Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola recently said that Lionel Messi is the best player he has ever seen. His club, FC Barcelona has recently engraved its name in history forever by lapping up an unprecedented 6 titles in a single season (the last being the Club World Cup). It is also favourite to take home a consecutive European title at the end of the season. Messi’s contribution has been the tipping factor – having scored 38 goals in all competitions last season and assisted in another 18. He was last week deservedly adjudged the FIFA Footballer of the Year. For a player of just 22 years and with so many years ahead of him, that is quite an extraordinary achievement.
Some may say that the World Cup is the highest level of performance, and Messi himself is keen to continue with his form and win the only trophy that still eludes him. In the run up to the Finals next June, the UEFA Champions League seems to be headed for a very close fight to the end, with more than the usual 2-3 strong contenders. It isn’t just Barcelona or Manchester United that pose a potent threat. The round of 16 fixtures threw up 2 particularly mouth-watering contests: AC Milan vs Manchester United, and Chelsea vs Inter Milan. I am tipping both English teams to go through, but it definitely won’t be easy as pie.
Inter Milan, who last won in 1965, are helmed by Jose Mourinho, who many would regard (including me) as the best coach in contemporary football. He is shrewd and has an uncanny ability to produce results (which is what every club chairman hopes for, but so very few achieve). His charismatic leadership inspired Chelsea to 6 titles in 3 years, having devoured every domestic title available to a manager. His status at Stamford Bridge was iconic, having brought the Premiership title back to Chelsea after 50 years.
Chelsea who have come so agonizingly close to the title in the last 2 years, and have undeservedly lost out on both occasions (losing to eventual winners Manchester United and Barcelona), seem a rejuvenated and confident bunch since Guus Hiddink’s brief spell at the club. Recent results have put them four points ahead of a depleted Manchester United side who seem to be sorely missing Cristiano Ronaldo. United will hope to salvage the most out of this season, particularly in Europe where they face AC Milan in February.
At the cost of sounding clichéd, the only thing consistent at AC Milan has been inconsistency. Having won 7 Champions League titles and 17 Serie A titles in the past, they now find themselves trumped by their city rivals, Inter Milan. Flashes of brilliance are contrasted with major drubbings and disappointing results. However, AC Milan continue to have a huge amount of experience in their squad, with the likes of Seedorf, Gattuso and Inzaghi. A strike force comprising of Ronaldinho and Pato can eat up any defense on a good day. They will also be bolstered by the addition of David Beckham, who is arguably the best dead-ball specialist in the world, returning on loan from LA Galaxy. He will relish a victorious return to Old Trafford where he spent his youth being nurtured into a world class player under Alex Ferguson. The latter sure won’t be sleeping easy in the run-up to the game.
A couple of other teams are capable of going all the way. Most clubs will be wary of drawing Arsenal in the quarter finals. The strength of the squad lies in the promising potential of a very youthful side (average age 22 years) spearheaded by the likes of Fabregas and Arshavin, players expected to take the World Cup by storm. Barcelona’s arch rivals, Real Madrid will be keen to trump them, an intent which is hard to miss, having spent a mind-boggling sum of 150 million Euros to acquire Kaka and Ronaldo in the summer transfer window.
With the World Cup just around the corner and national team managers like Capello and Mancini on the lookout, many players will be keen to exhibit their talent in the Champions League, so as to earn the coveted call to the national team. I reckon this one’s going to be a magical spectacle. If only Feb 16 didn’t seem like so far away.