The Champions League Second Round: It's the Real Deal Now, Folks
So the second round is upon us. It is now a knock-out, cup competition which relies less on form than the group stage and more on the ability of certain individuals and teams to steel themselves for potential glory.
As the countdown to the various showdowns between European footballs top sides continues, there is always an uncertain feeling in the air.
When the games are spoken of and debates begin, the various experts, media and armchair alike, start to voice their reckonings on what teams will make the grade, when the whistle trumpets its shrill tune, to signal the roar of one set of fans.
It is here that the Champions League's real magic begins, here that it again resembles the old European Cup and there is a chance for the underdog to really take a good bite at one of the established giants.
It can transport fans to that special place where it no longer matters that your mortgage payment is late, or that you ran over the neighbors dog and he is a 6'6" kick-boxing enthusiast, these things no longer matter, it is only the football for awhile now, and what an extravagantly delectable feast of games it is that awaits us.
Inter Vs. Manchester United
Arguably the tie of the round, this game has the potential to be an absolute classic, but along with that, comes the potential for it to be a dour war of attrition.
Ferguson and Mourinho have good knowledge of each other and in the only other meeting between the two in European competition Mourinho was the winner, although many United fans to this day think that United were extremely hard done by in the tie they lost to FC Porto.
With both teams in strong positions domestically there is no reason why either would need to hold anything back in this tie.
With Ferguson seemingly obsessed with European success it is conceivable that he regards winning this trophy as more important for him, individually, than for the club he has put so much work into breaking Liverpools English League record.
His team has been in clinical form recently with the mixture of youth and experience proving to be too strong for any domestic opponent.
Mourinho is a definite match for Ferguson tactically and before this match the Portuguese Manager has the stronger record in matches between the two.
He also has a team that seems to have gotten over its patchy new year form and as witnessed in the recent Milan derby is capable of taking the game brutally and beautifully to an illustrious opponent.
With both teams oozing the sort of quality most managers can only dream of, it could in the end come down to which manager is able to convince his players of their right to win the match.
A definite case here for the winner to progress to the final. Potentially a match that could also decide the length of Sir Alex Ferguson's future in the game.
A mouth watering clash of players and tactics.
Arsenal Vs. Roma
A game that's importance is heightened by the need for both teams to have a good European run, again has some wonderful battles on the cards and probably some magic moments in store for both sets of fans.
Both clubs have been guilty of some patchy form in their respective leagues, with both Spaletti and Wenger, finding themselves under scrutiny after the inconsistent form their teams have shown this season so far.
Added excitement is caused for Arsenal fans and the neutral with the potential return of Cesc Fabregas. This could add some real weight to the tie and something to the gunners that they have obviously been missing.
Roma are bracing themselves for the possibility of not having the talismanic figure of Francesco Totti to lead the line after it was announced that he was injured in saturdays match against Catania and should be out at least two weeks or in a worse case scenario, up to two months.
As with any team in the second round they are not here because of one player alone though and Roma boast a wealth of talent to take the field on any given day, with the likes of Baptista, De Rossi, Perotta and Menez, there are many options for Spaletti to consider.
With Mirko Vucinic showing already this season he relishes a chance to find the net against English opponents in the champions league with two fine goals against Chelsea in Rome, it would be unwise for anyone to write 'i lupi' off.
Arsenal have been a revelation in how badly a good team can play, so soon after showing how well they can play, this season so far.
Wenger has been under the spotlight this season but has persisted with his tactics and selections and in doing so has collected the prize scalps of Manchester United and Chelsea in the premier league.
It could be this ability of his to motivate his players for the big matches that proves to be a key factor in the outcome of this tie.
So another chance for two great games, these two teams are each possessed with so much talent that on another day it could be the final.
Lyon Vs. Barcelona
A tie that many people think is already decided is always a dangerous one for the favorite.
Barcelona go into this tie with the footballing pundits of the world singing their praises and head over heels for their star Argentinian, Lionel Messi.
Lyon have enjoyed a period of domination in the French game that stretches like a freshly baked garlic baguette.
With seven league titles in a row they are no doubt aching to show they are capable of showing they can compete with the best Europe can offer.
In Barcelona they may just have found it.
Guardiola's side has been almost unstoppable this season with Messi comfortably shouldering the burden of being touted as the worlds best with stand out performance after stand out performance.
Messi is backed up by the talents of many including Arsenal legend and Frenchman Thierry Henry, African sensation Samuel Eto'o and wily veteran Carles Puyol, not to mention midfield guru Andres Iniesta.
