For the blazers, the draw for the Champions League latter stages could not have come out better. We are set for the course that the competition’s organisers wanted all along: Madrid versus Barcelona in the final in Munich on May 16, La Liga in the ascendant, El Clasico exported to Bavaria. Sure, there is a way to go yet. But already the full beam gleam in the marketeers’ eyes is sufficient to dazzle all oncoming traffic.
Jose against Pep, Cristiano against Lionel, the divers against the snipers: this is football’s most lucrative exercise in malice and grievance. Plus, the world’s two best players head-to-head in Europe’s swankiest stadium on the club game’s biggest stage. Not to mention Nike versus Adidas. For the money men, things are looking very good. If nothing else, in Bavaria, unlike Doha, football’s commercialisers wouldn’t have to worry about the beer sales.
Sure, there may be one or two with designs to stop it all panning out like that. Milan are Barca’s first hurdle in the quarter-final. They are no bye. Though, as Arsenal proved at the Emirates last week, there are goals in that Italian defence. And a front two of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robinho is not one of sufficient reliability to justify the investment of anyone’s mortgage.
Madrid, meanwhile, have been gifted APOEL Nicosia. And while every neutral would glory in the look on Jose’s face should his side lose to the Cypriots, we can be confident the smirk will remain in place a little longer.
Which means in the semis, Barca would face the winner of Chelsea and Benfica, while Madrid would take on either Marseille or Bayern. Neither is easy, neither should be viewed as a foregone conclusion, but neither would give the respective managers too much in the way of sleepless nights.
While I fully accept that my record at this week’s Cheltenham Festival does not reveal a man wholly at one with the world of the forecast, the more I look at the draw, I can’t see much beyond a Spanish summit.
Who is to stop them? Chelsea you say? The blues had their best chance to ease past Barca in the semi-final three seasons ago, when the limbs of their core players were 36 months younger, when I have never seen Didier Drogba run faster (albeit in pursuit of the referee after the final whistle). Since then, the Londoners have been weakened by a succession of managerial defenestrations and a systematic failure to rebuild their spine. In that same period, Barca have grown immeasurably, buying sensibly, promoting from within, reaping the benefits of stability and success.
Besides, who is to say the Stamford Bridge outfit have the wherewithal even to ease past Benfica to set up a semi with Barca? The Portuguese, bolstered by the foresquare presence of Nicolas Gaitan and Oscar Carodozo were way too good for Manchester United earlier in the competition. The fact is, that magnificent performance against Napoli on Wednesday may well turn out to represent the summit of Chelsea’s European achievement this season. And the summit of England’s too.
In truth, the team with the best chance to foul up the marketing men’s vision is Bayern. What an opportunity presents itself to Arjen Robben, Bastien Schweinsteiger and Franck Ribery: a final, at home, in front of their noisy, denim-clad, colour-draped fans (why is it that no German supporter would be seen dead going to the match submerged under anything fewer than three scarves?). They certainly seemed to have the sniff of something important in their nostrils as they hammered Basel 7-0 this week. That is the same Basel who were too good in the group stages for the team that had been in the final three times in the past five years, incidentally.
Bayern snarling up Mourinho’s power jaunt, messing up the script he has already commissioned which sees at its climax him winning the Champions League with a third club, before heading off for a new challenge in his adopted homeland of England: there’s a thought. Applying a custard pie in the face of the Madrid manager: as a scenario it might have the marketing men scouring the ledge of the nearest tower block for spots from which to leap, but there are plenty who would find that plot the most compelling of all possibilities. Shame it isn’t going to happen.