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February 18, 2005

UEFA Champions preview: AC Milan and Manchester United head tremendous match list

Once again the UEFA Champions League has lived up to its billing as the greatest club competition in the world. The tournament, set to resume on February 22, will feature the most anticipated soccer matches since Euro 2004, with Europe's premier clubs battling it out to hoist the trophy in Istanbul later this year.

Star-studded Real Madrid play host to Juventus (the finalists from 2003) in Spain. After a fairly inauspicious start to the season, Madrid have seemingly turned the corner with the hiring of Brazilian manager, Vanderli Luxembergo. They've lately had a fabulous run, spurred on by the superb play of England captain David Beckham.

A torrid period of autumnal form from the sixth Spice Girl led to rumors that he would leave Madrid, England-bound. The arrival of the combative Thomas Gravesen from Everton, however, has allowed Beckham to revert to his preferred position to the right of midfield where he has since relocated his ability. On the other hand, Juventus has seen its lead cut to two points in Serie A, where they have recently stuttered. They'll need a quick turnaround to have any chance of taking out the Galacticos and moving to the quarterfinals.

Big-spending, high-flying Chelsea also faces a tough match in Barcelona. The London club has matched its massive pockets with the equally massive size of Jose Mourinho's managerial brain and has thoroughly dominated the Premier League this season. Meanwhile, Barcelona, behind the artistry of FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, has spent the whole of the season atop the Primera Liga.

For both these clubs, who finished trophy-less last year, this tie could define their season. Chelsea faces a grueling week, playing competitions on three fronts. Meanwhile, Barcelona's lead in Spain has slimmed significantly due to Real Madrid's resurgence.

American fans will be particularly looking forward to seeing PSV Eindhoven take on last year's finalists, Monaco, and the Bayer Leverkusen facing Liverpool. Both PSV and Leverkusen feature prominent American national team players in DaMarcus Beasley and Landon Donovan, respectively.

Beasley has successfully made the jump to the Dutch League and is endearing himself to the PSV fans. Donovan, meanwhile, has returned to the German Bundesliga, and to the club where he was first signed as a teenager. Many American fans, myself included, are looking to see if Donovan can prove himself at the highest club level. Of course, in the Champions League, the stakes can get no higher.

That brings us to the titanic match up between AC Milan and Manchester United. There will certainly be no love lost between the two members of footballing royalty as they clash on February 23 at Old Trafford. The Red Devils have been in stunning form recently as they have slowly crept up on Chelsea, while the Rossonero's recent revival has left Juventus looking over its shoulder.

The stage is set for the European Footballer of the Year and the world's best young player, AC Milan's Andriy Shevchenko, and Manchester United's most recent big signing, Wayne Rooney. This is, without a doubt, the match to watch and, thankfully, will be shown on ESPN2.

Rounding out the draw:

Arsenal vs. Bayern Munich: The Gunners, after their 49-match unbeaten streak was gloriously halted by Manchester United, have stumbled a bit recently and look to save their season when they take on current German leaders, Bayern Munich.

Inter Milan vs. FC Porto: Milan's other team, undefeated in 24 Serie A matches and six Champions League attempts, take on the reigning European Champions, FC Porto. The Portuguese side is only at this stage because of luck. Internazionale has only won 13 of those 30 games.

Lyon vs. Werder Bremen: Arguably the most unglamorous match of the bunch but by no means lacking in quality, Lyon has won the French league the past three years and look to be headed for a fourth straight title. Bremen deservedly snared the Bundesliga title last year, but is yet to recapture that form.

All in all, the Champions League has delivered yet again even as early as the round of 16. The competition is shaping up to be one of the most memorable in recent years.