By Panos Bletsos
At last! It’s that time of year again. Hibernation is finally over and Europe’s superpowers are back at their best, fresh after more than two months of rest during the winter break, ready to resume their run-up to the summit. Or are they?
The two annual UEFA club tournaments restart this week, with action resuming for the first since December, when the group stage was concluded. In the showcase event, the UEFA Champions League, there are only 16 teams remaining in contention and none of the big guns will be joking around anymore.
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With the final set to be played in their own Allianz Arena, Bayern Munich are bound to see off Basel, Olympique Lyonnais will most probably dismantle surprise package APOEL and the two Spanish giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid, will make light work of their opponents, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow respectively. Right?
How the mighty have fallen
Wrong. History shows that almost every single one of the Old Continent’s household names has at least once fallen at the very first Champions League hurdle after the holiday hiatus. Take Barcelona, for example.
In the 1994-’95 campaign, less than three years after finally getting their hands on what had been their own Holy Grail, they were still led by the great Johan Cruijff, and were the defending Primera División and Supercopa champions. After surprisingly finishing runners-up to Swedish outfit Göteborg in the group stage, but still knocking out Manchester United on head-to-head results, they were drawn against Paris Saint-Germain, the only side to have won all six of their group matches. Under the Spanish born Luis Fernández, the French had just won the Ligue 1 title for only the second (and to date last) time in their history and featured some of their greatest players ever, but they should still pose little threat to the mighty Barça in what was then the quarter-finals. Barcelona did indeed take the lead early in the second half of each of the two legs. However, the magnificent George Weah, later voted for as the FIFA World Player of the Year, leveled matters at the Camp Nou (1-1), while two late strikes within just 12 minutes at the Parc des Princes (2-1) saw the Parisians through.
Nemesis from the East
Barça’s archenemies Real Madrid have had their share of Champions League frustration, even though they are still the most successful club in the competition. Just months after winning their seventh title (and first in a long 32 years), in March 1999 Los Merengues came up against Dynamo Kyiv – or, should I say, Andriy Shevchenko. Shortly before finalizing a record $30.4 million move to Milan and at the time only 22, Ukraine’s greatest player since Oleh Blokhin proved he really was worth his weight in gold. He scored three times over the two legs as Dynamo, under mastermind Valery Lobanovsky, secured a 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabéu before winning 2-0 at home.
Nine years later, in 2008, it was another Spanish side, Sevilla, whose marvelous European run of one Super Cup and two - consecutive - UEFA Cup triumphs in less than two years ended in disappointment, as they were dumped out of the Champions League on penalties by Fenerbahçe. But don’t think that the English have escaped such debacles. Not even Manchester United has.
It’s true that this season the three-time Champions Cup winners failed to even survive the group stage. In ’97-’98 they eased their way past the likes of Juventus Turin and Feyenoord, but the last eight was as far as they would go. Alex Ferguson’s charges managed to hold a free-scoring Monaco (featuring Fabien Barthez, Willy Sagnol and Thierry Henry) to a goalless draw at the Louis II, but disaster struck at Old Trafford, when David Trezeguet scored early in the sixth minute. The Red Devils could only level the score through Ole Gunnar Solskjær and would have to wait another 14 months before that unforgettable night in Barcelona, when they reached the summit of Europe for the second time.
Arsenal are still yearning for that kind of success. They came agonizingly close in 2006, but a few months later they would face elimination as early as the last 16. The London giants were deemed favourites to progress even after going down 1-0 at PSV Eindhoven in the first leg and it looked that way when Alex’s own goal shortly after the restart at the Emirates brought the two teams level on aggregate. However, the Brazilian centre back scored at the right end with seven minutes to go and the Gunners were out.
Slippery when cold
What about the Italians? That’s right, you guessed it. Some of their biggest clubs have had their own winter hangovers too. In early 2004 Juve, beaten finalists last time out and (valid) national champions for the last time to date, lost both their games against Deportivo de La Coruña 1-0 and were ousted in the second round. And perhaps you remember what happened twelve months ago. Milan failed to score in either of the two legs of their tie against Tottenham, who made the quarters thanks to that 80th – minute Peter Crouch strike at the Giuseppe Meazza, while Roma fared even worse – they were beaten at home (2-3) and away (3-0) by Ukrainian (or perhaps... Brazilian?) powerhouse Shakhtar Donetsk. A couple of possible banana skins coming soon to a TV near you.
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