First Whistle – April, 2012

At the impressionable age, when I just entered high school, the goal that left a lasting impression is what we depicted on the cover of our very first issue. We call it the ‘Locus of God’. But that’s not the only way to score a great goal. There could be a set of amazing passes leading into a goal, or a chip or a free-kick. Our revamped look from March onwards is somewhat a convex combination of such techniques; largely run solo, but ably assisted by other key players in team Goalden Times. We have received encouraging feedback on our new layout from our readers and this kind of support eggs us on to continuously improve and enrich our content.

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Moving on to the football pitch, news of Antonio Cassano, the Milan and Italy striker finally receiving a go-ahead to resume playing following  a heart surgery has been very heartening. With the collective prayer of football fans around the globe, Fabrice Ndala Muamba is getting better and Eric Abidal is progressing fine.  However, not all news has been good for the heart. We would like to take this opportunity to send our sincere best wishes to Aston Villa’s captain Stiliyan Petrov, who doctors say, has been a victim of the Chernobyl disaster. We wish him a positive outcome and speedy recovery. The game also lost a great man in Livorno midfieder Piermario Morosini who collapsed on the pitch and died of cardiac failure last week. We extend our condolences to his family and friends.

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Outside of health hazards, Carlos Tevez is back doing what he does best – showing his (hat)tricks on the football pitch. But his club, Manchester City is now 5 points behind the city rival United with five matches to go. In Italy, just 1 point separates the league leader Juventus, still unbeaten this season, and AC Milan. Borussia Dortmund seems to have a decisive 8-point lead over Bayern Munich in Bundesliga. In La Liga, Real Madrid won an El Clásico inalmost five years at the Camp Nou to almost seal the top spot. Elsewhere in Europe, Montpellier has a narrow 3-point lead over their nearest rival – the big spending Paris Saint-Germain, while Ajax is 6 points ahead of AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord Rotterdam. In India, Dempo Sporting Club has clinched the I-League title.

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Odds are of another El Clásico on May 19 in the UEFA Champions League final. There is a distinct possibility of an all-Spanish final in the UEFA Europa League as well with three Spanish clubs in the final four.

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We shall see how the Spanish national team dominates the UEFA Euro 2012 starting June 8, in Poland and Ukraine. Goalden Times will celebrate Euro and football in more ways than one. Keep watching this space, our Facebook page and Twitter.

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UEFA Champions League and Europa Cup Semi-Final Preview

The biggest club team honour is reaching its finale while the second-tier club competition in Europe is gathering momentum too. Get the showdown of the semi-final encounters with Debojyoti Chakraborty

The quarter-final stage of the Champions League 2011-12 got over without much brouhaha. A Milan faithful may not agree, but Barcelona was a clear favourite for this tie. Real Madrid surged past APOEL FC leaving them looking rather distraught. Their opponents, Bayern Munich also eased their way through to the last four after seeing Marseille off. Chelsea had to endure the toughest of the ties as they shook off a strong fightback from a 10-man Benfica. Teams to feature in the semi-finals have been really consistent throughout the tournament as is evident from the fact that they have topped their respective groups. Spain continued its dominance here as well while Real and Barcelona established themselves as the two top club teams. Italy have lost out on one Champions League spot to Germany from next season and they should not feel hard done by as none of the Serie A teams could make it to the last four whereas German Champions Bayern Munich look to challenge the Spanish Armada. The biggest surprise in the lineup is Chelsea, who have managed to come so far this season. So after a roller coaster ride, it is that time of the season when finally men are separated from the boys. Now let us prepare for the last two-legged encounter of the season.

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FC Bayern Munchen (GER) vs Real Madrid FC (ESP)

April 17, 2012

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)

April 25, 2012

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 4, Runners-up – 4

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 9, Runners-up – 3

Quarter-Final

Quarter-Final

Olympique de Marseille (2-0, 2-0)

Apoel FC (3-0, 5-2)

Round of 16

Round of 16

FC Basel 1893 (0-1, 7-0)

PFC CSKA Moskva (1-1, 4-1)

Group Stage | Group A Winner

Group Stage | Group D Winner

Villarreal CF (A) 2-0

SSC Napoli (H) 3-2

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0

Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0

Manchester City (H) 2-0

Villarreal CF (H) 3-1

AFC Ajax (H) 3-0

GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2

SSC Napoli (A) 1-1

Manchester City (A) 0-2

Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0

AFC Ajax (A) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

There is no bigger incentive for Bayern to win this tie than to feature in their home turf for the final on May 19. They face a mighty Real Madrid, a record nine-time conquerors of the continent. While many are preparing for another El Clasico in the final, it is the German Superpowers who seem to have a realistic chance of preventing that from happening. They had to come through the rigours of play-offs but they have looked sharper and clinical as the tournament approaches its crescendo. The Bavarians then topped the Group of Death before annihilating FC Basel 7-0 at home in the Round of 16 following a shock defeat in the first leg. A typical professional German display saw them ease past Marseille thereafter. Now they find themselves in a proper Big Match, and anyone can win it. Mario Gomez vs Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery vs Kaka, Philipp Lahm vs Sergio Ramos, Manuel Neuer vs Iker Casillas – it is perfect show time. These two superpowers of Europe have locked horns quite a few times resulting in almost even honours. Real has been in superb form from their group stages where they secured a perfect win record – only the fifth club in the history of the tournament to do so. A creditable draw in the freezing Moscow turf set them up nicely for the Round of 16. Los Blancos followed it up with bidding adieu to APOEL FC from little Cyprus – story of the season so far. Cristiano Ronaldo may be leading his counterpart in La Liga in terms of goal scoring but he is still some way behind in Europe. It will be a good stage for him to set the records straight as the competition nears its business end. Real has a star-studded side which is performing like a well-oiled machine – they have top two assist providers in Kaka and Karim Benzema, 3 out of the top 5 scorers are from Bernabéu (Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and José Callejón). Coupled with a compact defence which has conceded the least number of goals so far, this is a mouth-watering tie.

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Chelsea FC (ENG) vs FC Barcelona (ESP)

 

April 18, 2012

Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)

Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)

April 24, 2012

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Runners-up – 1

Top European Cup / Champions League Honours:

Winner – 4, Runners-up – 3

Quarter-Final

Quarter-Final

SL Benfica (1-0, 2-1)

AC Milan (0-0, 3-1)

Round of 16

Round of 16

Napoli (1-3, 4-1)

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (1-3, 7-1)

Group Stage | Group E Winner

Group Stage | Group H Winner

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

AC Milan (H) 2-2

FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 4-0

Valencia CF (A) 1-1

Bayer 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2

FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0

AC Milan (A) 3-2

KRC Genk (H) 5-0

Valencia CF (H) 3-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

FC Bate Borisov (H) 4-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Chelsea seem to have over-achieved this season in the Champions League considering their woeful domestic form and unrest in the dressing room. They saw off Valencia in the last match day in a must-win encounter in some style before staging one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of Champions League against Napoli in the Round of 16. Another tough nut waited in the quarter-finals and Chelsea rode their luck a little to knock out a resolute and gritty Benfica side. They would be determined to keep their continental form going as automatic Champions League qualification from the EPL is uncertain and hence winning this year’s Cup would be their only hope. They face the mighty Barcelona in a repeat fixture to 2009 edition. That time, Barcelona advanced on away goals and Chelsea would hope to do it one better this time.   Chelsea seem to be the weakest of the surviving teams – they have hardly been able to hold on to the ball, rarely threatened the goal mouth, scored the least and conceded the most number of goals. Add to that the quality of opposition over the two-legged semi-final tie – possibly the greatest club team ever to have played the game – and Chelsea seem down and out. But matches have never been won on paper and Chelsea would dearly love to prove this once again. Barcelona are through to the semi-finals of this competition fifth time in a row. By doing so, they have equalled the feat set by their archrivals Real Madrid in the late ‘50s – then known as the European Cup. And they would like to match another envious record held by their quarter-final rivals – win consecutive top European Club honours. Records are nothing new to the man named Lionel Messi. He became the youngest man, and fourth overall, to score 50 Champions League goals and also bettered his own Cup record of 12 goals in a season. The little magician has netted only 56 times so far this season and there will be hardly anyone who would bet against him scoring in this tie. People mesmerised by the tiki-taka brand of football often fail to appreciate their tight defence – Barca have not lost at home in Europe since 2009. They have some problem against aerial balls, but they more than make up for it through their defensive organisation. Except for Milan in the group stages, the Catalan side have conceded only 3 goals while scoring a staggering 28 in seven matches. They do keep the ball well – better than any other team in the competition – and make good use of it as they have outscored everyone else. This should be a good test for Barcelona, but not likely to be much more than a good warm-up for the impending final.

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The Europa Cup Previews

Some call it the poor cousin of the Champions League, but the teams vying for the Europa League would strongly object to that. After much blood, sweat and rigour of the horrific schedule, four teams survive to fight it out. The all-conquering Spanish dominance is even more evident here as we have Sporting Clube de Portugal sandwiched between three clubs from Spain. Some may argue that the competition is dampened by the reluctance of top clubs to compete in this demanding tournament and they have preferred to focus on their respective domestic leagues. But this, in no way, can undermine the achievements of the semi-finalists. Let us build up to these matches.

