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Finalists for European Champions League could be a surprise

England's Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur could give favorites Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United a run for the title.

March 19, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • International stars will be on display during the quarterfinals of the Champions League, including (clockwise from top left): Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Didier Drogba, Gareth Bale and Wayne Rooney.
International stars will be on display during the quarterfinals of the… (Getty Images )

Gazing into the milky depths of a none-too-clear crystal ball, is that a Manchester United-Real Madrid European Champions League final we see being played at Wembley Stadium on May 28?

Or is the view distorted enough so that it could — just possibly — be Inter Milan and Barcelona squaring off in the title game?

One thing is certain, it surely isn't Schalke '04 and Shakhtar Donetsk, but there is an outside chance that it could be two London teams playing in a London final. Anyone for Chelsea versus Tottenham Hotspur?

Reading the tea leaves or casting the bones is no way, of course, to predict the way in which European soccer's most captivating tournament might evolve this season, and speculation can go in almost any direction.

But look at the cast of characters who will be making the headlines as the tournament moves into the quarterfinals and the possibility for high drama is there at every turn.

The roll call of attacking players who have powered their teams into the last eight reads like a who's who of offensive soccer: Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Gareth Bale, Wesley Sneijder, Karim Benzema, Javier Hernandez, Aaron Lennon, Andres Iniesta, Samuel Eto'o, Nicolas Anelka, Xavi, Ryan Giggs, David Villa, Peter Crouch, Mesut Ozil . . . the list goes on and on.

The eight coaches had their own take on how the draw for the quarterfinals turned out Friday in Nyon, Switzerland, but none of them were about to provide bulletin board material for their opponents.

Even before the draw was made, Manchester United Coach Alex Ferguson refused to follow the herd, excluding himself from those who hoped to avoid favorite Barcelona.

"It's not good tactics to go into how good Barcelona are and show trepidation or apprehension about it," he said. "I don't think that is our way. You have to face every hurdle as it comes along.

"There is no point in trying to pick what you think would be the best one for you. You can underestimate some of them that way. Anyone who has got themselves into this position must have qualities, either certain players or a good home record."

As it turned out, English Premier League leader Manchester United was drawn to play defending English champion Chelsea in the April quarterfinals.

Inevitably, much is being made of the "revenge factor," with Chelsea fans hoping to erase the dark memories of the 2008 final in Moscow. That was when Chelsea captain John Terry's foot slipped on the wet Luzhniki Stadium surface, possibly under the weight of his ego, and he skewed what would have been a tournament-winning penalty kick wide.

Manchester United went on to win the shootout and claim its third European championship.

Chelsea Coach Carlo Ancelotti, a four-time winner of the tournament with AC Milan, twice as a player and twice as a coach, has tried to quell talk of revenge.

"I don't think revenge will be a good motivation," he said. "It should be fantastic motivation just looking to the future.

"Winning this competition is not an obsession. It is a dream. … If Chelsea were to reach the final — not just beating United — that would be a good revenge for what happened in 2008."

Barcelona's quarterfinal series against Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine and defending champion Inter Milan's quarterfinal series against Schalke '04 of Germany are widely regarded as mere formalities en route to the semifinals. Instead, it is the Manchester United-Chelsea and Real Madrid-Tottenham Hotspur series that have captured fans' imagination.

Harry Redknapp, Tottenham's wind-him-up-and-he'll-talk-forever coach, could hardly contain himself at the prospect of matching wits with Real Madrid Coach Jose Mourinho.

"You have to look forward to games like this," Redknapp said. "These are the great days in your life and great days in Tottenham's history. We'll go there and give it a real go. You couldn't have a more exciting or a tougher game.

"I've said all along that the two Spanish clubs were, for me, the favorites to win it. We've drawn Real Madrid, who are pushing Barcelona all the way for the [Spanish] championship, with big players and a fantastic manager. In my opinion, he's one of the all-time greats."

Redknapp continued at length, but enough is enough.

A far more interesting point was made by Sandro Rosell, the 47-year-old president of Messi-inspired Barcelona, universally regarded as one of the finest teams ever assembled.

"Now we are on the crest of the wave, but this is a dangerous time," he told England's Telegraph newspaper. "What will happen some day when we don't do all that we are currently doing? How will we explain to people?

"It is like eating caviar every day, then being told that we're having macaroni tomorrow. It is a huge responsibility, and we need a Plan B, because this won't last forever."

Sad but true. Savor the caviar.

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