It was very much a case of Italy versus England on Friday morning as all three of Serie A’s remaining sides in the Champions League drew Premier League opposition in the last 16.
Inter’s ‘reward’ for finishing second in their group is a mouth-watering tie against holders Manchester United. Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson have had some lively exchanges during their on-going rivalry, although both have spoke of their respect of their opposite number. The Nerazzurri Coach was victorious in their only previous Champions League tie with his Porto side infamously netting late on at Old Trafford at the same stage 5 years to ago, on their way to being crowned Champions of Europe.
With United amongst the favourites for the cup in addition to Inter’s unconvincing exploits at the previous stage, the Italians will no doubt go into the tie as slight underdogs, but it’s a tag Mourinho has always favoured and usually revelled in. But much is expected of Inter in Europe this year – it was one of the main reasons behind hiring Mourinho in the first place, following his exploits with European minnows Porto in 2004. So the pressure is really on for the Portuguese tactician with the Italian press sharpening their knives waiting for that almighty slip up.
In another appetizing tie and delectable twist of fate, Juventus Coach Claudio Ranieri faces an emotional return to Stamford Bridge, as his men were paired with the daunting task of last year’s beaten finalists, Chelsea. The current Old Lady Coach is still a very popular figure at the Bridge following a largely successful four-year stint, along with his likeable and dignified character.
Juventus will be right to feel hard done by, after they topped arguably the toughest group in the last stage, winning in Madrid being the highlight. But Chelsea’s lacklustre performances saw them beaten to top spot by Roma, meaning themselves, Inter and Real Madrid were dangerous floaters for the Group Winners.
The Bianconeri won’t rest on their laurels for too long though, despite being the form side in Serie A and impressive in Europe thus far. Chelsea has been faltering on home turf, but their away record has been nothing short of perfect in the league. By February, if the Blues form doesn’t improve, Ranieri’s men might just meet an under-pressure Luiz Felipe Scolari and a side short on confidence and direction. Whatever happens, the game at Stamford Bridge is certainly one not to be missed as Ranieri awaits a poignant reunion.
Elsewhere, Roma will meet an unpredictable and inconsistent Arsenal side in yet another battle of England and Italy. Arsene Wenger’s men have been something of both sumptuous and dreadful at points this season – at times in the same games – but Giallorossi Coach Luciano Spalletti will know European glory looks likely to be the Gunners’ best chance of a major trophy this campaign, and possibly the only way to save a misfiring season.
Meanwhile, Roma are bang in form and climbing the table following a disastrous start, mainly thanks to a series of vital late goals. But Spalletti will be all to aware that the result will probably be decided by which Arsenal side show up next year, as when they’re good – they are devastatingly good, but if they’re not on song, the Romans will be sure to take advantage.
The pick of the other ties, sees nine-time winners, Real Madrid meet 2005 winners Liverpool, with the second leg at Anfield penned in as unmissable. Meanwhile, favourites Barcelona face the tricky task of the French champions, Lyon in another cracker of a match up.
The other three ties are little less spectacular, with Villarreal paired with surprise-package Panathanikos, German giants face Sporting Lisbon and Athletico Madrid meet Porto in a seemingly evenly matched affair.
It all sets us up nicely for an exciting round of games with the stirring side story of two of Europe’s most prestigious and glorified leagues going head-to-head.
The UEFA Cup draw seemed a little unglamorous following its far superior predecessor but it went on to throw up a few interesting ties, as well as a lengthy an altogether confusing process!
Tournament favourites Milan were down to meet one of the Champions League first place loser, and were promptly paired with the strong German outfit, Werder Bremen. Tricky indeed – but a slightly easier tie waits in the last 16 for the Rossoneri, with St Etienne and Olympiakos battling for that right. Werder sunk Milan’s neighbours Inter earlier this month, condemning the Nerazzurri to second spot in their Champions League group, so Carlo Ancelotti will certainly be wary of the German side, who boast the likes of the much-admired Diego, Per Mertesacker and Hugo Almeida.
Fiorentina were dealt the difficult task of taking on legendary Dutch side, Ajax. Not quite the force they previously were, it is still considered a tough tie all the same for Claudio Prandelli’s side – the reward being Marsielle or Steve McClaren’s FC Twente. The passage looks relatively safe for a quarterfinal berth for the Viola, who will be looking to go one further than last term’s semi-final place.
Sampdoria face a lengthy trip to Eastern Europe, as they prepare to take on Benfica conquerors Metalist Kharkiv of Ukraine. But the prospect of facing Valencia in the next round will be daunting one, albeit providing the Spanish side overcome Dynamo Kiev in their last 16 tie.
Udinese have drawn a similarly unknown team to the Blucerchiati, as they meet Polish side Lech Poznan, but a harsh draw waits in next round with holders Zenit St Petersburg or the awkward German outfit, Stuttgart. This Udinese side are taking this competition very seriously as they look to add a trophy to the progress they’ve made in recent years.
All four Italian sides will expect to make it at least a stage further the competition nears its business end. And all four will be amongst the strongest teams left in the competition as Italy looks for its first winner for 11 years.