Champions League story lines to follow

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

It is pretty tempting to dive into the pit of misery that the social commentators have prepared for us with their gloomy tales of economic crisis and recessionary warnings. But when the beautiful game is busy putting together its most exciting season in years, it is hard to stay downbeat, whatever the state of the bigger picture.

So what if the markets are crashing and the banking industry is crippled? What about the UEFA Champions League and round after round of thrilling games and dramatic story lines?

So what if things are going to get worse before they get better? What about the climactic finish to the league season in England, Spain and Germany that beckons, with all three title races likely to go down to the wire?

Ditching the flippant tone for just a moment, while the world is facing serious problems on several levels, it is true that soccer could not have chosen a better time to come up with a spectacular campaign. The superb level of performance seen in the Champions League, which continues at the quarterfinal stage this week, has been one of the highlights.

Six teams have legitimate designs on the trophy, with only Porto and Villarreal considered the real outsiders. Then there are the subplots and ghosts of yesteryear to add extra spice to four top quality matchups.

Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United is the defending champion and a worthy favorite, but it will have to conquer some demons when it takes on Porto, the club that sensationally knocked it out before going on to lift the 2004 trophy. Less than an hour's drive away, on the following day, Liverpool and Chelsea meet yet again in this competition, having faced each other in the Champions League the past five seasons.

The drama surrounding the English teams has led to the blockbuster clash between European heavyweights Barcelona and Bayern Munich being almost overshadowed. Yet both of these teams are capable of going all the way, with Bayern desperate to make up for its dire Bundesliga form and Barca determined to ensure that a season that began with immense promise does not finish empty. Likewise, opponents Villarreal and Arsenal are out of contention in their domestic leagues but know that this event provides their best shot at glory.

So, this week, sit back and enjoy. The next seven days could go a long way toward deciding the outcome of the campaign's domestic and continental silverware.

But for the sake of soccer fans everywhere, let's hope the suspense and drama continues all the way to the final days of this magnificent season.

Weekend First XI

1. Get him an Advil

Fredy Montero's Major League Soccer career started in perfect fashion, with two goals for the expansion Seattle Sounders on the opening weekend of the season. However, things took a more serious twist for the Colombian over the weekend, when he was left out of the team's trip to Toronto following reported sexual assault allegations made by a Washington woman. Montero's agent has strenuously denied the claims.

2. Get him a beer

Oh, wait a minute, you can't – he's only 17. But Federico Macheda's injury-time winner against Aston Villa, which kept Manchester United atop the English Premier League, could be worth its weight in gold come the end of the season. Federico who, I hear you ask? And where do United keep getting these brilliant youngsters?

3. Get him some earplugs

Diego Maradona's explosive personality and unpredictable nature meant his stint as Argentina coach was always likely to be a roller-coaster ride. Sure enough, just a few months into his tenure, there are already calls for his head following a 6-1 defeat in Bolivia. According to reports, protests against him are expected at the team's next home game in June.

4. Four corners

• Is Sergio Ramos dirty or misunderstood?

• Should Francesco Totti take a look at the Serie A table before he gets too cocky?

• Paranoia and conspiracy theories coming out of North Korea? Surely not.

• Don't you just wish Bruce Arena would say how he really feels?

5. Catch a flight to …

Liverpool. Jump on a plane, take a look around the Merseyside city's magnificent cathedral and jump headfirst into Beatles history. Oh yeah, there's the small matter of the Champions League quarterfinal between Liverpool and Chelsea on Wednesday night. There may be no more poignant time to visit the region, as the 20th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster approaches.

6. A round of applause for …

Tiffeny Milbrett. The 36-year-old former U.S. national team star scored a 90th-minute winner as FC Gold Pride won its first ever WPS game, beating the Boston Breakers 2-1.

7. Get him a Kleenex

Jurgen Klinsmann. The Bayern Munich coach saw his side thrashed 5-1 by new Bundesliga leader Wolfsburg.

8. Get ready to say hello to …

Matt Simon. The Australian striker is rumored to be keen to leave A-League side Central Coast Mariners, and the Colorado Rapids are interested.

9. Get ready to say goodbye to …

Cuauhtemoc Blanco. The Chicago Fire's Mexican superstar has admitted he has no plans to return to the club when his contract expires at the end of this season.

10. Get excited about …

Edin Dzeko. The young striker is working his magic for Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga and for the in-form Bosnia-Herzegovina national team. It won't be long before a big club steps in to sign him.

11. Why it's good to be a soccer player

Take a look at Sylvie van der Vaart, the stunning wife of Real Madrid and Holland star Rafael van der Vaart.

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