The least predictable game... and Inter-Chelsea
In case you hadnÃ¢ÂÂt noticed, Chelsea meet an old friend tonight. EnglandÃ¢ÂÂs football media is so delighted to have an excuse to glory in Jose Mourinho that even the normally acerbic Martin Samuel has felt obliged to remind his readers why the Portuguese coach is the special one.
The subtext to the fawning is that the media desperately wants Mourinho back. That's why the British press, with the obsessive insistence of a spurned lover refusing to recognise that itÃ¢ÂÂs over, maintains that Jose is really missing the Premiership which is, as everyone knows, the best league in the world.
True, itÃ¢ÂÂs not the best supported (thatÃ¢ÂÂs the Bundesliga). ItÃ¢ÂÂs not the best for goals per game either (the Bundesliga does better on that measure too). Nor, despite the zillions that pour in through TV and sponsorship, is it the most financially secure.
But the Premier League is, in some way that is never quite specified, the best. Ergo Mourinho must miss it, even though he was rhapsodising the other week about the intriguing tactical challenges Serie A poses for a coach.
Inter vs Chelsea
As hyped as a Hollywood blockbuster or Gordon BrownÃ¢ÂÂs Operation Fightback, this clash is almost a Mourinho derby in which the team he built takes on the team heÃ¢ÂÂs still building. And, wallflower that he is, Jose has lost no time pointing this out.
Still, Petr Cech insists that his old bossÃ¢ÂÂs mind games wonÃ¢ÂÂt faze the Chelsea players Ã¢ÂÂ although, judging from the performance against Wolves, confusing the Blues at the moment might not seem that difficult.
The Italian press, egged on by Gazzetta dello Sport, have been beating the drum for MourinhoÃ¢ÂÂs new Inter. Here, they proudly declaim, begins calcioÃ¢ÂÂs very own Operation Fightback. Revenge for United 7-1 Roma, Arsenal 5-1 Inter, Liverpool 2-0 Inter and United 2-0 Inter is imminent.
The appropriate response to such hype is to smile, nod and quote Evelyn WaughÃ¢ÂÂs Scoop: Ã¢ÂÂUp to a point, Lord CopperÃ¢ÂÂ. The Nerazzurri are much more fluent than last season, when their tactics, for all of MourinhoÃ¢ÂÂs experiments, often boiled down to Give It To Ibra.
The goalscoring of Diego Milito and Samuel EtoÃ¢ÂÂo is now backed up in midfield by the guile and vision of Wesley Sneijder, a rejuvenated Dutch master and recent escapee from the Bernabeu. Without the Dutchman, Inter have looked more vulnerable and ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs first priority, surely, will be to deny him time and space.
The margin between the teams seems thin and Mourinho was already hinting yesterday that this tie may go into extra time.
ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs recent record in the knockout stages has been impressive, unlike InterÃ¢ÂÂs. But this tie finds the club in a bit of a pickle. The BluesÃ¢ÂÂ form on the road has been unimpressive. John Terry has been making uncharacteristic errors, presumably distracted by his marital woes.
Ashley ColeÃ¢ÂÂs shenanigans have prompted a lecture to the squad while Cole himself, a footballer who has always had his own unique take on reality, is said to feel heÃ¢ÂÂs being victimised.
With all this going on, Carlo Ancelotti would probably take a draw and an away goal at San Siro. And the man to get that away goal is probably Didier Drogba, who has now scored 31 goals in 60 games in this competition.
The Ivorian strikerÃ¢ÂÂs theatrical tendencies have slightly obscured the fact that he is a truly great player. Simon Barnes at The Times once said that good players make goals, great players make a team. By that standard, Drogba is a great player.
So ultimately, this tie may come down to two men in a fantastic vein of form: Didier Drogba and Jose Mourinho.
CSKA Moscow vs Sevilla
Political writer David Runciman once suggested that only 5% of the action in any game was Ã¢ÂÂexclusively subject to the differential skills and the tactics of the team, the rest being shaped by chance or inconsequential factorsÃ¢ÂÂ. He would probably enjoy the uncertainties that surround this clash.
For starters, which Sevilla will turn up Ã¢ÂÂ the sparkling talented outfit that has humiliated Real Madrid and Barcelona, or the hapless oafs who lost at home to Racing Santander? And how rusty will CSKA Moscow, who havenÃ¢ÂÂt played a competitive game since December, be when they kick off?
How will the LuzhnikiÃ¢ÂÂs artificial playing surface suit Sevilla? And how many pairs of gloves will the la Liga sideÃ¢ÂÂs Brazilian stars want to wear given that the forecast temperature in Moscow tonight is -5ÃÂC?
Even the chanceometer, the principle that the side that creates the most opportunities normally merges triumphant, is too close to be of much use: Sevilla created 88 chances in their group, CSKA 82.
Both sides can rely on superb goalkeepers. Andres Palop would be almost as well known as Igor Akinfeev if he didnÃ¢ÂÂt have the misfortune to be competing with Iker Casillas and Pepe Reina for the Spanish goalkeeperÃ¢ÂÂs jersey. But neither Sevilla nor CSKA have that consistent quality in every part of the pitch.
Guillem Balague and Graham Hunter persuasively argued on Revista de la Liga that SevillaÃ¢ÂÂs inconsistency is partly down to a lack of leadership on the pitch. A few characters stand out Ã¢ÂÂ Palop, Jesus Navas and Luis Fabiano, desperate to mark his last season at the Ramon Sanchez with a trophy.
But they lack leaders in central defence and midfield. By la LigaÃ¢ÂÂs standards, the midfield lacks flair Ã¢ÂÂ and this has forced coach Manolo Jimenez, under fire from fans for his conservatism, to play a faster-paced, direct, English style of football.
Sevilla will want to open up the tie to exploit CSKAÃ¢ÂÂs greatest weakness: defensive midfield. Although Fabiano misses the first leg, Sevilla can call on Frederic Kanoute, Navas and new boy Alvarado Negredo for goals.
FabianoÃ¢ÂÂs track record in this tournament is impressive Ã¢ÂÂ nine goals in 12 games Ã¢ÂÂ and if he isnÃ¢ÂÂt scoring, heÃ¢ÂÂs creating (four assists in Group G). His movement in the penalty area is exceptional, he has a remarkable instinct for goal and the technique to punish defenders. His one flaw? Probably that he can struggle to stay focused for 90 minutes.
But JimenezÃ¢ÂÂs team are sometimes so keen on attack they leave space for opponents to counter into. And CSKA scored 10 in their group, only one fewer than Sevilla.
Even without Vagner Love, Leonid SlutskyÃ¢ÂÂs team have found goals relatively easy to come by. Eight of their 10 goals came from midfield (Milos Krasic has four, Alan Dzagoev three) while Czech striker Tomas Necid Ã¢ÂÂ the lone striker in CSKAÃ¢ÂÂs 4-2-3-1Ã¢ÂÂ has created four and scored one.
Necid was especially influential in the 3-3 draw against United. Though CSKA were gutted not to have held on for the win, that fine display of Russian resolution was the springboard for the club to reach the last 16 for the first time.
CSKA fans of a certain age will vividly recall their first trip to Spain in this competition. In 1992/93, they dethroned reigning European champions Barcelona, coming down from 2-0 down in Camp Nou to win 3-2 and clinch the second round tie 4-3 on aggregate.
It would be nowhere near as great a shock if CSKA knocked out Sevilla. (Los Rojiblancos did, after all, lose on penalties to Fenerbahce at this stage in 2007/08.) This is one tie where anything could happen. Except two 0-0 draws.