The European Picture

The knock-out phase of the UEFA Champions League will be an interesting affair this season with some mouth-watering clashes. No teams can take it easy as competition in Europe's highest club tournament has increased manifolds, writes Brian Glanville.

In what seems more than ever to have been a moment of sheer bravado, Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's manager, declared that he hoped the Gunners would draw Barcelona in the first knock-out round of the current European Champions Cup. Alas for Arsenal, he has got his wish, and Barcelona it will be. With the formidable menace of Lionel Messi, irresistible at Nou Camp recently when in the “Xlassix” fixture between Barca and Real Madrid, he scored goals “for fun” in an overwhelming 5-0 victory over Real Madrid. Just as when, last season, the Gunners came to Nou Camp after salvaging a late 2-2 draw in the first leg at the Emirates, Messi simply tore them apart. He equalised just three minutes after Arsenal had unexpectedly taken the lead, and went on to hit another three goals.

Can Arsenal contain Barca now, when the excellence in midfield of the World Cup winners Iniesta and Xavi is bolstered by still another World Cup winner in David Villa, a highly costly signing from Valencia and a regular scorer in South Africa?

Wenger can but hope and pray that the belated return of his injured Belgian international stopper Thomas Vermaelen will plug the holes in a fearfully leaky central defence of Sebastien Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny. While behind them the lack of a reliable goalkeeper is surely a severe indictment of Wenger's leadership. With the Spaniard Manuel Almunia fading and vulnerable, Wenger, as we know, tried very hard to acquire Fulham's accomplished Aussie veteran, Mark Schwarzer, who seemed keen to come, but, in the event, Fulham wouldn't part and in mid-season Schwarzer suddenly decided to commit to Fulham. So Arsenal at the turn of the year found themselves giving a debut in goal to the 20-year-old Pole, Tomasz Szczêsny. Cese Fabregas, who has missed a number of games in an Arsenal midfield which sorely needs his attacking flair, will be back at the Spanish club whence Arsenal enticed him as a teenager. It is well known that he'd be keen to return to Nou Camp. But this return may not be happy.

Tottenham Hotspur, the Gunners eternal north London rivals, who recently beat them 3-2 at the Emirates, after seeming down and out at 2-0 behind, with Gareth Bale in devastating form, narrowly went down to the holders Inter losing 4-3 at San Siro, after seeming well beaten. They surged through at White Hart Lane with Bale irresistible on the left flank. But Spurs, though they at last have Michael Dawson back from injury at centre back, give far too many goals away for my liking.

In their last Euro group match, they played a somewhat sloppy 3-3 draw in Holland against modest Twente Enschede, their first goal coming from a comical error by the home keeper. AC Milan will surely be harder opposition than their local rivals, Inter. Under a new and little-known manager, Massimiliano Allegri, Milan have set a cracking pace at the top of the Campionato. Those battle hardened midfielders, Andrea Pirlo, Massimo Ambrosini and Gennaro Gattuso, are still around, while up front, there's now the minatory pair of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, after a disappointing season at Barcelona, and Brazil's Robinho, plainly glad tp escape from Manchester City.

Manchester United made such heavy weather of only drawing their last group game at home against a Valencia team which fielded no fewer than seven reserves. Yes, United managed to win 1-0 in their crucial Old Trafford game against Arsenal, when Alex Ferguson left out a Berbatov who can be irresistible, as he was with those five goals against Blackburn, or invisible, as he has been subsequently. And what of Wayne Rooney, in flashes he can still seem the remarkable player he can be at his best — even though he missed that spot kick against Arsenal — but he's yet, with the odd exception — such as the England against Bulgaria game in which Berbatov didn't deign to play — to find consistent form. By February, he may have found it. And the opposition, Marseille, although they beat a flaccid Chelsea 1-0 in the last “dead rubber” group game at the Velodrome — goal scored by the Brazilian forward Brandao, who'd just been the subject of condign criticism — their “ceiling” is well below United's.

It was surprising to see Chelsea's opponents, Copenhagen, written off in certain English quarters as easy prey. Seeing how Chelsea have lost a string of recent games, some of them disastrously — as in the home 3-0 defeat by Sunderland — the Londoners would be foolish to take these ties for granted, though at least they'll have Frank Lampard back after his absence since August. Injuries permitting, one supposes. But so much depends in defence on his England colleague John Terry, himself playing constantly through pain for a long while now.

There is a reprise of the rivalry between Inter, the holders, but gravely out of form this season, and Bayern Munich, who have Franck Ribery available at last, after missing months through his injuries. Ribery, a star of the 2006 World Cup, disgraced himself with his surly behaviour in South Africa, where for some reason he was especially hostile to the young France midfielder, Gourcuff. But he looked very sharp indeed, when scoring twice in Munich against Basel in Bayern's last group match and now the good news for Bayern is that their essential German World Cup midfielder, Bastian Schweinsteiger has finally decided to sign a new contract.

Inter's season under the new aegis of Rafa Benitez, has been dire, but many injuries have had something to do with that. They crashed embarrassingly in their last group match away to Schalke and their defence let through seven goals in two ties against Spurs. Getting the incisive striker, Argentine's Diego Milito, back in the attack should help them to improve, but they'll have to win by a good margin in their first leg tie against Bayern, should they hope to survive.

Real Madrid may have been humiliated in Nou Camp but their easy win at the Bernabéu against Auxerre featured a coruscating hat-trick by the French international winger, Karim Benzema, striking now from the right, now from the left: as incisive as he'd been at Wembley for France against England. At long last Jose Mourinho, at Real, is giving him his chance. Lyon are not the power they once were but Argentine striker Lisandro Lopez can still score goals.