Chelsea & Barcelona: victims of destiny

Chelsea's billions, courtesy of the Russian "oligarch" Roman Abramovich, has enabled them to establish a powerful bridgehead in England and to a lesser degree in Europe.

RANDOM is as random does, seeding is as seeding does, but what should never have happened so early has happened. Chelsea and Barcelona, who would surely have constituted an ideal European Cup 2006 Final, are now obliged to meet in the first knockout stage of the competition. What a waste, you might say. How sad that one of the two must now drop out so early.

But, which one? Barcelona's voluble President — but surely no more so than Chelsea's Jose The Mouth Mourinho, is already crying for revenge, insisting that when the teams met in the quarter-finals last season, Barcelona were unfairly eliminated. I'd say that he had a pretty good point. As one who was present at Stamford Bridge when the teams met in the second leg, I was hardly the only one convinced that when Chelsea scored what proved their decisive goal, it was only because the Barcelona goalkeeper Valdes was blatantly fouled as he came to collect the left wing cross. A foul, which produced that Chelsea goal.

Frank Rijkaard, the Barca manager, is far too much of a gentleman to talk about revenge. Indeed he kept wonderfully quiet last season under immense provocation from Mourinho, who first quite wrongly accused him of entering the referee's dressing room at half-time in the first leg at Nou Camp; and was properly punished, then before the second leg sneered at his alleged lack of success as a manager. Rijkaard could well, had he wished, countered by sneering at Mourinho's non-existent playing career, while he himself had been a major midfield star with Holland and Milan. Nor, at the Press Conference, which followed the second leg, did Rijkaard even mention the illicit goal whereby Chelsea had just won.

Chelsea's billions, courtesy of the Russian "oligarch" Roman Abramovich, has enabled them to establish a powerful bridgehead in England and to a lesser degree in Europe. Rumours that they may offer Thierry Henry of Arsenal �150,000 a week to join them sicken rather than impress. The truth is, however, that their European results this season have not been overwhelming. On their last visit to Spain, they actually lost to Betis Seville, while even in the Premiership, which they have dominated, several of their victories have been meagre one goal margin affairs.

It would be difficult for Barca to play so ineptly in defence as they did in the early stages of the game at Stamford Bridge; and their attack now not only includes the splendid European Footballer of the Year Ronaldinho, who scored an astonishing free kick goal at The Bridge, not only clever Deco and explosive Samuel Eto'o, but the newest Boy Wonder of European football, the Argentine striker Lionel Messi, who has been at Nou Camp since he was 13 and is only 18 now.

Chelsea will be without their tough Ghanaian midfielder Michael Essien for both matches; and quite rightly too. The UEFA have given him a two-game suspension for the horrific foul he committed in the last, meaningless, group game at The Bridge against Liverpool on poor Dieter Hamann; unsanctioned by the inept German referee. Frankly, as one who was there, I don't think the punishment fitted the crime. In midfield Frank Lampard is a driving force with a powerful right-footed shot, while on form, the gifted wingers Damien Duff and Arjen Robben can win any game. Yet the odds do seem to me to be slightly on Barcelona.

There is another Anglo-Spanish tie between Real Madrid and Arsenal. As we well know, the Gunners under the much-vaunted Arsene Wenger make a habit, just like England under Sven Goran-Eriksson, of going out in the quarter-finals of this tournament which they may ultimately well do once again. Meanwhile, they must hope that by the time it comes to February, Real will be in as great a quagmire as they have been most of the season, sacking yet another manager in Wanderley Luxemburgo, losing Raul to injury, and Zinedine Zidane, in terms of prowess, to the depredations of the years.

As for David Beckham, the streak of petulance which had him sent off the field against Argentina in Saint Etienne in 1998 seems to have reasserted itself in spades; as evidenced by his recent expulsion for what the Scots would call a red mist moment, when his reaction was simply and unforgivably absurd.

Somewhat ironic that when the Gunners meet Real, definitely inept against Chelsea, Patrick Vieira won't be playing for either side; but for Juventus. Summer after summer he was on the point of leaving Arsenal for Madrid while they sought desperately to keep him. But last summer it was they who let him go. They plainly felt he was over the hill and decided to pocket what they could. They did have a point, but they have so palpably missed his sheer physical power in midfield, as recent defeats at Bolton and Newcastle have shown, with manager Arsene Wenger wont to complain about excessive challenge. But he hardly helps by doing such daft things as choosing the lanky, shaky Frenchman Pascal Cygan, weak enough at centre back, as a pitifully inadequate left back.

Juventus, with Ibrahimovic towering up front, abetted by David Trezeguet and Alex Del Piero coming into something like his old, best form, must be fancied against Werder Bremen, but they must keep a keen eye on Miroslav Klose, the prolific striker in the Bundesliga.

Liverpool, the holders, have themselves been running into form and should prevail against Benfica, though the Portuguese, even without their key attacker Simao, were good enough to draw at Manchester United.

Bayern Munich and Milan are finely balanced. Alberto Gilardino gives Milan new options up front but the defenders are ageing. Inter? With Adriano in attack, Ajax must stay constantly alert to the Brazilian's threat.