, one of the most atmospheric grounds in Europe.
Chelsea's problems in recent seasons have centred around getting to the final, as opposed to reaching the last four. I can't see them being denied a semi-final place this year either.
Mind you the great thing about the Champions League, is that nothing is guaranteed.