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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

These matchups could relight some old fires

AC Milan's David Beckham returns to face Manchester United, and Inter Milan's Jose Mourinho goes against his old club Chelsea.

December 20, 2009|By Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • The GalaxyÂ’s Landon Donovan will soon be on loan to Everton, whose coach has high expectations.
The GalaxyÂ’s Landon Donovan will soon be on loan to Everton,… (Kevork Djansezian / Getty…)

Reluctantly setting aside suspicions that Michel Platini and his UEFA cohorts rigged the entire thing, Friday's draw for the European Champions League round-of-16 games produced some intriguing matchups.

What could be better, for example, than AC Milan versus Manchester United, with David Beckham returning to the scene of his youthful triumphs to play against a coach, Sir Alex Ferguson, who no longer gives him the time of day?

"Since I left in 2003, I haven't returned to play at Old Trafford," Beckham told Gazzetta dello Sport on Wednesday. "Seven years have gone by, and I would like for that to happen. Me against Manchester, it would be beautiful, wouldn't it?"

Two days later, Beckham got his wish.

According to the Times of London, the Galaxy midfielder, who in a couple of weeks again joins AC Milan on loan, "uttered an incredulous expletive" when told of the draw.

Ferguson, who famously kicked Beckham in the face in anger shortly before Beckham left to join Real Madrid in 2003, no doubt had a similar response. The media circus that will follow Beckham and AC Milan to Manchester for the decisive second leg of the series on March 10 will cause Ferguson to bristle.

The knowledge that it was AC Milan -- admittedly, with Kaka still in its lineup -- that knocked Manchester United out of the Champions League in 2007 also will add to the Scot's worry lines.

The stage is set.

Similarly, another fascinating series is in store when Inter Milan plays Chelsea, starting Feb. 24 at the San Siro.

Again, it will be the second leg, on March 16, that will be full of subplots, the most obvious being the return of Inter Milan Coach Jose Mourinho to the club with which he first proclaimed himself the "Special One" and which he led to Premier League titles in 2005 and 2006.

As always, Portugal's finest soccer export took a contrary view. "It's the same story as always," Mourinho told reporters Saturday, calling Chelsea "an important opponent, a difficult opponent, an opponent we know."

He made no mention of Chelsea's 2-0 win over Inter Milan in a July 21 exhibition at the Rose Bowl, not that it mattered.

The Champions League matchup is "nothing special," he said. "OK, they are my former team, my former players, my former fans, and my former stadium.

"It's all 'former.' As a professional, I look at the game no differently than I would against Manchester United, Arsenal or another team."

Inter Milan's owner, Italian oil magnate Massimo Moratti, might look at it differently. The Nerazzurri last won the European Cup -- to give the Champions League its former name -- back in 1965, and Mourinho was specifically brought aboard to end that astonishing drought.

This will be the "Special One's" second crack at it with Inter, and given his frequent falling-outs with the Italian media, it might be his last. Surely it won't be long before Liverpool, which is in free fall under Coach Rafael Benitez, knocks on his door and invites him back to the Premier League.

That would pit him against his Inter Milan predecessor, former Italian international Roberto Mancini, who led Inter to three consecutive Serie A titles and who Saturday night was named coach of Manchester City, replacing Mark Hughes, who was fired earlier in the day.

For the moment, though, Mourinho has to focus on getting the better of former AC Milan and current Chelsea Coach Carlo Ancelotti.

Ancelotti won the European Cup/Champions League twice as a player and twice as a coach, all with AC Milan, in contrast with Mourinho's lone triumph with FC Porto. He is, in other words, the yardstick Mourinho has to measure himself against.

Donovan's decision

So Landon Donovan will be with us a while longer, living in his fancy digs in Manhattan Beach and banking his almost $2 million a year while staying with the Galaxy for another four seasons.

From a financial s standpoint, he probably has made a good move. From a soccer standpoint, the jury is still out.

Donovan will soon be on loan to Everton, and Everton Coach David Moyes is expecting him to contribute immediately.

"He will come in and add pace," Moyes told the Liverpool Echo on Saturday. "He can play wide right, on the left and up front, so he gives us more alternatives. I need players who can hit the ground running, and he is one of those, hopefully."

The Liverpool Daily Post quoted Moyes as saying: "American boys in the main tend to come over here and do well. He was voted the best player in MLS, so I think he can bring some qualities we can use."

The Guardian had questioned Moyes' judgment, commenting that the coach "seems to have mistaken Landon Donovan for someone who can hack it in European football."

But Moyes voiced his faith in the Galaxy player.

"This is a test to see if he can jump up to the [Premier League] level," he said. "I think he can."

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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