It's not long until the second phase of the Champion's League (CL) kicks off again, and each of the 16 remaining teams will find itself nine games from glory. Only one of those teams will experience the ecstasy of being crowned Europe's finest, and the big question is: who will it be? Depending on your school of thought, one of three teams will stand out. The formbook says AC Milan, recent history and pedigree dictate Real Madrid, while romance cries out Manchester United. And with the field including the likes of Arsenal, Barcelona, Juventus and Valencia, only one thing is certain: it'll be a cracker.
January 2002 was not a good time to be an AC Milan fan. The club's title aspirations had been crushed, and even qualifying for the CL was looking like a struggle. With the team's talisman, Andriy Schevchenko, on the long-term injured list, the prospects were bleak. Six months later things were looking somewhat better. Filippo Inzaghi's return to form and Andrea Pirlo's development into an outstanding playmaker helped Milan scrape into the final CL qualifying spot. Coach Carlo Ancelotti's job was secure for the time being, and the promise of top-level European opposition allowed the club to hang onto its existing stars.
But the real fireworks didn't start until after the World Cup. A series of shrewd dealings in the transfer market transformed a squad who was looking to finish in the top three into one that would settle for nothing less than the Scudetto or CL. First came the flamboyant Dutchman, Clarnce Seedorf, from neighbour and archrival, Internazionale. He was followed by the arrival of John Dahl Tomasson and Rivaldo on frees. On paper the biggest coup was the capture of Italian defensive lynchpin Alessandro Nesta, but in reality the most important "arrival" was that of Manuel da Rui Costa. Having been purchased by Milan the previous year, he decided to spend most of it on the treatment table. Ancelotti bolstered the obvious talent at his disposal with the first real example of his tactical acumen: playing Pirlo in central midfield.
Milan has shattered all expectations by storming to the top of the Italian league and dealing out several thrashings in the CL, including the rout of Deportivo La Coruna in the first stage. The scalps of Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Borussia Dortmund are but a few of those hanging in the Milan trophy room, and not undeservedly either. Its combination of fluent attacking and defensive miserliness has led to an almost scientific dismantling of opponents and has undoubtedly rendered it the form team in Europe.
But I've lost track of the number of times the form team has been dealt a lesson by the establishment. In Europe, there is no doubt over who occupies that role. Real Madrid is a nine time champion, including three of the last five years, and a team oozing with talent. Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, and Raul are the holy trinity, but only a fool would overlook the threat posed by players such as Ivan Helguera and Roberto Carlos. Their defense is expertly marshalled by Fernando Hierro, with the outstanding Iker Casillas continuing to grow in stature between the posts. Oh, and it bought Ronaldo over the summer.
When the chips are truly down, you can rely on Madrid to win with style. It plays with a swagger and exudes technique and confidence with every pass, probing the opposition for the inevitable weakness and ruthlessly exposing it. On the rare occasion that the team fails to deliver collectively, up steps one of the superstars to grab the game by the scruff of its neck. No one will ever forget Zidane's magnificent volley that crushed the hearts of Bayer Leverkusen last season and turned a mediocre match into arguably Madrid's finest hour. Madrid may have lost to Milan this season, but that was the group stage. You can count on Madrid's pedigree to take them to the top and beyond. This team ranks as the favorite, and it may be perilous to write off the champions.
So what does romance have to do with Manchester United's winning? Well, the final is in Old Trafford, and Sir Alex Ferguson is running out of time to win the second CL, which will secure his immortality in the annals of European football history. In the last five seasons, only Madrid has performed better than the Red Devils in the CL. Seven out of ten premier league trophies have ensured a huge accumulation of European experience for yet another star-studded team including David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Ruud van Nistelrooij, new arrival Rio Ferdinand and, most importantly, skipper Roy Keane. As we have seen on countless occasions, Man Utd simply doesn't give up and has the knack of scoring late goals no matter how poorly they are playing or who their unfortunate opponent happens to be.
The disappointment of missing out on a Glaswegian final at the hands of Leverkusen last season will hang heavy on Sir Alex, and the prospect of lifting the trophy in the Theatre of Dreams will offer a huge incentive to the players to put last season's indifferent performances behind them. While they have yet to play any of the "big boys" this season, their experience will render them a threat at any stage. As Bayern Munich fans will tell you, (perhaps with a tear rolling down their cheeks), never, ever count the Mancs out.
Champions are champions, and it is down to the pretenders to prove their superiority. For Milan, the pressure is huge as more than one head will roll in the event of a trophiless season. While for Man Utd, one senses that a lack of depth in some areas of the squad, particularly up front, may prove to be a liability. I wouldn't be surprised if any of those three won it, nor would I be particularly so if one of the 'best-of-the-rest' boys came home. The Gunners, Valencia ,and Barcelona all have enough quality to beat anyone on their day. And let's not forget the Old Lady of Italian football, Juventus. It wasn't long ago that they were reaching CL finals for fun, and this season their dreadful away form seems to have finally stopped. The quarter-finals should offer at least three mouth-watering ties and nobody will dance their way to victory. Form, pedigree, or romance? Sit back and enjoy.