Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Champions League preview

At the risk of sounding like a bit of a wanker, I consider myself to be a football fan as well as a City fan. And so I'm delighted by the return of the competitive Champions' League (Arsenal against Steve McClaren's FC Twente does not count). I love the Champions League.

The drama, the music, the sheer, obvious excellence of it. The vast majority of Premier League games contain at least one average side (never mind the Football League and even non-League stuff I wind up watching). The Champions League, by definition, guarantees that you're watching the very best in competition.

This doesn't mean there are no dull matches: remember the 2003 final? But, especially in the latter stages, any match is made more captivating, more meaningful, by its context. This year's final was, when stripped of its context, an exciting and competitive 1-1. But with the European Cup on the line, it became something else: a Nadal/Federer with twenty two participants.

This combination: high quality and high stakes, the excellent and the epic, is what makes the Champions League so compelling. The best games I've seen in the last few years have all been Champions League latter stages: the 2008 final, Chelsea overcoming Liverpool in the semis, both of legs of the United-Milan 2007 semi-final, Arsenal's run to the 2006 final, Istanbul etc.

So I'm genuinely excited by this year's competition. I fear one of England's 'Big Two' will win it, which is rather underwhelming for those who watch the Champions League for a bit of exoticism. Real Madrid probably have the best squad beyond those two, and I'd love Jose Mourinho to win it again but I'm not sure Inter quite have the players.

In terms of upsets, I'd like to see Zenit St Petersburg get out of Group H at the expense of a rather average Juventus side. Atletico Madrid (on whom I have money at 38/1 to win La Liga) could well win Group D, and the contest between Liverpool and Marseilles to get out with them will be good. And Arsenal have a real fight on in Group G: especially up against Luis Aragones and Dani Guiza's Fenerbahce.

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