Ronaldinho, Kaka and Arshavin set to go on trial

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“There are players who’ve made their whole career on one match. There are players who do everything to make a splash on television and then it’s over. Afterwards they play but they live on their attainment.”

Michel Platini’s frank remark, made in an interview with the French novelist Marguerite Duras in 1987, is a reminder of how things have changed for footballers.

And one of the catalysts for that change has been the tournament that Platini indirectly presides over, the UEFA Champions League.

We can all think of players who have made their career on one match, or only look the part when the TV cameras are on them.

But the Champions League, by ruthlessly pitting the best against the best season after season, has made it harder for the chancers, the flatterers-to-deceivers, the lazy, and the merely inconsistent to prosper at the very top.

Razzle dazzle ‘em

Every Champions League game is a courtroom in which a player is judged – though at least they’re being scrutinised for what they do on the pitch.

Sometimes, especially when the media clamber onto a bandwagon, the process of judgement can be horrendously skewed. Last week’s teenage sensation is this week’s overrated flash in the pan.

The process of building them up to knock ‘em down is almost as pitiless in football as in the music industry. And it can be just as distracting and destructive.

Luckily, the most influential judges are the coaches who are professionally obliged not to get carried away and know that one game, one bit of that old razzle dazzle on television, does not define a player’s quality.

Michel loves to kick back and chill out with some Enya

Their judgements may be more measured but they can be just as unforgiving in the long run. And the tournament many regard as the ultimate test of a player is the Champions League.

Arsene Wenger says that one of the first questions he asks when appraising a prospect is: “How will he perform in the Champions League?”

Statistical breakdowns

So into this courtroom this week step the players of Arsenal, Bayern, Fiorentina, Lyon, Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Porto.

Each tie is accompanied by statistics which can inspire optimism or despair (eg Porto have won their last 24 two-legged ties in UEFA competitions when defending an advantage away from home yet the Portuguese champions have lost on their last six visits to London).

But the best players won’t worry about the stats. They will be imagining, sometimes in lavish detail, scenarios where their team wins.

None of these ties are over. Milan’s mission hovers between impossible and implausible.

Only one side has lost at home in the first leg of a Champions League knock-out round and gone on to win the tie: Ajax against Panathinaikos in the 1995/96 semi-final. And United have never lost by two clear goals at Old Trafford in the history of this competition.

But in a buoyant interview, Ronaldinho insists “nothing is impossible.” When he talks about his renewed form (“To tell you the truth I’ve been planning to have a year like this”) you can almost hear him grinning.

The Brazilian predicts a beautiful game at Old Trafford. And it may be one in which the script is written not by coaches but by a player. That must be the worry for United fans.

On current form, they have one game-changing genius, Wayne Rooney, whereas Milan probably have two and a half (Ronnie, Andrea Pirlo and – the half – Marco Barriello).

Real’s Pjanic button

Real v Lyon is as finely poised. Again, fans can find comfort in conflicting statistics.

Lyon have not conceded in 620 minutes, while Real have only failed to score at home in this competition in three of their last 20 games (though worryingly for the Madrilenos two of those scoreless games were in the first knockout round).

Lyon’s best hope, apart from a clean sheet, must be Lisandro Lopez, whose impressive strike rate – 14 in 30 games in this competition – looks a tad less daunting when you realise he has only scored once in the competition this season.

But he – and playmaker Miralem Pjanic – are the potential game changers. Against them, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Gonzalo Higuain could all prove decisive.

Kaka is regaining form but is still in danger, to hark back to Platini’s analysis, of being typecast as a player who lived off one golden season (2006/07).

Kaka - a one season wonder...?

The second leg could prove coach Manuel Pellegrini’s point: that Real, in recent seasons, have degenerated into a gifted counter-attacking side who can’t keep possession long enough to dominate the opposition.

He has tried to change that – to no avail in the first leg. But the Real players’ post-match in-flight inquest on the way home from Stade Gerland proves they know what is at stake.

On paper, Bayern have more players who can make a difference than Fiorentina. It is hard to know how fired up/distracted the Viola will be after their bad luck in the first leg.

Mind you, as Jeffery Marcus points out in the New York Times, it is hard to know which Fiorentina will turn up anyway.

The likelihood is, as Bayern coach Louis van Gaal says, that the Bavarians will score, so it will take some performance from Cesare Prandelli’s team to make the last eight.

For all that, the mood in Italy seems to be one of defiant optimism.

1-0 to the Arsenal

Cesc Fabregas’s hamstring blows the Arsenal v Porto tie wide open.

The Gunners have a surprisingly dismal record of overturning first leg leads in UEFA competitions – they have done so once in their last nine attempts – but could go through with that most George Grahamish of scorelines, 1-0.

In Cesc’s absence, their talismanic genius is Andrei Arshavin, a sublime player who still hasn’t quite silenced the kind of concerns that Platini raised in that interview.

The Russian maestro has scored 10 goals this season for club and country but only one in the Champions League (against Olympiacos) and only two against top class Premier League opposition (Liverpool and Manchester United).

This would be a good week for Arshavin to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Euro 2008 was not some glorious departure from the norm. A player with his natural gifts should be a serious contender for the Ballon d’Or by now.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Andrei? Arsenal fans certainly hope so. More to read...
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