Club Atletico de Madrid vs Valencia CF

In their last meeting in Europe, Atletico Madrid edged past Valencia on the basis of away goals in the quarter-finals of Europa League in 2009-10 and went all the way to lift the trophy. This time they will host Valencia on April 19 with the away match a week later. The club from Madrid has failed to score against their La Liga counterpart in the domestic season and they would surely love to break the shackles this time. Thibaut Courtois, on loan from Chelsea, has been in superb form under the bars for them – taking over from the now Manchester United goalkeeper David de Gea – conceding the least number of goals in the competition. Up front, Falcao Garcia, the leading goal scorer in the tournament, has impressed some cash rich clubs in Europe and he would surely like to prove his worth. Not only him – Adrian Lopez, Eduardo Salvio – Atletico have quite a few options going forward and they are clear favourites to clinch it.  They have shown the desire by eliminating Manchester United from the tournament. On the other hand, Valencia are the only team to have come from the Champions League, having been eliminated on the last match day of the group stages in the hands of Chelsea. They boast of a strong defence consisting of Victor Ruiz and Adil Rami. They have a free-flowing approach to the game, reminiscent of any modern top Spanish side. They have netted 4 goals in two consecutive home matches and they would look to hone their goal scoring skills once again against their Spanish compatriots.

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Sporting Clube de Portugal vs Athletic Club

Only non-Spanish team left in the competition, Sporting Club will entertain Athletic Club on April 19 in an Iberian derby. They are enjoying their best season in Europe since 2005. History favours the Portuguese side in this tie as they have beaten – that too after trailing in the first leg – Athletic Club in their only meeting so far, way back in 1985-86 season. But they will have to go past a fantastic Gorka Iraizoz who has made the most number of saves (37) in the competition. Sporting is inspired by the ex-Liverpool left-back Emiliano Insua who is having a tremendous season. Ricky van Wolfswinkel up front also has performed beyond expectation. They are up against an Athletic team, which is the only team to compete with Atletico de Madrid in terms of goal scoring. Diego da Cunha is leading the pack in the midfield as he leads the assists chart with four of them while chipping in a few on his own. They have come back from behind twice against FC Schalke 04 to clinch the tie which shows their hunger for success. In fact, they have had the most number of attempts – 67, close to six per match on an average – in goal amongst the teams surviving in the competition. Markel Susaeta has orchestrated the midfield quite well and he will have a major part to play in this tie as well. But they have leaked quite generously in the back and this is one area where they would like to improve. They will be further handicapped as star defender Javi Martinez has been suspended. This should be a fierce battle as both the teams rank right up there in terms of fouls committed throughout the tournament. Nonetheless, this promises to be an enthralling contest – plenty of goals, some shrewd tactics being employed and a nail-biting finish.

UEFA Champions League & Europa League Quarter-Final Preview

Drama unfolds at the European competitions. Get the lowdown on each team and each tie with Debojyoti Chakraborty

The pre-quarter final matches of the Champions League and the UEFA Europa League have just got over. Champions League, in particular, has sprung in a pleasant surprise. For the first time, the quarter finalists have come from as many as seven different nations. With the most prestigious club team honour at stake, things cannot get more exciting than this. APOEL FC has continued their dream run and has thus become the first Cypriot club to reach this far in the tournament. The other teams in the quarter-finals have all reached the finals at least once, with Chelsea as the only club failing to embrace the glory. Spain, the current European and World Champions, have been dominant in club football also as they are the only nation with two teams alive in the competition – Barcelona and Real Madrid. Though pundits see them clashing in the finals, Bayern Munich will be no pushover either. Benfica and Marseille finish the line-up and they also will be tough nuts to crack. As the draws unfolded in Nyon, Switzerland on 15th March evening, Milan vs. Barca took the limelight. The other draws were equally interesting – and historic, too – as the sides have never faced each other before.

Similar draws were read out for Europa League, where none of the quarter-final opponents have faced each other before. Europa League, often considered the poor cousin of Champions League, had generated tremendous public interest due to the expectant clash of Manchester sides in the final. Strangely, both the teams looked out of depth and were eliminated in the Round of 16. There is a possibility of an all-Spanish or German final on 9th May, 2012 in Bucharest, as three teams from Spain and two from Germany are still alive in the competition. Teams from Netherlands, Portugal and Ukraine make the final line-up. One of them, AZ Alkmaar from Netherlands, would be locking horns against Valencia from Spain. Another Spanish side Athletic Bilbao will fancy their chances against FC Schalke 04 from Germany after knocking Manchester United out in the previous round. There is another Spain vs. Germany on the cards as defending champions Atletico Madrid will take on relative newcomers Hannover 96. Last but not the least, Portuguese side Sporting Lisbon, who accounted for the other Manchester club (Manchester City), would go on as favourites against the little-known Ukrainian club FC Metalist Kharkiv.

CL Match-ups

APOEL FC (CYP) vs. Real Madrid FC (ESP)

 
27th March, 2012 GSP Stadium, Nicosia (CYP) Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP) 4th April, 2012
Top European Cup/ Champions League Honours:Debutant to Knock Out Stage Top European Cup/ Champions League Honours:Winner – 9, Runners-up – 3

Round of 16

Round of 16

Olympique Lyonnais (0-1, 1-0; won 4-3 on penalties)

PFC CSKA Moskva (1-1, 4-1)

Group Stage | Group G Winner

Group Stage | Group D Winner

FC Zenit St Petersburg (H) 2-1 FC Shakhtar Donetsk (A) 1-1 GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0 Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0
FC Porto (A) 1-1 FC Porto (H) 2-1 AFC Ajax (H) 3-0 GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2
FC Zenit St Petersburg (A) 0-0 FC Shakhtar Donetsk (H) 0-2 Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0 AFC Ajax (A) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

We had set it up, didn’t we? We had predicted an upset when APOEL was drawn against Lyon in the Round of 16, and they did oblige. Against Lyon they took full advantage of a second leg at home. But they must be credited for not getting bogged down by the occasion and keeping the tie alive after the first leg at Lyon. Their dream run continues and they have vindicated the observers who are calling them Team of the Season. The story does not change for them – they are entering the draw as underdogs, nobody is putting a penny on winning this. This time, we are also not too optimistic. Jose knows a thing or two about winning ties and APOEL can bask in the glorious memories of their achievements. Contrast it is! A debutant at this stage against a team with the most (28) number of quarter-final appearances. Real Madrid have continued their domestic form and have marched past CSKA Moscow in the Round of 16. They returned from freezing Russia with a very creditable scored draw and killed the game at their own backyard. Apart from a deadly forward line headed by CR7, they have conceded only four goals – least in the tournament – until now. They have been drawn against the little club from Cyprus who – in spite of their giant killing activities so far – was in everybody’s wishlist. With a comfortable lead over Barcelona in the La Liga, Jose Mourinho can concentrate solely on Europe. It will be a surprise if the tie is alive after the first leg, even though it is away from home.

Olympique de Marseille (FRA) vs. FC Bayern Munchen (GER)

 
28th March, 2012 Stade Vélodrome, Marseille (FRA) Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER) 3rd April, 2012
Top European Cup/ Champions League Honours:Winner – 1, Runners-up – 1 Top European Cup/ Champions League Honours:Winner – 4, Runners-up – 4

Round of 16

Round of 16

FC Internazionale Milano (1-0, 1-2; won on away goals)

FC Basel 1893 (0-1, 7-0)

Group Stage | Group F Runners up

Group Stage | Group A Winner

Olympiacos FC (A) 1-0 Arsenal FC (A) 0-0 Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 0-1 LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 2-1
Borussia Dortmund (H) 3-0 Olympiacos FC (H) 0-1 PFC CSKA Moskva (A) 3-2 Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 1-1
Arsenal FC (H) 0-1 Borussia Dortmund (A) 3-2 LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 1-0 PFC CSKA Moskva (H) 1-2

Talking Point

Talking Point

Marseille knocked Inter out of the Champions League in one of the most dramatic fashions. An away goal deep into the injury time paved way for them into the quarter-final. Inter Milan might consider themselves unlucky as they were the better team over two legs. But it must be remembered that the barely known players from Marseille had already caught the eyes of Europe through their pressing style of play and a compact defence. Again they enter a draw as being underdogs. Didier Deschamps has lifted the trophy with Marseille in 1993 as a captain; it is their only Champions League title till date.  He would surely like to emulate that feat as their manager this time. Bayern Munich has stormed into the quarter-finals by annihilating FC Basel 7-0 at home. A shock defeat at Basel in the first leg shook them up and Bayern responded with grit, determination, zeal and killer instinct – a typical German display one would say. Bayern will take a boost from the timely return of midfield lynchpin Bastian Schweinsteiger. Along with Mario Gomez, Arjen Robben and Franc Ribbery, he will lead the pack which could be enough to see them past their French counterparts. There would be added incentive for Bayern as this year’s final showdown will take place in their own backyard on 19th May. Player by player, position by position, Bayern would score in almost all areas against Marseille. But strange things happen in football and Bayern should keep that in mind.
 