No shortage of quality here.
Lyon manager Claude Puel is perhaps best known in world football for his apparent attempt at getting his Lille side to leave the pitch after Ryan Giggs scored a quick free kick against them.
But he has managed to continue the momentum of Lyon and they currently sit four points clear at the top of the French league.
He and his players have a real test here in a Barcelona side that has been perhaps the form side of Europe this season, the key for them here will be to remember that it is knock out now and in players like Karim Benzema, Juninho and Kim Kallstrom they have as much a chance as anyone.
Another fabulous tie on the cards here and with the pride of two great European nations also on the line the victor will no doubt be dancing back across the Pyrenees with the spoils.
Atletico Madrid Vs. FC Porto
A game that again will cause many thousands of fans blood to boil at one time or another made all the more compelling because of the close proximity of these two club's countries.
Atletico have been stuttering along this season in the Primera but breezed into the final sixteen of the Champions league looking very much the equals of their much hyped English opponents Liverpool.
Manager Javier Aguirre was dismissed though, apparently for the teams poor form in domestic competitions, much to the dismay of players and fans alike.
Abel Resino has stepped into the managerial breach and will find his first run out as a manager in the champions league is against the proud Porto who most recently won the competition in 2004 under the guidance of Jose Mourinho.
Resino has a wealth of talent at his disposal in this tie with the likes of Sergio Aguero, Diego Forlan and Maniche as key memebers of a talented side.
Their defence has been a shadow of recent seasons though and defensive frailty is not something that gets you very far anywhere in the game.
Porto, managed by the relatively unknown outside Portugal Jesualdo Ferreira are a very different side from the one which won the competition in 2004 with every player who played in the final against Monaco having left the club or retired, most notably for this tie, Maniche who lines up for Atletico against his former team.
Porto are possessing of several fine players themselves and showed in their victory over Arsenal they are extremely capable. With Bruno Alves and Milan Stepanov they have the steel to go with the flair and pace of South Americans Lucho Gonzalez and Cristian Rodriguez.
Another very hard game to call with Atletico favored by many for no apparent reason it would not be a surprise to this writer if Porto can push them to the absolute limit and beyond.
On a historical bent, a Portuguese man 'o' war against a Spanish Galleon would always be one hell of a match up.
Chelsea Vs. Juventus
The old lady against the rich kid is a fascinating tie for everyone involved. Chelsea have looked tentative in Europe this season, most notably when they were put to the sword by Mirko Vucinic in Rome.
Juventus have been at times spectacular in Europe with two famous victories against great rivals Real Madrid.
Alessandro Del Piero has shown he is still one of the best in the world game with stunning performances this season in big matches.
Manager Claudio Ranieri experienced early calls for his sacking but was proven to be correct in his decision making over time with Juve gradually turning their form around climbing the table domestically and making the last sixteen of this competition in the style they are loved around the world for.
Ranieri is now delightfully presented with an opportunity to knock out the club which so callously sacked him after he had worked so hard to build them into a capable challenger for league honors in England.
It could be many Chelsea fans are quite worried about this tie because Ranieri was still held in high regard by many when he was sent packing.
In Guus Hiddink though they have a manager who is extremely capable in the knock out form of the game with him having taken outsiders South Korea and Australia to commendable placings in the World Cup.
Chelsea are also strengthened by having a large contingent of their side having recently experienced the rigors of making the Champions League final and so have reason to be confident of their teams resolve and strength and lets face it, they do still have one of the stronger teams in the competition.
This again is an absolute magical match up that many a footballing soothsayer will be consulting their crystal ball over. Perhaps it will be easier to call after the dust settles when the first tie is completed.
Or perhaps not.
Villarreal Vs. Panathinaikos
This is a massive game for these sides in the quest to give themselves credibility as European contenders. Both teams have strong sides with world class players to call on and equally strong fan bases.
The yellow submarine(Villarreal) have had some strong showings in Europe in recent years and will of course be eager to continue with this trend. They famously knocked Inter Milan out in 2006, courtesy of a Diego Forlan goal at the San Siro.
They have a formidable side captained by Euro 2008 champion Marcos Senna who was argued to be a major factor in the Spanish sides triumph in the competition.
Along with the up and coming Santi Cazorla, seasoned campaigner Robert Pires and Manchester United outcast Giuseppe Rossi they have a lot of talent and will give the Greek side a stern test of their footballing credentials.
Panathinaikos are the most famous Greek football club and have experienced the magic of Europe in their past with a 1971 appearance in the old European cup final.
