A Miracle In Nyon: Champions League Draw
OK, so as miracles go at Christmas time it was not exactly up there with that trickster fella from Nazareth, but it's a rare occasion indeed when Liverpool are drawn with Real Madrid. The two European giants have met competitively just once in the past, in the European Cup final of 1981.
In the Champions League era, matchups between the huge European clubs are becoming increasingly common, but the 2008-2009 Champions League last 16 draw has thrown up some nicely original ties.
Not only do we have Rafa Benitez returning to his home club, we also have Jose Mourinho returning to England to face Manchester United with his Inter Milan side, and Claudio Ranieri returning to Chelsea with Juventus.
Throw in Arsenal v Roma, and we have some truly mouth-watering ties, and that's just from an Anglo-centric viewpoint.
Rafa Benitez is already a huge favourite with the Madristas for a shot at managing their club one day, so you can be sure that should Liverpool manage to negotiate the tie, his stock will be even higher in the Spanish capital.
From a Real viewpoint, the tie gives Juande Ramos a great chance to reinstate his reputation. Liverpool have been one of the best teams in Europe in the last four seasons, reaching two finals and another semi, so to knock them out would send a message that Real mean business, despite their troubles at home.
Jose Mourinho will be relishing another trip to Old Trafford, having knocked Manchester United out in 2004 on his way to winning the trophy with Porto. That was the beginning of the English media's love affair with Jose, and you can be sure there will be an orgy of quotes from the special one between now and March 11, when the love affair could be over for the time being.
Alex Ferguson will rightly fear no opposition, his team are the champions after all, but he will also know that this will be a mammoth test for his team if they are to become the first side to successfully defend the Champions League.
Juventus have been purring in Europe, the old lady returning to the stage to which they are truly suited after a couple of years in the wilderness. Claudio Ranieri's reputation in England was never that good, but he has always been an underrated presence, and you can be sure he will have his team brilliantly prepared for the battle at the Bridge.
Phil Scolari will know that playing at home first is dangerous for Chelsea, given their mixed home form, and they might need the old Chelsea resilience back if they are to finish the job in Turin.
Arsenal and Roma are not having the best of times domestically, and that adds to the intrigue here. On paper, given Roma's pretty woeful record against English clubs, Arsenal should be strong favourites. Roma are a force to be reckoned with in the Stadio Olimpico though, and like Chelsea, Arsenal could pay for not winning their group and getting the second leg at home.
In Arsenal's favour is the fact that they had the same scenario against AC Milan last term, and produced their best performance of that season in the away leg to get through after a disappointing home result. They might need to do the same again to make the quarterfinals.
Elsewhere, title favourites Barcelona will not be unduly concerned with facing Lyon. The two have recent history having met at the group stage of last season's competition.
Barca won 3-0 at home and drew 2-2 at Stade Gerland late in 2007, and it is very difficult to for-see anything other than a Barca qualification 18 months on, especially if they maintain their current awesome form into the new year.
Atletico Madrid v Porto could be well turn out to be the tie of the round for the neutral. Both teams are better going forward than defending, and both are better at home than on their travels. Everything here is pointing to a very closely fought affair that could go all the way to extra-time.
One thing is for certain, there will definitely be some goals scored in two exciting legs. My head says that Porto's greater experience at this stage could prove crucial, but my heart lies with the dynamic Madrid side in this one.
Villarreal v Panathinaikos is arguably the weakest tie at this stage. It is hard to look past the Yellow Submarines here, they have the greater quality and big game experience, and as long as they are not complacent they will surely have too much class for an average Panathinaikos side who have achieved great things by just getting to this stage.
Stranger things have happened, but I can't see a Greek tragedy for Villarreal.
The final match-up sees Sporting Lisbon taking on Bayern Munich. Bayern will not be too disappointed with this draw, having avoided horror draws against Chelsea, Arsenal or Inter Milan.
Lisbon are always a threat, especially on their own patch, but Bayern will mean business having been out of the limelight, and could restore their reputation with a strong run in 2009.
It's a bit early for full scale predictions when injuries and transfers could change the picture between now and the last week in February when it all kicks off, but what the hell, here are my early choices for the quarter final line up:
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