SL Benfica (POR) vs. Chelsea FC (ENG)

 
27th March, 2012 Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon (POR) Stamford Bridge, London (ENG) 4th April, 2012
Top European Cup/ Champions League Honours:Winner – 2, Runners-up – 5 Top European Cup/ Champions League Honours:Runners-up – 1

Round of 16

Round of 16

FC Zenit St Petersburg  (2-3, 2-0)

Napoli (1-3, 4-1)

Group Stage | Group C Winner

Group Stage | Group E Winner

Manchester United (H) 1-1 FC Basel 1893 (H) 1-1 Bayern 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0 KRC Genk (A) 1-1
FC Oţelul Galaţi (A) 1-0 Manchester United (A) 2-2 Valencia CF (A) 1-1 Bayern 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2
FC Basel 1893 (A) 2-0 FC Oţelul Galaţi (H) 1-0 KRC Genk (H) 5-0 Valencia CF (H) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Benfica did incredibly well to top their Group and thus were handed a relatively easier draw against Zenit in the Round of 16. They did, however, survive the torturous weather of Russia and came away with two away goals. In the home leg, they were dominant and progressed to the quarter-finals after six years. They have to thank their well organized defence for their journey so far, but they have lacked a focal point in attack. As many as six players have been cored for them – this is good in a way that they are not relying on any one player for goals. With second leg away against a Chelsea side on the ascendency, they have to draw the first blood at Lisbon. Chelsea’s season reached its ultimate low just on the eve of crucial second leg in the Round of 16. An awful run of results in the Premier League brought about the sacking of their manager and interim caretaker man-in-charge Roberto Di Matteo had to overcome a 1-3 first leg deficit against Napoli. The old guards resurfaced with the much needed venom and John Terry, Franc Lampard, Didier Drogba – all ensured that Chelsea register a historic comeback win over their inexperienced European opponents. Chelsea, a rejuvenated side, are favourites entering into the quarter-final draw, especially after being fortunate enough to avoid some stronger teams. Roman Abramovich has seen Chelsea conquer everything in England and he hopes that Europe will not elude him this time with the current resurgence of form.
 

AC Milan (ITA) vs. FC Barcelona (ESP)

 
28th March, 2012 Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan (ITA) Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP) 3rd April, 2012
Top European Cup/ Champions League Honours:Winner – 7, Runners-up – 4 Top European Cup/ Champions League Honours:Winner – 4, Runners-up – 3

Round of 16

Round of 16

Arsenal (4-0, 0-3)

Bayern Leverkusen (1-3, 7-1)

Group Stage | Group H Runners up

Group Stage | Group H Winner

FC Barcelona (A) 2-2 FC Bate Borisov (A) 1-1 AC Milan (H) 2-2 FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 4-0
FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0 FC Barcelona (H) 2-3 FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0 AC Milan (A) 3-2
FC Bate Borisov (H) 2-0 FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 2-2 FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0 FC Bate Borisov (H) 4-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Milan has been setting up the box office records for Champions League this season. After a Group league duel with Barcelona, they went past Arsenal at San Siro with much ease. Entering the second leg with a 4-0 lead, it was thought to be a cakewalk but 41 minutes into the match, they were tottering 0-3 down. Milan finally were able to see off the vibrant Gunners but their defensive deficiencies have been exposed time and again this season. Barring the last match, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored in all the CL matches he has played so far and Milan will hope that his form continues. Even so, Milan has to perform beyond expectations to beat Barcelona over a two-legged tie. Like their Spanish archrivals, Barcelona have also not been beaten this season in the Champions League. There is no stopping Lionel Messi as he piles up goal after goal, record after record – latest being a five goal gift to Nou Camp faithful against Bayern Leverkusen in the second leg of Round of 16 draw. With 3.5 goals per patch on an average, Barcelona have been in superb form all round – 10 different players feature in the score sheet with 11 various assist providers. Against Milan, in a re-match from the group stage, they are definite favourites. With the La Liga all but gone, Pep Guardiola will be even more eager for this trophy one more time, which could be his swansong. If they can hold onto their title, they will be the first team to do so since their opponent did it in 1989-90.

UEFA Champions League Knockout Stage Preview

The business end of Champions League is about to begin. Get the lowdown on each team and each tie with Debojyoti Chakraborty

2011-12 has been a landmark year for the Champions League as it has probably taken a step to show it is no longer an elitist domain. With no fewer than nine countries being present at this stage, the UEFA President can boast of his Spread the Game campaign. One time undisputed superpower, Italy has the envious record of having at least three teams – and this time the only country to be so – for the seventh time in a row. Other giants in European football – England and Spain – are going through one of the worst seasons for years as they have only two representatives. That is the same number Russia have achieved this year, for the first time in their history, along with the usual attendees like Germany and France. Russia should not feel lonely as Eastern Europe has another representative in the form of knockout stage debutants APOEL Nicosia from Cyprus. Together with FC Basel of Switzerland, the other knockout stage debutants they have shocked quite a few with their strong showing in the group stages and it would be dangerous to demean their chances in the business end. Joining the league of debutants is the rejuvenated club from Italy, FC Napoli who are basking in Champions League glory for the first time ever. They could do well to emulate Real Madrid who is making a record 15th consecutive appearance at this stage of the competition, followed closely by Arsenal with 12th straight show down. Not surprisingly, Real also holds the record of winning the title for a record nine times. Milan is at second place with seven winners’ medals to their name. Current champion and hot favourite Barcelona have won this competition four times, same number as that of Bayern Munich, another giant in European football. Following the pack are Inter (three titles), Benfica (two titles) and Marseille (one title). When the round of 16 draw was made in Nyon, Switzerland about two months back, everybody knew that the teams from same group or same country could not be drawn together, but very few would have anticipated such delectable ties.

 

APOEL FC vs. Olympique Lyonnais

 

14th February, 2012

Stade de Gerland, Lyon (FRA)

GSP Stadium, Nicosia (CYP)

7th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Zenit St Petersburg (H) 2-1

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (A) 1-1

AFC Ajax (A) 1-1

Real Madrid CF (H) 0-2

FC Porto (A) 1-1

FC Porto (H) 2-1

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 2-0

AFC Ajax (H) 0-0

FC Zenit St Petersburg (A) 0-0

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (H) 0-2

Real Madrid CF (A) 0-4

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 7-1

Talking Point

Talking Point

Surprise package of the season. With a paltry annual team budget of €10 million – close to the amount Emmanuel Adebayor earns from Manchester City, and he is not even considered good enough for a substitute role – this small club created history by coming this far. They are the first team from Cyprus to reach the knockout stages of the Champions League. They are not favourites to win this tie but they were not tipped to top the group stages either. Rode their luck to a great extent as two perfect results on the final matchday of the group stages saw them through to the knock out stages. But their second half display against Dinamo Zagreb on that day, when they unleashed six goals en route a 7-1 win, showed they meant business. A few were suspicious of this unlikely result, specifically with the second half showing, but that should not distract Lyon much. Hugo Lloris has been sensational for them under the bars with the most number (30) of saves in the competition so far. Except for the games against Real Madrid, he has conceded only once in four matches. Lyon faces an uncomfortable second leg away from home and hence should try to seal the tie in the first leg itself.

Bayer 04 Leverkusen vs. FC Barcelona

 

14th February, 2012

Bay-Arena, Leverkusen (GER)

Camp Nou, Barcelona (ESP)

14th February, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Chelsea FC (A) 0-2

Valencia FC (A) 1-3

AC Milan (H) 2-2

Chelsea FC (A) 0-2

KRC Genk (H) 2-0

Chelsea FC (H) 2-1

FC Bate Borisov (A) 5-0

KRC Genk (H) 2-0

Valencia FC (H) 2-1

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

Valencia FC (H) 2-1

Talking Point

Talking Point

Beating the best team in the world, or arguably the greatest club team ever to embrace the game of football, is not a cakewalk. But they have scalped one Spanish side in the group stages already and that should give them some hope.  Still it would need much more than the famous German steel, the undying spirit of a certain Michael Ballack and a great bit of luck – and a Bengali in the form of Robin Dutt at the helm of things – to come out of Nou Camp with their heads held high. Barcelona have not been beaten this season in the Champions League and it seems this record won’t be broken any time soon. Leo Messi and company could have got a trickier tie but they would settle for this with the second leg at home. Their La Liga form is not spectacular, but it would take some doing for any team to beat them over a two-legged tie. Their midfield has not come to the party as yet in this competition but this should be the ideal stage to stamp their authority on Europe.
 