They have a talented line up that includes the likes of former Arsenal invincible Gilberto Silva and their captain Greek master Giorgos Karagounis. They had a somewhat strange group stage in that they topped the group thanks to their superb away form beating Bremen and Inter on their own grounds.
There is really no reason to suggest that either of these sides could not be in the mix come semi final time such is the capability of each squad based on performances so far in the Champions League this season.
With old heads on both sides and each team having its own share of brilliance it is another hard one to call and should be another very entertaining European showdown.
Can the Greek side call on Athene Nike for help or will it be a Spanish Inquisition?
Real Madrid Vs. Liverpool
Another game being called the match of the round is this one between two of world footballs most famous and successful clubs.
The historical power of each will add to what already is and will be vintage European football. Even if the game does not measure up, there is something magical about these two sides meeting that will be missed by only the most dimwitted observer.
The European success of Liverpool under Benitez has done wonders in restoring their ailing credibility in recent years and their resurgence in the Premier league has in turn flowed on from their night of glory against AC Milan.
Real Madrid have recovered from a terrible patch of form which saw them at one stage doubtful to qualify for the second round and in Juande Ramos it seems they have found someone who knows how to marshal their defensive tactics, though it should be said that Schuster was equally as good at this when he first took up the job.
Arjen Robben has been in sensational form this season for Los Merengues and has been playing some of the best football of his career this season for the Spanish giants.
Ramos has seemingly righted the ship for the present time with the side having won every game since he took over. This is rather impressive considering the torrid time the Spaniard had in London.
Rafa Benitez is considered by many to be the master of the two legged tie and not without good reason.
His tactics have produced results and brought the success back to Anfield that seemed so far away for many years.
With Fernando Torres back and the Gerrard rumored to be returning for the tie it will be a Liverpool side that has no excuses should anything ill befall them against the giants of European football.
With so many players with points to prove it will be an extremely engrossing tie and the type of match up that people may remember for many years to come.
The England Vs. Spain match recently showed the distance between the sides internationally, it will be interesting to see if the playing field is much different on the club stage.
Sporting Lisbon Vs. Bayern Munich
Another Portuguese side in the second round which speaks volumes of the quality of the nations football. Sporting Lisbon have experienced European success in their history with a victory in the old cup winners cup in 1964.
Their opponents have also managed success on the European stage, namely four time winners of this very competition, including the 2001 trophy.
Munich have found the going a little tougher in the Bundesliga again this season which has been refreshing for many followers of the German game.
They are still a powerhouse though and the lessons learned over many years of being a big club always hold them in good stead when it comes to European competition.
They currently sit in fourth position domestically which will be of some concern for manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
But their European form has been impeccable with no defeats and a healthy goal per game ratio. They have plenty of handy players and some extremely capable ones as well including Miroslav Klose, Mark Van Bommel and Franck Ribery to name a few.
They will be well aware that it would be prudent in a business sense to, in view of potential future sponsorship deals, stay in this competition for as long as possible.
Sporting Lisbon were in a sense lucky to go through in the end as they edged past Shaktar Donetsk into the second round. They were comfortably beaten in both games they faced Barcelona which may have given them an early dose of the task they have ahead of them in the round to come.
They are not alone in the 'beaten by barca club' this season though so they can take heart from that.
Manager Paulo Bento will be well aware of the task facing his team though and Sporting fans will be hoping he prepares them for the sterner test that second round in Europe will bring to their club.
They are of course in possession of talent as well otherwise they would not be in the competition still, players like Joao Moutinho, Fabio Rochemback, Helder Postiga and Miguel Veloso will definitely play for their clubs prestige in what should be another very good tie.
As good a chance for an underdog here as there has been across the round with Munich worried about their domestic form they could be lured into taking one of these ties to lightly which would of course give the Portuguese an opportunity which they would gratefully devour.
Let the Games Begin!
The second round of one of the worlds most famous and eagerly awaited competitions is almost upon us and the fever pitch is without doubt growing across the globe.
With heroes to be heralded and villains despised, the agony and the ecstasy of the worlds greatest game never fails to disappoint with its madness and its glory.
These games will bring another great competition toward its inevitable conclusion and the unmasking of who shall be revered as champions.
When the ball rolls off the spot at kick off as the ref plays his one note tune may it be your team that leaves its opponents standing, as they move the ball down the pitch with grace and skill in the objective of seeing the ball cross into the area of the pitch where dreams become reality.
Who will be champion?
Let the games begin.