Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The return of the Champions League

The wait is finally over. Champions League football finally returns this week as 16 teams can briefly put their league worries on hold and focus on the glittering European prize. The original European Cup always had a strong appeal right from its inception in 1956. But in recent years, the quest for this trophy has certainly reached obsessive heights. In fact, quite a few teams have made the Champions League the most important quest of their season while letting their league form dip since winning the league title is no longer a requirement to take part in the competition like in the old days of the European Cup. For example last year even if AC Milan had not won the trophy, they would still have been in the Champions League this season as they finished in the final 4th spot required for the Champs League with 61 points, a staggering 36 points behind the league champions Inter Milan (this includes Milan's 8 point point deduction, without which they would have been still 28 points behind).

The Champions League is once again the only trophy that Milan will be playing for this year as they are currently 21 points adrift of Inter Milan and were dumped out of the Italian Cup in January. In fact they have been in cruise mode in the league for a few weeks now, while Arsenal have been involved in a tight league championship race. Ofcourse, not withstanding this previous weekend's game, Arsenal should return fully motived for this Wednesday's game as they once again bid to go one better than their 2006 runner's up spot.

Arsenal vs AC Milan

This is the first meeting between Arsenal and AC Milan in European competition. Even though both teams have a proud history, this encounter has been atleast two decades in the making.

A new start in 1986

After winning the 1979 Italian league title, AC Milan went through a bad phase in the early 1980's when they got relegated. The team's history was forever changed when Silvio Berlusconi bought the team in 1986. His main master stroke was hiring Arrigo Sacchi from lowly Parma. Sacchi transformed the team by ushering in a new exciting playing style and leading Milan to the league title in 1988, followed by two European Cups in 1989 & 1990. The current Milan team's origins can be traced back to that Sacchi team as Paolo Maldini evolved under Sacchi and Milan's current coach Carlo Ancelotti was part of the European Cup winning squads in 89 & 90 (including scoring a goal in a 5-0 rout of Real Madrid in the 1989 European Cup).

The years 1979 and 1986 also stand out in Arsenal's history. After a famous 3-2 victory over Man Utd in the 1979 F.A Cup final, Arsenal went trough a period of indifferent results and no trophies in the early 1980's. Their success only started after former player George Graham was hired in 1986. A league Cup victory followed in 1987 before a famous league title in 1989. Arsenal went onto win another league title in 1991 (losing only one game), won both domestic cups in 1993 and championed a gritty 1-0 win in the 1994 Cup Winner's Cup final. Arsene Wenger inherited the tough defense that George Graham created and if not for that solid backbone, then it is hard to believe Wenger would have fashioned a championship winning team so quickly in 1998.

So if there was ever a chance that two different playing styles and cultures would have clashed, it should have been in 1990 when a defensive Arsenal could have met an attack minded Milan team in the European Cup. But because of the European ban on English clubs, that meeting was not to be.

1994: Arsenal's defense overcame a skilful Parma team packed with Zola, Asprilla and Thomas Brolin to win the Cup Winner's Cup. Also, in 1994 AC Milan thrashed Barcelona 4-0 to win the European Cup. Prior to the game, Johan Cruyff and a few Barcelona players ridiculed Milan and said that Barcelona's attack would easily overcome Milan's defense. But like that night and many more nights after that, Milan have proved their critics wrong.

Playing styles reversed:

On Feb 20, 2008, as Arsenal prepare to take on AC Milan, both teams playing style has reversed from those under George Graham and Sacchi. Arsenal are not known for their defense like under George Graham and even though Milan possess a talented attacking streak in Kaka, they are not know for their attacking potential like under Sacchi. In a recent interview, Kaka was full of praise for Arsenal and said: "They play football the way we like it to see it in Brazil, with style, changing position all the time, moving the ball among themselves so quickly,". Praise indeed. But as past Champions League games have shown, a team can possess as much talent as possible but it amounts to nothing if the opponent is tactically able to negate their opponents strengths.

While Arsenal vs Milan is easily one of the most eye catching fixtures, there are 7 other games which should provide enough drama.

The European Quest:

Safe to say, all the 16 teams have their own reason for doing well in Europe. In Olympiacos' case, a good European performance will help ease the constant taunts they get in league football. Even though Olympiacos are completely dominant in Greek league football with 35 league titles (including 10 of the last 11 league titles) compared to Panathinaikos's 14 titles, Panathinaikos fans often joke that only their team has true "European pedigree" because of their solitary runner's up spot in the European Cup in 1971 and two semi-final appearances (1985 & 1996). Whereas Olympiacos only have a quarter-final berth in 1998 to show for their European Cup exploits. This taunt is similar to one that the English media often use against Arsenal, thanks to Manchester United & Ferguson. Manchester's solitary European Cup under Ferguson in 1999 is often used to imply their greatness over the Gunners. Even though with each passing year's failure in Europe, Manchester's win in 1999 appears to be more of a fluke than something earned through true quality. But the Champions League failure is used a sword over Wenger and Arsenal.

Lyon are another team that feels the pressure of European glory every year. Last season, their 6th straight league title felt like a consolation prize after another failure in Europe. Real Madrid always have tremendous expectations on their shoulders in the Champions League despite their 9 Cup victories. But considering their last Cup was in 2002, the almost 6 year gap must feel like a drought to the team's owners and fans. And Liverpool have been able to use the Champions League to mask their poor domestic form. It is hard to believe that Rafa Benitez would have earned so much respect from Liverpool fans had Liverpool not conjured up six minutes of magic to erase a 3-0 deficit against a stylish Milan team in 2005.

Final note:

There Will be Brazilians:

15 of the 16 European teams have atleast one registered Brazilian player on their squad. The only exception is Celtic. While some teams revolve around their Brazilian players, other teams such as Arsenal have only been using their Brazilian players when the first team players have been injured.

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