FC Zenit St Petersburg  vs. SL Benfica

 

15th February, 2012

Stadion Petrovskiy, St Petersburg (RUS)

Estádio do Sport Lisboa e Benfica, Lisbon (POR)

6th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

APOEL FC (A) 1-2

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (H) 1-0

Manchester United (H) 1-1

FC Basel 1893 (H) 1-1

FC Porto (H) 3-1

APOEL FC (H) 0-0

FC Oţelul Galaţi (A) 1-0

Manchester United (A) 2-2

FC Shakhtar Donetsk (A) 2-2

FC Porto (A) 0-0

FC Basel 1893 (A) 2-0

FC Oţelul Galaţi (H) 1-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

This would be the home coming for the Portuguese duo Bruno Alves and Danny. Zenit would like to take the full advantage of the first leg at home under freezing Russian weather, but that’s not their only talking point. They have two of the top defenders in the Champions League this season in Nicolas Lombaerts and Tomas Hubocan with most number of balls recovered so far. Besides the return of influential star striker Alexander Kerzhakov from injury would be a major boost for them. However, Zenit would severely lack match sharpness as their domestic season will start only days before the second leg match. Topped the group which had Manchester United and thus were able to avoid other group toppers. They have also been fortunate not to be drawn against some strong runner up teams from the group stage like Milan or Lyon. A trip to Russia will not be a stroll in the park though a second leg at home might just suit them. Nicolas Gaitan has eclipsed his more illustrious contemporaries to become the most influential playmaker in the tournament with the most number of assists so far and Benfica would look upon him as an inspiration.
 

AC Milan vs. Arsenal FC

 

15th February, 2012

Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan (ITA)

The Emirates Stadium, London (ENG)

6th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Barcelona (A) 2-2

FC Bate Borisov (A) 1-1

Borussia Dortmund (A) 1-1

Olympique de Marseille (H) 0-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (H) 2-0

FC Barcelona (H) 2-3

Olympiacos FC (H) 2-1

Borussia Dortmund (H) 2-1

FC Bate Borisov (H) 2-0

FC Viktoria Plzen (A) 2-2

Olympique de Marseille (A) 0-1

Olympiacos FC (A) 1-3

Talking Point

Talking Point

A battle of experience vs. youthful exuberance, a tussle between composure and agility – this is a mouth-watering clash. Milan started the campaign brightly with a 2-2 draw at Nou Camp. But they faded off afterwards and managed only two points in the last three matches. That did not prevent them from qualifying for the next stage but they finished a good seven points behind the group winner, Barcelona. They have been presented a second leg away from home which may very well suit their counter-attack based football. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has scored in all the CL matches he has played so far and Milan will hope that this trend continues. Arsenal have been historically drawn against tough oppositions quite early in the recent years of Champions League draw. This time too they feature in The match of the round like last year. Arsenal could enjoy a free flowing passage of play against Milan but they have to be careful of their defensive lapses which could well be exposed by the counter-attacking threat of Milan. It raises a few eyebrows if Robin van Persie does not feature in the score sheets. It will be good show down with Ibra, but can his young and inexperienced teammates see Arsenal through? The second leg at the Emirates could well be the decider.
 

PFC CSKA Moskva vs. Real Madrid

 

21st February, 2012

Stadion Luzhniki, Moscow (RUS)

Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, Madrid (ESP)

14th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 2-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (A) 0-0

GNK Dinamo Zagreb (A) 1-0

Olympique Lyonnais (A) 2-0

FC Internazionale Milano (H) 2-3

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 0-2

AFC Ajax (H) 3-0

GNZK Dinamo Zagreb (H) 6-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 3-0

FC Internazionale Milano (A)   2-1

Olympique Lyonnais (H) 4-0

AFC Ajax (A) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Beating Inter at their own backyard was not the only requirement; CSKA also needed a draw between Lille and Trabzonspor on the final matchday to secure a knockout stage berth. Fortunately CSKA got the result they wanted but their luck may run out against a rampant Real Madrid. They are a decent side who like to play open attacking football. Seydou Doumbia is one of the leading goal scorers in the tournament with five goals in five appearances and he would love to portray his skills in front of a wider audience. But even a star shot stopper in Igor Akinfeev could prove to be not much against Cristiano Ronaldo and company. Also they are handicapped by the same problem as that of Zenit – lack of match sharpness. Real has been in superb form and their statistics prove that. They have scored nineteen goals in the group stages – only archrivals Barcelona have been able to better that by one goal – and have conceded two goals, the least by any team. Sergio Ramos Garcia has been a star performer as Real are yet to concede any goal in 400+ minutes with him on the pitch. Real have proved that they are much more than Cristiano Ronaldo alone as they have marched past the last two matches without their star striker. But Jose Mourinho should not take this Russian side lightly. They are favourites to progress and they should, unless complacency gets the better of them.
 

SSC Napoli vs. Chelsea

 

21st February, 2012

Stadio San Paolo, Naples (ITA)

Stamford Bridge, London (ENG)

14th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Manchester City FC (A) 1-1

FC Bayern Munchen (A) 2-3

Bayern 04 Leverkusen (H) 2-0

KRC Genk (A) 1-1

Villarreal CF (H) 2-0

Manchester City FC (H) 2-1

Valencia CF (A) 1-1

Bayern 04 Leverkusen (A) 1-2

FC Bayern Munchen (H) 1-1

Villarreal CF (A) 2-0

KRC Genk (H) 5-0

Valencia CF (H) 3-0

Talking Point

Talking Point

Napoli had attracted quite a few eyeballs at the start of the season. They have done their reputation no harm by entering into the knock-out stages in their debut campaign at the expense of cash-rich Manchester City. They were in the Group of Death but their inexperience might just catch up with them here. Star forward Edinson Cavani could be in his last season at Napoli before the cash-rich clubs snatch him away and he could leave his mark before bowing out. Chelsea are having a rocky season in the Premier League, but they have a very strong record at the knockout stages of the Champions League in this decade. Their new manager Andre Vilas Boas may be a newcomer to England, but he is no greenhorn in Europe having already won the UEFA Europa League with Porto last year. Chelsea are going through a transition phase, but getting a debutant team at this stage may just see them through.
 

Olympique de Marseille vs. FC Internazionale Milano

 

22nd February, 2012

Stade Vélodrome, Marseille (FRA)

Stadio Giuseppe Meazza, Milan (ITA)

13th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

Olympiacos FC (A) 1-0

Arsenal FC (A) 0-0

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 0-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 2-1

Borussia Dortmund (H) 3-0

Olympiacos FC (H) 0-1

PFC CSKA Moskva (A) 3-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 1-1

Arsenal FC (H) 0-1

Borussia Dortmund (A) 3-2

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 1-0

PFC CSKA Moskva (H) 1-2

Talking Point

Talking Point

Little known players from Marseille have caught the eyes of Europe. Surged by a strong defence, they have propelled through to the knockout stages of Champions League, but they will be underdogs going into this tie. Surely they preferred an easier opponent; at least a second leg advantage at home would have given them some hope. Inter are peaking at the right time. After starting their campaign with a shock defeat to Trabzonspor at home, they bounced back to top the group. They are not likely to be overconfident against Marseille as they bowed out to Schalke FC last year under similar circumstances. And it might be time for Wesley Sneijder to settle in and start imposing his authority again.
 

FC Basel 1893 vs. FC Bayern Munchen

 

22nd February, 2012

St. Jakob-Park, Basel (SUI)

Fußball Arena München, Munich (GER)

13th March, 2012

Road to Knockouts

Road to Knockouts

FC Oţelul Galaţi (H) 2-1

SL Benfica (A) 1-1

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 0-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (H) 2-1

Manchester United (A) 3-3

FC Oţelul Galaţi (A) 3-2

PFC CSKA Moskva (A) 3-2

Trabzonspor AŞ (H) 1-1

SL Benfica (H) 0-2

Manchester United (H) 2-1

LOSC Lille Métropole (A) 1-0

PFC CSKA Moskva (H) 1-2

Talking Point

Talking Point

FC Basel’s shot to fame was knocking out Manchester United from the group stages on the last matchday. This may end up being their high point in this year’s campaign as they look to lock horns against Bayern Munich in their inaugural knockout stage appearance. Alexandar Frei & Marco Streller have both played in Bundesliga before but their influence may not be enough. Bayern Munich, a heavyweight in Europe will be favourites against FC Basel. Sheer professionalism of the German team would be a bit too much for Basel. Bayern would have taken a major boost from the timely return of midfield lynchpin Bastian Schweinsteiger, but his return to field was short- lived as he suffered a torn ligament in the German Cup quarterfinals. His partnership with Mario Gomez, top scorer so far in this year’s CL having scored 6 goals in less than 400 minutes in the pitch, should prove deadly going forward.

The Year That Was – When Romance Returned to Football

As the football season resumes in earnest again, Debopam Roy takes you through the year that just went by – a year when romance returned to football. So grab some popcorn and read on

Year 2011 has been one of romance and glory for football. We witnessed celebrated victories of AC Milan in Serie A (ending a five year dominance of rivals Inter), of Lille in the French Ligue 1 (after a 56-year wait), of Borussia Dortmund in Germany (after a decade) of Uruguay in the Copa America (their 15th win overall, but one that came after 15 years). But the one thing that has been a permanent fixture is the dominance of Barcelona in the Spanish and international club scene. A Jose Mourinho-inspired Real managed to prise Copa del Rey away in April but otherwise the blaugrana have been ruling the roost pretty well – that Copa del Rey loss being the only blemish in all the competitions they participated in. The peak probably came when Barcelona ruthlessly exposed the shortcomings of a Manchester United club, which had attained its holy grail of 19 league championships, overtaking Liverpool’s long standing record. The Red Devils would then reach dizzy heights including THAT 8-2 but would also see the troughs of 6-1 shellacking at home in the derby and end up without Champions League knockout stage qualification for only the third time in the history of the Champions League. The city of Manchester was united in that disappointment as Manchester City too bowed out of Europe on the same day but 2011 was a seminal year otherwise for them, and City won their first ever title in close to 40 years by winning the FA Cup. They followed that up with a solid showing in the Premier League, which has seen them march past most of their opponents for much of the 2011-12 season. The year had many such vignettes and we try to capture some of them here.

