Jim White

Tricky ties lie in wait

Jim White

Blimey, that's a tough draw. As tough as the intricacies of the
procedure allow. In the first proper round of the Champions League (surely the
only proper cup competition is a knock-out) both of the surviving Premier
League clubs have been pitched against Serie A opposition, in a sort of revival
of the unheralded Anglo-Italian Cup.

Arsenal, who for the last couple of
seasons have faced Barcelona at this stage and who drew Udinese in the
qualifying rounds, continued their relationship with ill-fortune by drawing the
hardest opponents they possibly could: Milan. And Chelsea, whose dalliance with
the high line has led to some flaky results under their new manager, will have
to re-discover past resilience if they are to ease past the accomplished
counter-attackers of Napoli.

Barcelona, meanwhile, are paired with Bayer Leverkusen and Real Madrid
with CSKA Moscow. Those balls were nicely heated in Spanish favour.

Mind, an easy draw didn't do Manchester United much good in the
group stage. Complacency and subsequent panic undermined their campaign. So a
competitive challenge will at least keep minds focussed in London.

For what it's worth, I reckon Chelsea, provided they stay
disciplined, persuade David Luiz to remain for most of the game in his own half
and play Oriol Romeu, should just ease past Napoli. Arsenal's brief is harder, Milan
are on song, moving ominously up Serie A. As in every competition they engage
in these days, the Gunners' progress is entirely dependent on Robin van Persie. It is
a simple equation: if he is fit, they have a chance. If he isn't...

Such is the natural condition of pessimism among football fans,
that at the Emirates on Saturday, it was only moments after the Dutchman scored
that sumptuous volley against Everton that the locals sunk into introspection
wondering what on earth would happen if he were to succumb to one of those
injuries that have pockmarked his career thus far. So total is the obsession
with him in north London that Arsene Wenger has taken to starting his press
conference with an ironic confession that yes, he is totally dependent on his
skipper. Except, no-one is buying the irony.

Of course, Wenger has the opportunity between now and the
re-ignition of the Champions League in the spring, to buy some cover. Though
given his track record of reluctance, Andrei Arshavin apart, to engage with the
market mid-season, that is about as likely to happen as he is to recall Nicklas
Bendtner from alleged car-smashing duties in Sunderland.

With those caveats - and a hefty dose of optimism - this is my
last eight: Lyon, Chelsea, Arsenal, Bayern, Barca, Madrid, Zenit, Inter.
Though, given my track record of prediction in the group stage, the wise might
be advised to look elsewhere when making their investments.

And whatever the difficulties of the draw, these are matches the
players, managers, directors, supporters, sponsors, groundstaff, stewards, and
the bloke who replaces the bulbs in the floodlights at Stamford Bridge and the
Emirates would much rather face than those that lie ahead for the Manchester
clubs.

That said, United fans, sated by the salons of Milan and Madrid,
will enjoy themselves in Amsterdam. And there are worse places to be in the
spring than sitting on the banks of the Douro, sipping port in Porto as City
fans will find themselves. Plus Valencia is not a bad place to visit for Stoke
fans in search of a little pick-me-up. Just a shame none of the visits will
entail watching a football match that really matters.

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