Real again?

Real Madrid, with its rich attacking talent, seems unstoppable in this season’s Champions League too, writes Brian Glanville, as he analyses the Round of 16 draw of the tournament.

Who is to stop Real Madrid becoming the first ever team to win the so called European Champions Cup two seasons in a row? I advisedly say so called because for some years now, the tournament, which began as the real thing with only the various European champions being admitted (except when the holder was also a champion, so the second placed team from the nation was admitted), has admitted as many as four teams per country. To the ruination of the once attractive and competitive European Cup Winners Cup, and the present enduring fiasco of letting teams knocked out early in the Champions Cup enter the lesser UEFA Cup. Which in parenthesis has now been ruined by the disastrous Michel Platini by letting in a host of obscure teams from lesser football countries.

Bayern Munich, in the first knockout, could have drawn Shakhtar Donetsk, managed by a very old friend of mine, Mircea Lucescu, whom I first met in Bucharest when he was captain of the Romanian international team, which he eventually managed. Alas, for his present team, where he has been in charge for several years, the civil war in Ukraine has obliged them to move from besieged Donetsk to Kiev. But I don’t believe they could stand up to Bayern and Arjen Robben wherever they played.

Curiously enough, Real Madrid began this season very poorly to the expressed displeasure of their veteran goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Atletico Madrid, who had pressed them so hard in last season’s European Cup Final, beat them twice. And it was only a desperately late goal by Wales’ Gareth Bale that saved the game in the European Final for Real, who having equalised went on to win 4-1.

They lost early games as well, but suddenly got into their majestic stride, and since then have looked invincible. Barcelona, the eternal rivals, were even beaten with ease 3-1. The acquisition of two such remarkable players as Colombia’s James Rodriguez, arguably the star-turn of the last World Cup, and Germany’s Toni Kroos, playing deeper than in his Bayern Munich days, has made a dazzling attack more dangerous still.

Cristiano Ronaldo is scoring a plenitude of goals from 11 points of the attacking compass, and though injury to the highly creative and important little Croatian international Luca Modric has been a blow, there is surely far too much attacking talent for mediocre Schalke even if they did manage to draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge; only to be blown away at home in the return.

Chelsea have drawn PSG of France, whom they knocked out last season. Though they lost the first leg in Paris, in the return at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea did not have to face Sweden’s redoubtable striker, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, against whom that accomplished and ever influential veteran John Terry will have to be at his most alert. I am less sure about Terry’s cohort in central defence, Gary Cahill, as both with club and country — England — he has a tendency to make the occasional expensive mistakes. Not to mention the occasional ugly foul, one of which would certainly have got him sent off, while playing for Chelsea against Hull, by a more decisive referee.

Chelsea brim over with expensive talent, but every now and again stumble strangely, not only against Schalke but even away to Maribor where they could only earn a draw. Newcastle United recently beat them too. But an already powerful squad has been reinforced this season by the ever lively and inventive Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona and the prolific striker Diego Costa, the Brazilian who elected — so unsuccessfully, alas —to play for Spain in the recent World Cup.

Barcelona face Manchester City and this isn’t an easy tie to call. Barca have been erratic so far this season despite or perhaps even because of their array of talent. Alongside the fabled Lionel Messi — exhausted by the time it came to a World Cup final, to which his superb goals had taken Argentina — Barcelona now have the equally slight and wonderfully elusive Neymar, cruelly put out off the World Cup by a horrific foul in his back which could have crippled him. Now for the bagatelle of GBP75 million there is also Uruguay’s Luis Suarez. Another attacker, who, whatever his shocking dental extravaganzas, is beyond doubt one of the world’s finest players. But this could be an embarrassment of riches. If City, unexpected victors in Rome in their last qualifier, can get back that supreme opportunist Sergio Aguero — yet another Argentinian — who was missing in Rome, I believe they would have an even chance at least of success.

Arsene Wenger of Arsenal has got the tie of his dreams against Monaco, the club he managed with success for seven years, winning a French Championship. He has double cause to be pleased — first for the obvious romantic reasons, second because the Gunners, time and again eliminated in the last 16 stage, now must surely be favourites to prevail against a team which scored a mere four time in the qualifying group and mourn the loss of the ebullient James Rodriguez.

Arsenal have been sadly inconsistent this season to the point that a vocal group of supporters want Wenger — surprisingly given an extended three years contract despite some dreadful defeats in the league last season — to go. Still, when he originally came in 1996, to revolutionise the club, a loud-mouthed group of ignorant fans were demanding, “Arsene who?” despite his success at Monaco.

With Theo Walcott at last returning to give pace and flair to the right wing, Chile’s Alex Sanchez, a surprise performer in midfield attack, Aaron Ramsey now at last finding the coruscating midfield form of last season, Giroud getting goals from centre forward on return from injury, there is enough talent in the team to make progress beyong Monaco. Except that, inconsistency has reigned. Exemplified by the strangely erratic form of the giant German centre half Per Mertesacker, who can, by turns, be dominant and bizarrely vulnerable, even despite his great height, in the air. Inconsistent form means it is far too late to win a Premiership that Arsenal once dominated. I’m afraid I still believe that Wenger has passed his meridian.

Without Rodriguez, Monaco in attack must rely on that wily Bulgarian Berbatov, a hugely gifted but unpredictable attacker, as he showed at Tottenham, Manchester United and Fulham, while Joao Moutinho of Portugal is a force in midfield.