Lenny Kravitz, suicide & Wenger: The Champions League draw analysed

They think it’s all over in Nigeria. One Nigerian Gooner – named only as michotech49 – posted on uefa.com: “Arsenal we win am very sure by the grace of God”.

Arsene Wenger was a little more circumspect about facing Barcelona, the runaway favourites to win the 2010/11 UEFA Champions League, again, saying: “We want to knock them out. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it possible? Yes.” The coach was more sanguine than most fans whose reaction is probably best summed up by the headline on The Gooner which read simply: “The Barcelona suicide”.

In trying to Google The Gooner, I actually typed ‘The Gonner’ which could be an omen or what the great Sigmund would call a Freudian slip. Anyway, moving swiftly on, discontent among online Gooners has reached such a pitch that one supporter dared ask: “Oh, by the way, what does Pat Rice do?” Come on, Arsenal fans, this is hardly the time to be turning on your own legends. The general mood might be summed up by Brad who posted: “O cruel footballing gods why hast thou forsaken Arsenal?”

If Arsenal are to win, they might require divine intervention. Wenger’s Plan A is to take on Barcelona at their own game – assuming his players can get the ball off them. Plan B is – well there is no Plan B really. Unless Arsenal’s defence becomes significantly more rock-like between now and February, he can’t play the kind of spoiling game with which Jose Mourinho’s Inter beat Barcelona last season. He doesn’t even have the defensive steel in midfield to play the 4-5-1 that steered Arsenal to the final in 2006. This is especially ironic because one tactical innovation with which Wenger won a lot of silverware early on at Arsenal was the use of defensive screening midfielders like Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit.

 

No tie is over before it has started – though even Lenny Kravitz might feel his most famous song doesn’t apply in this instance. But Wenger’s predicament underlines the competitive ruthlessness of this tournament. A poor 45 minutes against Shakhtar and an off-night in Braga have made Arsenal’s journey to Wembley significantly more arduous than it needed to be.

The other ci risiamo ties – that’s Italian for ‘here we go again’ by the way – are Lyon v Real Madrid and Inter v Bayern. Neither quite match Alien vs Predator in the 'clash of the titans' stakes, but both have intriguing sub-plots. The ties encouraged so many players, clubs and owners to join in remembrance of things past it might have been sponsored by the estate of Marcel Proust.

Will Lyon’s remarkable run of success – in three ties against los Blancos they have won at home and drawn in Madrid to progress – be ended by old boy Karim Benzema? Lyon keeper Remy Vercoutre didn’t sound that confident when he noted: “Last year they were complacent. They still haven’t got over it. We know we’re not favourites.” He has a point. On balance, with Mourinho in the dugout, Real don’t seem destined for a seventh successive exit in the last 16.

Bayern v Inter is the draw’s greatest gift to European football. Louis van Gaal’s Bayern are slight favourites but the big question hanging over the tie is whether Rafa Benitez will be coaching the Nerazzurri in February (at the time of this blog being published, we are awaiting confirmation of reports the Spaniard has left the club - ed).

The World Club Cup win (below) has done him some good but the mood in Italy was captured by the Gazzetta dello Sport headline: “Inter rules the world, so what next?” Benitez’s broadside about lack of trust and broken promises on new players won him some support from fans – one poll found most wanted the coach to stay – but owner Massimo Moratti deflected the speculation saying: “For the moment I don’t want to talk about Benitez.” The coach’s outburst recalls his famously indignant observation over new signings at Valencia: “I asked for a sofa and they bought me a standard lamp.”

Tottenham’s return to San Siro to take on the other half of Milan prompted Rossoneri coach Massimiliano Allegri to remark: “All the teams who have made it this far are good but it could have been far worse. Tottenham score freely and have quality up front, but they always give something away at the back.” Still, Allegri – and his defenders – may already be having nightmares in which they are carved apart by the lanky, jinking, blurred form of Gareth ‘Incredibale’.

Chelsea and Manchester United may feel reasonably satisfied with their draws, but Carlo Ancelotti and Sir Alex Ferguson know their ties are far from done are dusted. Copenhagen are efficient, especially at home, and are almost the polar opposite of Spurs. What they lack upfront they make up for at the back, conceding just five in Group D, not bad for a team that played Barca twice. And Chelsea will need their first choice central defenders back to face Senegalese bombshell Damien N’Doye, who looks like a young Didier Drogba.

They think it’s all over in Schalke too. On Bundesliga Talk, a writer with the poetic name of Dylan Thomas suggested: “Schalke couldn’t have had an easier opponent”. The key, Thomas correctly suggested, was whether Schalke could dominate midfield. Although the hype will focus on Raul’s return to Spain, the more intriguing clash is between two famously workaholic coaches. Felix Magath’s reputation – exemplified by his nicknames ‘Saddam’ and ‘Qualix’ (The Torturer) – is well known but have no doubt Valencia’s Unai Emery has already spent hours dissecting Schalke’s group games in forensic detail.

Claudio Ranieri doesn’t think it’s all over. Mindful that Shakhtar won the last ever UEFA Cup and very nearly did the double over Barcelona in this competition in 2008/09, he was at pains to point the stylish football the Ukrainian champions play.

Roma have become the kind of team that can lose or beat anyone depending on their mood and that may be Ranieri’s biggest concern. Shakhtar’s wily coach Mircea Lucescu will be scheming for an away goal at the Stadio Olimpico. The return in Donetsk may just help Lucescu steer Shakhtar into the last eight for the first time. Shakhar’s Romanian full-back Razvan Rat (spare us the ‘any relation of Roland” gags please) was certainly bullish: “I want to quote a famous chess player to say that to become stronger one must play against the strongest”.

It seems appropriate, then, to round off with a Mourinho-esque observation from another famous chess player, Bobby Fischer: “Genius. It’s a word. What does it really mean? If I win I’m a genius. If I don’t, I’m not.”

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