Manchester United's not-so-secret weaponsToday’s Champions League draw could barely have been worse for the three British clubs left in the competition.
There is now a strong chance of no domestic representation in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Real Madrid and Barcelona are recognised as the big two in Europe but, while Barca have been drawn against Milan, Bayern Munich and Juventus are not far behind!
Manchester United are in that leading cluster of European sides though and, despite drawing Real Madrid, they have the best chance.
Call it a hunch, but I think it’s written that Fergie will get his revenge on Real – who have knocked United out twice in recent years – and Jose Mourinho, whose Porto side famously snatched a late win en route to winning the title.
In addition to the ‘payback’ element, United have so much European experience, and so much firepower. Both sides are not exactly brilliant defensively, but with Nemanja Vidic back United could be a more organised proposition come February.
They’re in better overall form than Real too, although the Spanish champions have the Ronaldo effect, something which saw them through nine years ago, admittedly thanks to a different flamboyant forward with the same name.
It’s not unthinkable that Cristiano Ronaldo could haunt his former club, as he is one for the big stage. But I fancy United to squeeze through – just.
Arsenal have been put to the sword by Barca in recent times and, while they avoid their nemesis this time, Bayern Munich is hardly a sympathetic draw.
They’re in excellent domestic form after a couple of years in the shadow of Borussia Dortmund, and of course they got to last year’s final.
Four-times champions Bayern know how to win in Europe and, with Arsenal vulnerable to real quality in attack, I can see their firepower being too strong for the Gunners.
If it had been Munich first and London second I’d have given Arsenal a chance, but not this way round.
Celtic’s matches with Juventus look like a mismatch on paper, but then we said that about Barca in the group stages.
I watched Juventus play in Copenhagen against FC Nordsjaelland in the group stages, and if they play like that – lackadaisical, content to take a draw – Celtic have a chance, but then I saw them come from two down to draw with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge and they were excellent, playing with pace and flair.
When the stakes are this high I can’t see them trying to coast at Celtic Park; furthermore, Celtic’s strengths – which they have played to brilliantly – are sitting deep, counter-attacking and looking for set pieces. All of which Juve know how to defend against.
Giorgio Chiellini’s fitness will be key – he could be out for two months after hurting his calf, and if the scan confirms the worst, he may not be fully fit for the first leg.
Still, they have plenty of depth with Martin Caceres and Andrea Barzagli more than capable of partnering Leonardo Bonucci, and I just can’t see the Hoops getting past them. Celtic are the longest outsiders, and with good reason.
The Europa League draw plays second fiddle, but the former Soviet teams tend to take it very, very seriously.
This is not good news for my former club Liverpool, who got Zenit St Petersburg, the 2008 champions.
They have a lot of top players, although not without some political problems. And it’s long a way to go in Europe, almost as long as you could get, in what will be a hostile, freezing environment.
If Liverpool treat their two matches with the same level of respect that Zenit do – by fielding their strongest XI, as opposed to testing the youngsters as they did in the group – they have a good chance and could do enough.
However, even if Brendan Rodgers does use his first-choice team, a lot depends on how his younger players handle the experience of a long trip, and the cauldron of an atmosphere.
We all know what their fans said this week and it could be a very difficult match for Liverpool. But either way they have to start their best team.