Return of the Prodigal Son

Honourable Mention II: Barcelona finally managed to sign Cesc Fabregas after …well, since the day he was let go. A couple of years of ‘will he, won’t he’ and the prank Barcelona jersey put on him by Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta during the 2010 World Cup celebrations, Fabregas finally made the jump in 2011, after seven years with Arsenal and has proved that it was much more than a bench role, by scoring nine times in thirteen games, for the Catalan giants.

Honourable Mention I: Twice FIFA World Player of the Year, feted for his skills in leading Barcelona to their first Champions League win in 15 years, Ronaldinho was supposedly dumped for a pre-retirement jaunt by Milan, at the beginning of 2011. He was back in Brazil playing for Flamengo and with 21 goals and eight assists in the 52 matches thereafter, he had made up for lost time. He inspired the team to the Taça Guanabara, Taça Rio and Campeonato Carioca and had worked his way into the Brazilian team. This was no mean feat, as he had been ostracised from the national team since 2008.

And the 2011 “Return of the Prodigal Son” is Kenny Dalglish aka King Kenny.

Back in the club of his greatest adventure and at a time when they were looking at the real spectre of relegation dogfight, King Kenny rallied Liverpool to a sixth place finish. On another day that would have been sufficient for European action but with Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City all qualifying from either cup competitions or fair play leagues, Liverpool endured their first season out of Europe in over a decade. Still Kenny Dalglish deserves praise for rallying around a team of misfiring, disjointed players who had been in decline for some time.

The Oil League

Honourable Mention II: Anzhi Makhachkala is owned by Suleyman Kerimov, a man listed as #118 on the Forbes list of the World’s Billionaires. Anzhi sprung the most unlikely coup by luring Samuel Eto’o from Inter Milan for €28 mn and in the process making him the richest salaried football player (or even athlete if you believe some reports) at €20.5 mn.  Anzhi though just about managed to qualify for second stage in the revamped Russian Premier League. This second stage involves the top eight teams from the regular season, which has 30 matches home and away and plays another double-legged league. Anzhi finished eighth to qualify for this but doesn’t look like winning the championship anytime soon.

Honourable Mention I: Malaga CF was reportedly bought for €36mn by Sheikh Al Thani, a member of the Qatari Royal family. Unlike the other oil rich clubs, Malaga has been looking at older marquee players rather than buying top notch players for astronomical fees. Hence players like Julio Baptista, Martin Demichelis, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Joris Mathijsen have found favour. The managerial reins are with Manuel Pellegrini who had taken over the club while being in the relegation zone and led them to an 11th place finish. The 2011-12 season has been even better so far with Malaga sitting in sixth place and in a La Liga sharply polarised between the top two and the rest of the eighteen teams, stands a bright chance to qualify for Europe next year.

But the Oil League’s top dogs have been the cousins of the Qatari Royal family who controlled Paris St.Germain (PSG) and Manchester City. They spent €86 mn and €93 mn in the summer transfer window. This money can be considered well spent though, as apart from buying some of the biggest names of world football – Sergio Aguero, Javier Pastore, Samir Nasri – both the teams managed to finish 2011 at the top of their leagues. There was continental disappointment though as PSG crashed out of Europa League and City crashed out of Champions League.

Underdog Story of the Year

Honourable Mention II: The 2011 Copa America was supposed to be the crowning glory for an Argentinian team led by Leo Messi. Hosting the tournament with Messi, widely recognized as the best player in the planet and comparisons with all time greats a common occurrence; it was almost granted that Messi would lead the hugely talented Argentine attacking line to the title. The challenge was supposed to come from a Brazilian national team, which boasted new stars on the block – Neymar and Ganso. What transpired instead was elimination at the quarter final stage and it was Uruguay continuing the resurgence under Oscar Tabarez. The semi-final appearance that Uruguay had managed in the 2010 World Cup was not a fluke was reiterated once more as Uruguay defeated Argentina on its way to a title, which made them the team with the highest number of Copa titles and also their first title in 15 years. A new generation has come up in the national team embodied by Edinson Cavani and this team is primed for even more glories.

Honourable Mention I: To properly understand what Apeol FC has managed, one needs to maybe look at what it means for the country’s European co-efficients. After the 2010-11 season, Cyprus lay at the 20th position in the European coefficient rankings but six months of 2011-12 has seen them rising to 16th, over teams like Czech Republic and Croatia among others. A major part of this dramatic rise is owing to the exploits of Apoel F.C. in Europe. Rank outsiders and in only their second foray in the marquee league, Apoel stunned all to top their group, which contained Porto, Shakhtar and Zenit. In the process, they confined last season’s Europa champions, Porto out of the Champions league. This achievement becomes even more creditable when you consider that Apoel had to overcome three opponents in the qualifying tournament just to get into the Champions League group stages. A second round match against Lyon will not daunt them and Cyprus may look out for a further boost to their rankings.

The French Ligue 1 has been dominated in the 21st century by Lyon and finally Bordeaux has managed to break that stranglehold. However, little Lille stunned everyone to win both the league and the Coupe de France in 2011 scoring a league-leading 72 goals and winning the league with rounds to spare. Lille have managed to do it with a string of homegrown players, the leader of that pack being Eden Hazard and to this mix, players like Moussa Sow and Rio Mavuba have been added. Sow especially was hugely impressive scoring 25 goals including three hat-tricks, the final of which came on the last day of the season. Sow has carried on that form into the 2011-12 season as well as leading the scoring charts for this richly talented Lille side. The oil money of PSG (read above) notwithstanding, Lille would be fighting for further glory this year, and another domestic double is not out of reach.

Heartwarming Victories

Forget the fact that he was ridiculed as a fashion accessory and on his way to retirement when he left Real Madrid for the lucrative confines of Major League Soccer; David Beckham is honest and diligentin his efforts. It might have taken him four years but he has finally managed to win a trophy with the Los Angeles Galaxy. The Los Galacticos are one of the heavyweights of the MLS but have remained empty-handed since 2005. Since his move in 2007, Beckham had been hardly inspiring for the team with his spate of injuries and multiple loan spells to Milan. 2011 though would change that and Galaxy would win the MLS Cup and the MLS Supporter’s Shield. Beckham became the most influential player, scoring 2 goals and providing 13 assists in the 27 matches he played in. To put it into perspective, that count of 13 assists is the highest that Beckham has ever managed in his professional career in a single season.

Japan had been devastated in 2011 in a Tsunami, which had rendered a threat of nuclear pollution in the entire Asian region but within months, the Nadeshiko went on an amazing winning spree, to claim the first ever Football World Cup at the senior level for Asia. In the process, Japan became only the fourth ever winner of the Women’s World Cup. They had already beaten the hosts and two-time reigning champions Germany in the quarter final 1-0 after extra time and then easily disposed of the Swedes in the semis. Another two-time champion and heavyweights of the women’s game, the US awaited them in the final. Twice, the US took the lead; twice Japan equalised. The first was in the 81st minute and the second in the 117th minute. Ultimately, they would win 3-1 in the penalty shoot out to claim the first Asian World Cup. In addition, Japan won the FIFA Fair Play trophy too while ace forward, Homare Sawa won both the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot. It was a magical night when all the stories that you have heard of David slaying Goliath came true.

Year of the Minnows

Honourable Mention II: A 30-year-old Romanian computer programmer, Eduard Ranghiuc spotted something which brought into focus the whole procedure in which teams are ranked by FIFA.  Normally FIFA ranks and awards points in whole numbers and as per that ranking system, Wales was ahead of Faroe Island. However, with Mr. Ranghiuc spotting an error in FIFA’s calculation, he claimed the Faroese should have got 0.7 points more and that would push them beyond the Wales. The Faroe Association lobbied hard and Wales suffered the ignominy of being in the last pot of UEFA for the Qualifying draw. It may not matter ultimately as the Faroese have drawn Germany, Sweden, Irish Republic, Austria and Kazakhstan, and the Kazakhs are possibly their best chance to earn some points. The Welsh drew Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Belgium and fellow British side, Scotland.

Honourable Mention I: Back in Asia, it was a remarkable achievement when Afghanistan reached the finals of the South Asian Cup. Ravaged by war and ranked a lowly 178, the Afghans surprised everyone, including themselves by drawing with hosts and firm favourites, India in the lung opener. However, they then exceeded that performance by beating Sri Lanka and Bhutan in the group stages and then defeating the formidable Nepal (nearly 30 places ahead of them in FIFA rankings) in the semi finals. Their opponent in the final was India again. It was a tough match; the scores were tied till the Afghan goalkeeper was shown red and a penalty was awarded to India. After this incident, the Afghan resistance wilted and they lost the match 4-0.

