Jim White

Warm balls anyone?

Jim White

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Well,
that couldn't have gone better. Those who believe in the heated ball theory of
football draws will take some convincing that the draw for the knock-out phase
for the Champions League was not contrived to reinforce the soap opera
storyline of the competition.

First we
learned that Internazionale were to play Chelsea, thus gifting Jose Mourinho
the opportunity to remind his former employers quite what it was they let go
out of Stamford Bridge in the autumn of 2007. Then, after Arsenal and Porto had
been paired, we knew that the final tie would facilitate the most eagerly
anticipated return since the Prodigal Son decided to give his old man another
chance and come home: David Beckham is to head to Old Trafford to take on his
former club, for the first time in nearly seven years since he departed in a
welter of intrigue and recrimination.

One thing
we can be certain of is that Beckham will be given a hugely positive reception
when he steps out on to the Old Trafford pitch in February. Unlike Carlos
Tevez, who was booed to the rafters when he came back with City, Beckham has
never once bad-mouthed his former employers. A consummate diplomat, he has
never been anything other than positive about his time at United and his
relationship with his former manager. Besides, by going abroad, he has never
directly pitched his enormous skills against his old club. Until now.

Mourinho,
on the other hand, might find things a touch spikier when he goes back to
Stamford Bridge. The Chelsea crowd, who gave his successor Avram Grant a
generous ovation when he returned with Portsmouth at the weekend, will afford
him an ovation that will threaten the superstructure of the stadium. His old
players too will warmly shake him by the hand. You imagine the likes of Ricardo
Carvalho, John Terry and Ashley Cole will be keen to thank him for the huge
influence he had on their careers. In the boardroom, however, the reception
will be not so much frosty as glacial. Mourinho's abrasive style meant he had
few allies there. And Carlo Ancelotti, a much more emollient figure behind the
scenes, is no fan of his either. A bottle of the best claret is unlikely to be
on offer.

Besides,
Mourinho will know he has landed just about the worst possible draw in order to
further his own career ambitions. In a scenario that will sound horribly
familiar to his time in west London, it is no secret around the San Siro that
back-to-back domestic titles are not sufficient to keep him in lucrative
employment. The Inter owner Massimo Moratti has let it be known he has not
forked out nearly seven million quid a year to his coach merely to be also-rans
in Europe. Victory is now essential. And meeting arguably the strongest side
left in the competition - or at least the hardest to beat - at the first
hurdle, must have left Mourinho yet further convinced that the football gods
are conspiring against him.

Elsewhere,
both Barcelona and Real Madrid will feel they have done better out of the draw
that their English and Milanese rivals, while Arsenal really should progress
against Porto. The real challenge for all of them will come in the next round,
when the competition restricts itself to the finest clubs in Europe.

Which
brings us to Liverpool. As the mocking Arsenal fans pointed out the other day,
Thursday nights on Channel Five await. As will close scrutiny of the atlas to
discover something - anything - about their Europa League opponents. While
United, Chelsea and Arsenal engage with the big names of the continent,
Liverpool will be heading east. Unirea Urziceni: it is not exactly who Rafa
Benitez would have had in mind back in August when he was considering who might
be his New Year European opponents.

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