The dream matchup that almost came true

Martin Rogers

NYON, Switzerland – European soccer's gods of fortune clearly have a wicked sense of humor.

As the draw for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League unfolded on Friday and the countless permutations shrank, the contest everyone wanted to see remained on the table until the last possible moment before being snatched away.

Any meeting between Manchester United and Real Madrid, the world's two biggest and most illustrious teams, would be a blockbuster. However, in the current climate of undisguised hatred between the two giant clubs, such a clash would have been a heavyweight battle of epic proportions.

In the end it came down to a 50-50 shot, with the Spanish side destined to face either United or Liverpool as the draw headed towards its conclusion. To collective groans from a soccer public craving fireworks, it was Liverpool's name that was plucked from the Swiss goldfish bowl that so often holds European club dreams within its confines.

Make no mistake, this draw sets up some intriguing marquee matchups and can only be considered a disappointment in one way: that it denied us the opportunity to see Sir Alex Ferguson's United square off against the club to which he "wouldn't sell a virus, let alone Cristiano Ronaldo."

The ongoing furor surrounding Real's attempts to pry away United's best player is reminiscent of the scenario involving David Beckham in 2003.

Beckham was left on the bench for the second leg of the quarterfinal between the teams before coming on late and scoring twice to spearhead a gallant but ultimately futile United comeback. Multiply the ill feeling between United and Real back then by about a hundred, and you might be close to grasping the simmering tension currently flying backwards and forwards between the clubs.

But if Real Madrid vs. Manchester United was the one that got away on Friday, there are still plenty of fascinating subplots to look forward to in February.

Ferguson comes up against an old foe after United was drawn against Inter Milan and Jose Mourinho, who never missed a chance to indulge in psychological games with Ferguson during his time at Chelsea. He may well feel he came off on the wrong end of the mental warfare towards the end of his stint at Stamford Bridge, so The Special One will be keen to set the record straight against the wily old Scot.

United, as defending champion, will quite rightly fear no one, but as group winners they could have hoped for an opponent somewhat easier than the clear leader of Serie A.

"They have had a tremendous domestic record in recent years," Ferguson said of Inter. "They have also got a lot of experience in their team which includes quite a few South American players. That in itself represents a tough challenge because you know that South American players defensively are always very tough and resilient."

Liverpool's reward for surging through the group stage is a meeting with Real Madrid, whose struggles domestically have been well documented but now has two months under new coach Juande Ramos to put things right before Champions League hostilities recommence.

But the underlying theme to this draw was England vs. Italy, with Chelsea to face Juventus and Arsenal to meet Roma. England head coach Fabio Capello spelled out his disappointment at the three matchups that guarantee big-name casualties early in the knockout stage.

"The Champions League draw has been diabolical," Capello said. "I didn't expect the three Italians teams to be drawn with English teams. But they are games that will bring numerous suggestions and impossible predictions."

Claudio Ranieri's Juve has looked superb in Europe, led by an Alessandro Del Piero who clearly spent last summer bathing in the fountain of eternal youth. Ranieri was bombed out of Chelsea by owner Roman Abramovich for failing to deliver this tournament's trophy that remains elusive for the west London club. On current form, the Old Lady of Italian football would appear to have claims on the cup that are at least as strong as those of Chelsea, a finalist last season.

Most relieved of all will surely be Barcelona and Villarreal.

Villarreal's representatives in Nyon could barely conceal their delight as they got a dream matchup with Greek weaklings Panathinaikos, which emerged from one of the worst groups in first place when already-qualified Inter lost interest on the final matchday. This isn't a bye for Villarreal, but it's the closest thing to it.

Barca has been the class of the tournament yet could have been drawn against Chelsea, Arsenal or Inter. Instead, it got French champion Lyon, which again repeated its trick of getting to this stage but will once again struggle to advance any further. If Lionel Messi, Bojan Krkic and Samuel Eto'o are still firing in Febraury, this could be a mismatch.

No such luck for most of the other big boys. But while the big-name matchups provide the potential for headaches and heartache for some of Europe's most famous clubs, the draw served up a mouth-watering feast for supporters to look forward to once the delights of the Christmas table have been cleared away.

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