So the protracted first knockout stage of the Champions League is finally over, and we’re down to eight teams. Somewhat surprisingly, there is quite a spread of nations represented in the quarter-finals, and for the first time in a few years, only two Premiership clubs remain in the competition.
Everyone has their opinion on who we want to face, and who we want to avoid, but the mantra of ‘there are no easy ties’ rings true at this stage – I can pick out a reason why every opponent is dangerous.
What is certain is that no matter who we face, the press will have plenty of stories at their disposal. We may draw United, in a clash of the two remaining English sides, or Barcelona, in a repeat of the 2006 final. Bordeaux would see us face Chamakh (a clash I’d rather avoid because of the tedious nature of that link), Inter would give Wenger the chance to finally beat Mourinho, while CSKA Moscow would be a familiar opponent for Arshavin.
But for me, the two most interesting ties are the remaining pair – Bayern Munich and Lyon. We have history with Bayern – they knocked us out in 2005, and gave us trouble in a group stage back in 2000/1, coming back from two goals down to draw at Highbury. Coincidentally, Lyon were also in that group, and to my knowledge that was the only time we’ve ever played them in a competitive match. A hunch says we’ll be getting one of those two.
And for who we want – Bayern and Lyon are certainly two of the sides we’d be confident of beating, while Moscow are friendlier now that their winter is over (although their plastic pitch would be awkward). Inter are beatable provided you have a strong referee, but the performance of Messi last night makes me worry about two legs against Barcelona.
But in reality, I just hope we don’t draw United. Not because I think we should fear them, but the whole fun of European competition is playing sides you are less familiar with. Personally, I’d take Bayern – a good team steeped in history, with star players, but a team you’d be confident of beating. That’s my pick, but we’ll find out more tomorrow.
In the meantime, we have the Premiership to concern ourselves with, and a weekend that may be looked back on as defining. United face a wounded Liverpool side who have Gerrard inexplicably available despite his near-assault on Brown last weekend, but it is Chelsea who face perhaps the biggest banana skin with a trip to a Blackburn side who have won their last four home games and are fresh and rested.
Either could drop points, and it is imperative that we take advantage if they do. West Ham have a decent record against us in recent seasons, although they haven’t won away from home since the opening day of the season. Three points are to be expected if we are to apply more pressure on the top two.
Cesc looks ready to return, and Song will also bolster the midfield following his two match ban. The bigger concern is Gallas, whose calf injury was described by Wenger as ‘endless’. I have to say I’m worried by the possibility that we won’t see him in an Arsenal shirt again, and more pertinently that his backup may cost us vital goals between now and the end of the season. Campbell has impressed, but can be exposed by pace, and his understandable fitness issues mean that Silvestre will feature far more than any of us is comfortable with.
Incidentally, this will be the first time Campbell has faced West Ham since that infamous walk out.
Unusually, we play first this weekend, and a win would put us top of the league, albeit temporarily. And if we did win, I’d bet than one of United or Chelsea would fail to climb back above us on the Sunday.