European Challenge

Celtic will find it difficult to deal with Juventus' Andrea Pirlo (right).-AP Celtic will find it difficult to deal with Juventus' Andrea Pirlo (right).

Three British clubs have advanced to the knockout phase of the UEFA Champions League. But it won’t be an easy task for them to get past the best of Europe in the round of 16, writes Brian Glanville.

Hard to know whether the Special One Jose Mourinho will ever be in charge of Real Madrid when they face Manchester United in the first knockout round of the European Champions League. Though we can be quite sure that Alex Ferguson will yet again be managing United. At the turn of the year, Real looked to be in some kind of chaos. It was known for some time that the ever imperious Mourinho was at odds with the club’s President but when he suddenly and sensationally dropped the team’s celebrated goalkeeper Iker Casillas from the team, which in the event surprisingly lost 3-2 to Malaga, chaos seemed imminent.

Initially Casillas seemed to defer to the manager’s cranky decision, but then it became known that both he and the powerful international defender Sergio Ramos had gone to see the President to complain.

The alarming fact is that, in the old well-worn phrase, he seems to have lost the dressing room. Though when they go head-to-head, Real are usually the equal of Barcelona, they have slipped hopelessly behind them in the Campeonato. It might be argued that any team which has Cristiano Ronaldo must be respected and feared and there is a host of other stars besides such as that inspired Croatia playmaker Luka Modric and the incisive French attacker Benzema. But will they, would they, still play for Mourinho? Manchester United may have qualified, but their form, even if they managed to beat their bitter Mancunian Foes City in the League, has in Europe hardly been consistent.

Having grabbed Robin van Persie from an embitterered Arsenal, they have hugely strengthened their spearhead, with Wayne Ronney operating effectively just behind him. In their qualifying group United lost in Turkey 1-0 to Galatasaray, then lost the last game at home by the same score to a modest CFR Cluj, though on that occasion, they did not field a full team. Tom Cleverley has been outstanding in central midfield, but the defence, even with Vidic back at last, hardly looks impenetrable. Much clearly will depend on Real’s morale.

Arsenal will have a hard task against Bayern Munich who must still be licking their wounds after that astonishing defeat by Chelsea in the last European final. In the Bundesliga, they have been running away from Borussia Dortmund, champions the last two seasons, but that they are not invincible as shown by a surprising 3-1 defeat in Belarus by the unfancied Bate, through they beat them easily enough in Munich in the return. The battle of the Titans, against Dortmund ended in a draw but then Leverkusen surprised them in the League. In their last couple of group games, they had Arjen Robben, with his devastating left foot on the right wing and that other famed winger, Franck Ribery, got on for just 18 minutes. The summer saw ruthless changes at top technical level and a platoon of new players. Though one of them, the 33-year-old Peruvian, Claudio Pizarro, who played six years at Bayern before joining Chelsea, briefly, and Werder Bremen, had returned to them this season and, belying his reputation for being less penetrative in Euro games, scored three goals at home against Lille.

Even Mario Gomes, who got 40 goals last season, isn’t sure of his place; the youngsters, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos can be so quick and effective while behind them there is the driving force of Bastien Sehweinsteiger; provided he can avoid injuries.

Hard to assess Arsenal except to say that their humiliating defeat in the League Cup by humble Bradford City may have done them and long reigning manager Arsene Wenger a power of good. This because Wenger has no real guidance from directorial level. Chief shareholder, the American billionaire Stan Kroeger is an absentee with a plenitude of sports franchise in the USA and there is no one like David Dein, who brought Wenger to the club but was forced out by the former main shareholder, Danny Fiszman, to help, support and even guide Wenger, who reportedly had till very recently, no communication with his old centre half Steve Bould who had allegedly been appointed to organise a defence which badly needed it.

But the long awaited return of young Jack Wilshere has given new options to the attack and the inspired purchase of Santi Cazorla from the surprisingly successful Malaga has given a new drive from midfield to the attack; though there is no substitute for van Persie.

Putting Theo Walcott in the middle as he wants — provided he is persuaded to stay — is surely questionable. He is no great header of the ball and his tremendous pack is far more rewarding on the flank.

Celtic, after their glorious home win against mighty Barcelona and their last gasp defeat 2-1 at Nou Camp will not fear Juventus, another opponent enormously richer than them. They will respect but not dismay at the prospect of facing the passing of Andrea Pirlo, the opportunism of Fabio Quagliarella and Mirko Vucinic, the three-man defensive wall of Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci.

Their strength is in their team as a whole with their pace, morale and determination, plus the intimidating, if sporting crowd Juve will face at Celtic Park. Celtic have rehabilitated ex-Scunthorpe striker Gary Hooper, have a superb goalkeeper in Fraser Forster, a dynamic Kenyan midfielder in young Victor Wanyama; and that Crowd!