LONDON: This week's football friendlies may have been appetising in their own right but only as the hors d'ouevres to next week's main international dish – the resumption of the Champions League.
Managers like Arsene Wenger of Arsenal and Alex Ferguson of Manchester United who withdrew or restricted most of their players from appearing in this week’s games will instead be fielding their strongest possible teams next week as the second phase of the competition resumes after its two-month winter break.
Next Tuesday and Wednesday’s matches see the four groups reach the halfway stage of this phase of the competition with three of the four groups tightly bunched.
The exception appears to be Group A in which Inter Milan and Barcelona both have six points, well clear of Bayer Leverkusen and Newcastle who are both on zero.
Tuesday’s matches are decisive for all four teams with Barcelona and Inter meeting at the Nou Camp and Bayer hosting Newcastle in Germany.
Arsenal (4) and Ajax (4) occupy first and second spots in Group B and will meet at Highbury on Tuesday. Valencia (2) and Roma (0) meet in Rome in a match the Italians cannot afford to lose.
AC Milan (6) top Group C after two opening wins, followed by Borussia Dortmund (3), Lokomotiv Moscow (1) and European champions Real Madrid (1).
The complexion of the group will change completely if Real beat Dortmund and Milan beat Lokomotiv as expected on Wednesday which will see Real move up to second place.
Group D leaders United (6) will play their old rivals Juventus (4) at Old Trafford on Wednesday while Basel (0) face Deportivo Coruna (1) in a match neither team can afford to lose.
It is all set for another superb week of action.
Since the last round of matches on Dec 10, the European transfer window has opened and closed, but the most dramatic move of all came when Barcelona coach Louis Van Gaal left by the more conventional route of the exit door.
He was replaced by new coach Radomir Antic whose team will set a new Champions League record of 11 successive wins if they beat Inter.
Barca’s Champions League form has been in dramatic contrast to their desperate domestic league form all season, but if they do beat Inter they will have to do so without recent Argentine signing Juan Pablo Sorin, who played in the UEFA Cup for Lazio earlier in the season.
Barca’s arch-rivals Real will be without centreback Fernando Hierro for their remaining Group C games because of a knee injury.
Real have just a point so far but with Zinedine Zidane now back in peak form they will be confident of reaching the quarter-finals.
Valencia’s hopes of making it out of Group B have been hit by a knee ligament injury to fullback Curro Torres, who will miss the rest of the season. Argentine winger Kily Gonzalez is fit again, though, after a nasty ankle injury suffered in November.
Deportivo Coruna should finally be able to give a Champions League debut to Jorge Andrade now that the Portuguese defender is fit. Playmaker Juan Carlos Valeron could also be back soon to boost the side’s chances of a place in the last eight.
Italian hopes of winning the competition for the first time since Juventus did so in 1996 are high with four clubs still in contention -- even if Roma have lost their opening two Group B matches.
But Gabriel Batistuta will play no further part in the competition because his loan move from Roma to Inter means he is Cup-tied and unable to appear for his new club, who have been strengthened by the return to fitness of central midfielder Cristiano Zanetti, yet to appear in Europe this season.
Juventus kept out of the transfer market during January viewing the return to fitness of France striker David Trezeguet as enough of a boost for Marcello Lippi’s squad.
But no sooner was Trezeguet back among the goals than Juve lost the services of their main inspiration – Italy international Alessandro Del Piero.
Del Piero’s thigh injury means that he will miss both games against United and probably also the match against Deportivo on March 12.
While Marco Di Vaio and Marcelo Salas are capable stand-ins there is no doubt that Lippi’s side will be sorely weakened by the absence of the man who has been their main attacking threat in Europe this season.
AC Milan have added fit-again Argentine midfielder Fernando Redondo to their squad list after he proved he was capable of competing again after over two years out with a knee injury. Redondo was a member of the Real side who won the Champions League in 2000 and was named UEFA’s Player of the Tournament.
The classy playmaker cost Milan US$11.4 million when he moved from Real in August 2000, but he straight away suffered a knee injury in pre-season training and had to undergo three operations – not making his Serie A debut until December 2002.
Three English clubs are still in the race to appear in the final at Old Trafford in Manchester on May 21.
United naturally believe they will get through to a final on their own ground, but Arsenal cannot be under-estimated especially as French striker Thierry Henry is playing some of the best football of his career and scoring goals almost at will.
Neither 1999 champions United nor Arsenal made significant moves in the transfer market in January, but one significant change for Arsenal could be that Robert Pires is now back to his best form after missing the opening half of the season through injury, and his pace and goals give the Londoners an added ingredient.
England’s third club Newcastle came through the first phase after losing their first three games and winning their final three, but a third successive second stage defeat to Leverkusen on Tuesday will probably end their interest.
Germany’s representation, already diminished by Bayern Munich’s shock first phase elimination, is in the hands of Dortmund and Leverkusen, neither of whom made any new signings in January, although both are suffering from dips in form. Dortmund have allowed Bayern to build an eight-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga after only one win since the winter break, while Leverkusen are hovering just above the relegation zone after three consecutive league losses. – Reuters