They had last won a match in 1983 when neither they nor their opponent were part of FIFA. They have the world record for conceding the highest number of goals (31-0 shellacking at the hands of the Aussies). But 2011 must be remembered as a watershed for little American Samoa. That 1983 win was their only win in the international front till November 23, 2011, when a long ranger from Ramin Ott and a chipped finish by Shalom Luani led them to a 2-1 win over Tonga in the Oceania World Cup qualifiers. Coached by Thomas Rongen who played in the legendary Ajax side of the 70s, American Samoa would draw their next match with Cook Islands but a loss to Samoa put paid to their hopes of qualification.

The Thing About 18

Worldwide, 18 is considered the age when we attain maturity and are given the rights to drive a car or to vote. The target of 18 is thus the holy grail for many a teenager who would like to enjoy life to their fullest in a legal manner. 2011 strangely can be entwined around 18 with some of the best clubs entwined together at that number.

The Scudetto has been won an astounding 63 times out of 107 by three clubs – Juventus and the two Milan giants, Milan and Internazionale.  Juventus have won 27 and Inter had raced to 18 on the back of 5 straight Scudetti since 2005-6, the first of which was awarded to them after the Calciopoli scandal. The 2005-06 Scudetto was won by Juventus who were stripped of the title and runner-up Milan was handed points penalty and Inter was thus handed the Scudetto by the Italian Football Federation (FIGC). The then Juventus Director of Sport, Luciano Moggi was implicated and handed a life ban. Moggi has kept on fighting the same in the courts and finally in 2011, new evidence was unearthed which showed that the phone calls, which were taken as evidence in 2011 did not include the whole set, which incidentally also showed calls made by the Inter President Giachento Fachetti. The obvious implications were that Inter were no less guilty of influencing referees than the other teams that were penalised in 2006. There was a huge uproar of taking that scudetto back from Inter or Inter voluntarily renouncing it. The club, however, were not ready to do that. Legally too there was no way to punish them as the events were more than five years old and under Italian law, they could not be prosecuted.

Meanwhile, city rivals Milan, who were stuck on 17 since 2003-04, surged ahead to win a ‘legitimate’ 18th Scudetto. For star striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose transfer from Barcelona was the force behind Milan’s title push in 7 years, it was his 18th title playing for Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan.

At England though, Manchester United and Liverpool were already tied on 18 titles. (Notably, Liverpool’s 18th title had come when Kenny Dalglish was last in charge). The charge to 19 has eluded Liverpool for over two decades and 2011 marked the year when they were no longer the ‘winningest club in the top division of England’. Manchester United swept to #19 in effortless style, thus attaining the holy grail of breaking the long standing hoodoo of 18.

Incidentally, the World Club Cup that Barcelona won at the end of 2011 thrashing Santos, was their 18th title in the 21st century, or to be precise their 18th title since 2004-05 season. Well what’s so special about 2004-05? A barely 18 (17 years and 114 days to be precise) Lionel Messi made his debut for Barcelona in the league and life in Catalonia or world football community has not been the same again.

The Era Continues

While 18 is an enticing age for many, 25 is when probably we are slowly rising to the peak of our powers. But to stay for 25 years in the peak is indeed a very rare achievement. Two men achieved that in 2011 and in their own way, they have made their clubs the talking point for the past 25 years.

1986 was the year when Silvio Berlusconi, then a media magnate, bought Milan, saving it from bankruptcy and appointed a promising manager, Arrigo Sacchi at the helm. In a year, three Dutch players – Marco Van Basten, Frank Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit was bought and Italian and European football was never the same again. For a team, which had been relegated twice in the last eight years before Silvio stepped in, Milan since 1986 went on to win eight Scudetti, one Coppa Italia, five Supercoppa Italiana, five Champions League trophies, five UEFA Super Cups, two Intercontinental Cups and one FIFA Club World Cup. Milan still remains the last club to win consecutive Champions League/European Cup.

Mirroring that rise of Milan and Berlusconi has been that of Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.A relatively unknown Alex Ferguson was brought in to take over a Manchester United team, which was flirting with relegation in 1986  under Ron Atkinson and Ferguson led them to an 11th finish. There was not an immediate impact like Milan had done but once Ferguson had built up his team, there was no stopping him or his club. The twenty-five years have brought in twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cups, four League cups, ten Community Shields, two Champions leagues, one Cup Winners Cup, one UEFA Super Cup, one Intercontinental Cup and one Club World Cup.

Both Berlusconi and Ferguson achieved distinctions outside the game, which were related directly or indirectly to their team’s performance. Berlusconi led his Forza Italia party to two terms as the Prime Minister of Italy and Ferguson was knighted for his services to the game.

Ironically, they both ended 2011 on a low. Berlusconi had to resign in the wake of the economic crisis gripping Italy and Sir Alex had to endure only the third ever elimination from the group stages of Champions League and a 6-1 thrashing in the Manchester derby – his worst ever defeat. One hopes they both survive these and such events turn out to be mere scares than watershed points of their reign.

Transfer Deal of the Year

Every year there are millions of transfers and it is very difficult to pick three that proved extremely valuable and the players in question played at a sufficiently high level to warrant discussion. Here, we discuss three men who came for free or next to nothing and had a huge impact in their club’s showing.

Honourable Mention II: What do you say when an absolute legend of the club, after a decade of winning every trophy and honour there is to win, chooses to walk away and join the biggest league rivals? Some feel betrayed but most are eager to wait and see what a 32-year-old legend discarded as too slow and on the downward slide, does to show there is still some fight left. Most Milan fans had that reaction when watching Andrea Pirlo in the black and white of Juventus after he opted not to renew his contract and moved on for free. In 16 matches, Pirlo didn’t score any goal and only contributed four assists, but his overall impact and gameplay was responsible for Juventus jointly topping the league ironically with Pirlo’s former club – Milan.

Honourable Mention I: That Milan push for the league was founded on an incredible 11 match unbeaten streak of which they drew only 2. Antonio Nocerino, former Juventus youth product, who was brought in the last hours before the summer transfer window closed for 0.5mn and co-ownership of a youth player. This, for an Italy international is really pittance. Nocerino though, took the opportunity to really burst through and establish himself as one of the starting members of the Milan midfield. In 15 matches, he scored 6 goals including a stunning hat trick against Parma. This, in itself was more than he had ever managed in any season. Milan had found a true successor to Rino Gattuso.

But the transfer deal of the year is Demba Ba, a French born Senegalese footballer who joined Newcastle in the summer after joining West Ham in the end of the winter transfer window in 2011. Less than half the season with the Hammers was enough to prove his worth as he scored 7 goals in 13 appearances. But it was not enough and when the Hammers were relegated, Ba invoked a release clause and became a free agent. Newcastle snapped him up for the 2011-12 season and in 21 appearances for the Magpies, he scored 15 goals, easily becoming the principal reason for his team being in European slots after half the matches are over.

Transfer Deal of the Year (Not)

Life throws us opportunities at different times: what we do with them shows how good a strategist we are. Coincidentally, all three players chosen here can yet have a wonderful ending to the 2011-12 season but the huge amount of money spent on them by clubs bore little fruit.

Honorable Mention II: Young Jordan Henderson was plucked by Liverpool for €18 m and was touted as the best thing to have happened to Liverpool midfield since one Steven Gerrard burst through. Playing in 20 games though, he has only managed one goal and one assist. If the promise that he had shown at Sunderland is not evident, then one wonders if he would be discarded after a couple of seasons as an expensive mistake.

Honorable Mention I: Henderson though, can say that as a midfielder he is not supposed to score too many goals. That cannot be true for the other big signing that Liverpool made – Andy Carroll. As many as 31 matches for Liverpool fetched just 6 goals and no assists. A 22-year-old young striker settling down in his first big club may be a possible excuse but when you consider that he was bought for a transfer fee of €41mn, then you ought to check who was in charge of Liverpool negotiations.

That Liverpool was bidding in that range was a domino effect instigated by the mega deal that Chelsea had offered them for Fernando Torres. A club favourite, Torres antagonised the Red supporters when he turned hostile and asked to be transferred to Chelsea. In the end it was €58.5 that managed to prise open Liverpool’s grasp. Thought to be a new lease of life in the troubled striker’s career, he managed 5 goals and 8 assists in 39 matches. It also included this miss which really defined his season and made him a subject of ridicule.

Memorable Comebacks

Comebacks are always exciting, and the ones especially achieved on the road are particularly so. The Japanese women came back twice to level in the Women’s World Cup before winning it on penalties. However, we have picked three league matches where the trailing team showed extraordinary fighting spirit to come back and win, or level from a hopeless cause.

Honourable Mention II: Newcastle 4 Arsenal 4. Arsenal were leading by 4 goals to nil till the 68th minute when Laurent Koscielny brought down Leon Best for a penalty, which Joey Barton converted. Then Best had a goal incorrectly disallowed for offside before making it 4-2 from a Jose Enrique cross. Newcastle was on a roll and soon Koscielny succumbed again, fouling Mike Williamson to concede the second penalty, which Barton converted again. The 4th goal was a blistering long ranger from Chiek Tiote in the 87th minute.

Honourable Mention I: Lecce 3 Milan 4. Milan had travelled to Lecce with just two wins in seven matches. However, they were caught unaware as Lecce scored 3 goals in 37 minutes and Milan were looking at a despondent loss. Manager Max Allegri threw in the cavalry during half time with Alberto Aquilani and Kevin-Prince Boateng replacing Massimo Ambrosini and Robinho. The impact was stunning. Boateng started connecting with laser- guided missiles, which found the back of the Lecce net. 16 minutes after the restart, he had tied the scores at 3-3, scoring a 14-minute hat-trick in the process. The final winning goal would come from the oldest man on the field – Mario Yepes, heading home an Antonio Cassano cross. Milan’s miracle was complete.

The most memorable comeback though was Santos 4 Flamengo 5. It was built up as the clash between age and youth – of Ronaldinho’s Flamengo and Neymar’s Santos. Santos had begun the match on a fire and were up by 3 goals within 25 minutes but Flamengo tied-up the match by scoring 3 goals of their own. In between, Elano of Santos missed a penalty but Neymar restored the lead at the start of the second half. But the last laugh was to be Dinho’s who scored twice to complete his hat-trick and an epic come-from-behind win at the home ground of the South American and Brazilian champion club.

I Can’t Believe This Happened

Honourable mention II: Manchester United failed to reach the Champions League knockout rounds for only the third time since the two-legged group structure had started. A team which had reached three of the last four Champions League finals, winning one and only losing out to the collective brilliance of Barcelona, managed to defeat the Romanian debutants Otelul Galati in the group stages. Losses to Basel and draws with Benfica sealed their fate, and the fact that Manchester City too were dumped out of the knockout rounds by a brilliant Napoli team, was scant consolation.

Honourable Mention I: 2011 is the first time since Juventus and Liverpool are both missing out on any European action since….the 1962-63 season. The previous season (61-62), Juventus had finished 12th while Liverpool were champions in the Second Division, thus gaining promotion to the First Division. Together, these two behemoths of European competition have won seven Champions Leagues/European Cups, six UEFA Cups, five UEFA Super Cups, one Cup Winners Cup, one Intertoto Cup and two Intercontinental Cups. So when they both spend a season completely out of Europe, you pinch yourself to believe it.

The most unlikely event of 2011 was River Plate getting demoted. Goalden Times have already covered this story in detail but one statistic alone would show the magnitude of the shock. Since the professional league started in Argentina in 1931, River has won 33 titles in 80 years. They are easily the most decorated and venerated club of the nation and a season without El Clasico with Boca Juniors is something fans of both clubs would never have imagined.

Celebrations

Honorable Mention II: Mario Balotelli is no stranger to controversy. His recent antics include throwing darts during training and  the incident of the training bib. But he seemingly outdid that when prior to the Manchester derby, a firework was set off in his flat’s bathroom, which subsequently burnt the house down. A quite unfazed Balotelli opened the scoring in the derby though in what would turn out to be a 6-1 thrashing. What made that goal celebration even more epic was Super Mario’s shirt display.

 Honorable Mention I: If Mario was cheeky, with his celebrations, then Gerard Pique and his Barcelona teammates were positively barmy. After winning their fourth Champions League, the Barcelona players were looking to take some Wembley mementos back home. But Gerard Pique had ‘bigger’ ideas and hemanaged to pry off the entire nets from the goal posts. Apparently, he was following a tradition established by the basketball side of Barcelona, who cut the net as a memento when they win a trophy. But not since Madonna’s ‘Human Nature’ has someone been seen with so much rope and net….for all one knows, Shakira may have a new rope trick.

The most whacky   celebrations though happened in Italian football at the end of the 2010-11 season in Serie A and Serie B. In the post-Scudetto winning revelry, with most players in their shorts and fully inebriated, Massimo Oddo tried an Olympic run. But in Serie B, an even more eccentric man was celebrating an even more momentous occasion. Novara had won the Serie B play-offs and were returning to Serie A after 55 long years and Jimmy Fontana was not really sure how best to celebrate it.

Best Football Performances

Honourable Mention II: Robin van Persie has been the single most in-form player of 2011 outside of anyone who does not play in Madrid or Barcelona. 35 Premier League goals in 2011, the 2nd highest in a calendar year since Alan Shearer struck 36 in 1995 and already 17 Premier League goals this season in 20 games marks 2011 as a truly phenomenal year for the Dutchman.

Honourable Mention I: Zlatan Ibrahimovic courts more controversy than goals but his record of winning eight consecutive league championships is simply unmatched. He is the talisman that can lead any club to a league win. These eight wins were achieved with Ajax, Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and Milan. But for the Barcelona win, every other club that actually won the league with Ibra broke a streak of some other club. He is that kind of a player – someone who can pull his team through in the big home games or tough away fixtures. Now if only he could score in the Champions League.

However, the best football achievement was the tango that Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo unfurled in La Liga. It was a personal war within the two-team battle that Barcelona and Real Madrid have made La Liga. Messi scored 51 goals in the 2010-11 season and Ronaldo managed 53. While Messi won the La Liga and the Champions League, Ronaldo won the Copa del Rey. In the 2011-12 season, it is no different. Ronaldo has 26 goals in 25 matches for Madrid while Messi has 31 goals in 30 matches for Barcelona. They are the two best players of their generation and it is fitting they go head-to-head in the same league.

Best Performance by a Footballer

This is one of a kind and deserves its own space. We end this look back at the year that went by with this performance by Kevin-Prince Boateng. That he could manage that, do this and this and this and of course this makes him a complete entertainer.

Keep Watching Football and enjoy a Goalden 2012!

Of Champions and Also-Rans

UEFA Champions League theme song

Tuesday and Wednesday nights: waving flags, chanting anthems; a sense of pride. And in this culture, a guest coming home on either of these days is no God. Rather the guest is treated as Satan, the devil. Demolish the guest; vanquish him before he catches you. Yes, this is the culture of champions; also-rans do not have a place here.

So, who are these champions? We say they are the teams, the people and the matches that make up the league, make this game so beautiful and keep us engrossed through the year. But let’s ask ourselves, how much of that is true. Some questions keep cropping in my mind, time and again. For instance, do we consistently see good quality football throughout the year when we watch UEFA Champions League matches? Does the current format allow all the champions to participate in this competition? Can we afford to see some also-rans playing on a Wednesday night when a potential champion is sitting pretty at home?

Well, before we try to find answers, let’s first understand who we refer to as champions and also-rans.  Try to figure out how the Champions League evolved from the European Cup. And finally, chart out our options to ensure that on a May evening every year, we get the best team of Europe on the podium.

This article tries to focus on the above points, and subsequently propose a format, fresh or utilised, which will hopefully be acceptable to determine the ‘champion of champions’.

But before I get into the intricacies, I would like to highlight an incident that worries me somewhat. Otelul Galati, who has failed to secure a single point so far in the competition, is playing on a Champions League match day, while Kenny Dalglish, coach of Liverpool – a club which has won the trophy five times, is sitting at home on an early winter evening, sipping coffee.

We barely get much information on clubs like Otelul Galati, BATE Borisov, Trabanzspor, Maccabi Tel-Aviv and APOEL Nicosia as their domestic leagues are not generally telecast live. A few highlights here and there and some random videos available on the internet is all we get to know of them. Some football purists and pundits dig deep to find more about them alright, but not common viewers. This, however, does not imply that they should not get a chance to play in the Champions League. Logic is sometimes blurred by emotions, and big names always eclipse the lesser fortunate ones. We sometimes live in denial and refuse to accept that a Liverpool or a Juventus can be sitting out while a relatively unknown club from Cyprus plays in Champions League.

Owing to the history and the legacy of these mighty clubs like Liverpool and Juventus, we don’t quite want them outside the League. Now, who wants to miss out on a chance to see top European clubs playing against each other?

This page enlists the country coefficients of different European countries which determine the number of participating clubs from that country in UEFA Champions League. Let’s look back at some of the previous formats that existed in European Cup. It was a complete knock-out system with two-legged ‘home and away’ ties. A so-called big club may anyday lose to a relatively smaller club. Though the two leg home-away format practically eliminates the chance factor, the knock-out scenario, I believe is not quite the most suitable way to judge who will be the best team in Europe. Stade de Reims, the runners-up club in the first edition of the competition and also in 1959, now plays in Ligue 2, second division of French League. And such examples abound.

If we look at years that followed, clubs like Eintracht Frankfurt, Nice, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Wiener Sports Club, Vasas SC, Shamrock Rovers and SK Rapid Vienna were regular visitors to the later stages of European Cup.

This brings us to the question as to whether the knock-out format was solely responsible for their progress (or lack thereof) in the European Cup; or maybe it was the age before the petro-dollar and globalisation, which is why a good Hungarian midfielder played for Vasas SC, instead of Manchester City: debatable. Guess people valued the clubs from their country to a great extent, and a lot of medium-ranked clubs had good players, and thus performed well. Nottingham Forest which won the competition in 1979 and 1980 consecutively is now languishing in the second division of English football. Malmo FC, Austria Vienna and FC Koln reached the semi-final of the 1979 edition along with Forest. Barring FC Koln, none of the other teams are even doing the rounds in major European football these days. Malmo FC, however, surface in UCL at times.

In the last few years, with the exception of Inter Milan in 2010, Barcelona and Manchester United were arguably the two best teams in Europe, and they locked horns twice in the final. But the main drawback of the current format is in the collection of teams at the group stage, and in the fact that the second round is a knock-out round.

The face of football in Europe has changed. The competitive balance has also shifted. A whopping amount of money is floating around in clubs, agencies, and transfer agents. Insurance of players are at an all-time high, players’ values are totally re-organized. Since money took over, clubs like Malmo and Vienna began to fade away. On the other hand, clubs like Manchester City and Chelsea emerged as ‘Powers that be’, with apparently not much of history and success in European football. Some talented players who used to play for Sparta Rotterdam, Shamrock Rovers or Standard Liege are now travelling to either Chelsea, or Manchester City, or some other clubs backed by wealthy owners.

Some trends that seeped in the Champions League:

1. Top-nations have become increasingly powerful; one of them being England, and its performance is particularly prominent, while Germany’s performance has remained somewhat static. With its powerful performance, England has overtaken Spain and Italy in the past few years. Similarly, the French have overcome the period of downturn in the European Champions League, and their performance has significantly improved. Check out the latest UEFA coefficient rankings for 2012 and 2013.  .

2. The excellent performance is not only concentrated in a few countries, but in a few clubs too. Only 11 teams of the five top-nations can improve their performance constantly in the European Champions League.

3. The results of the European Champions League have become more predictable. After the year 2000, the top 10 nations are more-or-less constant in terms of their performance.

One consistent decline is that of Netherlands. PSV Eindhoven and Ajax Amsterdam were two clubs who were generally regular visitors at the later stages of UEFA Champions League. Ajax formed a dynasty in mid 70s, and that brand of football is now calling the shots in world football through FC Barcelona. But the club has almost sunk into oblivion. Though they returned to the Champions League in 2010 after a long hiatus, the glory is all but lost. Portuguese clubs have emerged. Portuguese clubs, I would say, always provide a good competition. They generally remain in Pot 2 and Pot 3 during the draw, and make a seemingly uninteresting group stage interesting.

Which format should UEFA adopt for Champions League?

Before moving onto the discussion on the various types of formats that have been followed by UEFA for this competition over the last couple of years, I express my disapproval of the existing system. There lies an inherentflaw in the system. UEFA calculates the coefficients two to three years in advance. For instance, they are now calculating the country coefficients for the 2013-14 season.

In a dynamic football world, where a club slips into oblivion from the pinnacle of stardom in a matter of months, such treatment is far from fair. Since the European Cup changed to UEFA Champions League in 1993, the format has remained somewhat dubious. There have been a lot of knock-out games to start with, and in the end two groups of four were formed with group leaders advancing to the finals. By far it certainly wasn’t an optimal approach adopted to identify the best team in Europe. After two seasons, UEFA made a radical change in the format from the 1994-95 season. Four groups would play in the initial stage, followed by knockout rounds from quarter-final onwards. Some sense prevailed, and Ajax Amsterdam won the title for the fourth time. Few could argue that Ajax was the best team at that time in Europe, with most of the Dutch powerhouse players playing for Ajax at that time.

Then a slightly different format surfaced, with six groups in the initial stage. Group champions directly qualified for the QF stage, and two best runners up joined them in the QF.  Real Madrid won this year after 35 odd years, with a host of emerging players donning the all-white colour. That was Madrid’s first of three titles they would triumph (1998, 2000, 2002).

The 1999-2000 season saw another change in format, with eight groups being introduced for the first time in the first round. The top two teams from each group qualified to the second round, and those 16 teams were divided into four groups. This format provided very interesting match-ups in the second round, and became a real test of character and continuity for the participating clubs. The finalists of the competition would play 17 matches altogether in the competition.

Sadly, this format lasted till 2002-2003 season, as a lot of top clubs in Europe complained of being burdened with too many matches. Clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, AC Milan and Juventus ended up playing more than 65 matches in the season depending on their success in domestic cup competitions. So this format was scrapped from 2003-04 season, and instead of four groups, a knockout round started with 16 teams from the second round onwards. This format is common to the FIFA World Cup, adopted since 1998.

Let’s discuss the best possible format to adopt in the UEFA Champions League and find the leading European team in a season.

Comparing some of the match-ups from the last season’s 16 team knock-out phase – Chelsea vs. FC Copenhagen, Manchester United vs. Marseille, Inter Milan vs. Bayern Munich, and Arsenal vs. Barcelona – two of these match-ups were final line-ups in the last five years. Bayern Munich and Inter Milan were finalists in the 2010 season. Both Barcelona-Arsenal and Inter-Bayern match ups were intriguing, and to be fair to other clubs, they all deserved to be there at later stages of the tournament. Instead, we saw Schalke 04 and Shakhtar Donetsk playing in the quarter-final stages. If we had a 4×4 format, we might have seen a second round grouping like this:

 In all likelihood, our last eight would have been Barcelona, Spurs, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, Chelsea, Inter Milan, AC Milan and Real Madrid.

If you go through the line-ups of the last 16 teams in the last few years of UEFA Champions League, you will come across many of them. So, how effective is this format really? To begin with, some teams have to play at least four games less every season.

Instead of playing six matches in the 4×4 second-round format, a team is playing just two home-away matches. Four matches mean four weeks to be squeezed into an already-tight calendar. With all the international matches, Euro and World Cup qualifiers and domestic competitions, this is surely a challenging task. The clubs from countries of smaller quotients might even argue that this approach lessens their chance of reaching the QF of Champions League. Considering the prize money for each round in UCL, this can be a big issue for teams that depend a lot on UCL qualification for purchasing players and sponsorships.

Whether we want to see the big guns all the time in the last eight, or do we leave the door open for the comparatively smaller teams and rely on ‘chance’ is a matter of endless debate. My personal take is always to get back to the 4×4 second-round format.

Here’s a revised structure I have worked out. The following format can not only accommodate more teams but also leave room for big guns to lock horns at the later stages of the competition.

First round: Knock-out home-and-away. (48 teams; Total matches 48; each team plays two matches).

Second round: 24 teams divided into eight groups, three teams in each group, round-robin home-and-away (Total matches 8X6 =48; each team plays four matches).

Third round: Eight group champions divided in two groups of four teams. Round-robin home-and-away (Total matches 12X2 =24; each team plays six matches)

Semi-final: Knock-out home-and-away (four teams; four matches; each team plays two matches)

Final: One match.

According to this format, the total number of matches in UCL will remain the same (125); the finalists will play 15 matches instead of 13 in the earlier format.

The main advantage of this format will be (depending on which side of the spectrum you are in) that the big teams can be a part of the round-robin format in the last eight. This format will also rule out the possibility of the same two teams meeting each other more than once during the course of the competition, before the final. Most importantly, if the initial number of teams is increased to 48, UEFA can think of including more teams from countries like England, Italy, Spain, Germany, France, Netherlands and Portugal into the main draw. Countries with higher coefficients will get more berths, and can have five to six slots. Liverpool, Juventus and clubs alike will not have to sit home for a comparatively poor season.

Although I find this to be an enhanced system, there is a catch to it. I do not claim it to be ‘flawless’. I realised there are a few drawbacks in this format as well. The so-called smaller teams get only two matches to record an upset in the first round. Consider this year’s scenario. Manchester United was defeated by Basel in the last match in the first round group stage and thus failed to qualify for the round of 16. This was possible because United failed to win few other matches, and Basel managed to win some matches against weaker opponents. Had this been a two-legged tie head-to-head between Manchester United and Basel, United probably would have been more cautious and would have won the tie. So this again raises the question, which teams do we want to see in the later stages of the UCL.

Two groups of the last-eight stage, according to the suggested format, can look like this-

Group A: Barcelona, AC Milan, Manchester United, Bayern Munich

Group B: Real Madrid, Arsenal, Inter Milan, Chelsea.

This is just a random choice; Liverpool, Juventus, Manchester City, Benfica, Ajax, Lyon, Tottenham, Leverkusen and many other clubs can feature in that list. But the take-home point is, instead of just two Barcelona-Bayern Munich match-ups, we would see all these teams play with each other twice. Chances of APOEL Nicosia vs Otelul Galati match-ups are eliminated in this format. At least I feel this re-constructed structure will give the so-called smaller teams a chance to achieve ultimate glory, theoretically. Only factor is, their margin of error will get even shorter.

But this is a competition, which can easily be termed the toughest in football, and it deserves to be so. The group stage provides all the clubs a chance to compete and cause an upset. But when the going gets tough, opportunities and a proper stage should be provided for the tough ones to get going. It all depends on who you want to see fighting for the Champions League trophy, come mid-May. If you want Marinos Satsias of APOEL Nicosia to lift the trophy at Allianz Arena, then the current format would suit just fine. But if you want to see Wayne Rooney trying to slide past Iker Casillas, or Robin Van Persie slot home a header past Victor Valdes or Lionel Messi’s sublime touch and Manuel Neuer’s helpless look, then vote for the 4×4 second-round format; or alternately consider  the new suggested format. It’s your ‘choice’!

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Subhashis Biswas is a professor of chemistry and a student of football genetics. Likes to travel to historical places, loves reading and creative writing in Bengali. Subhashis can be reached at subhashis.7@gmail.com. Subhashis maintains a blog at www.subhashis-mindcafe.blogspot.com