Monday, March 17, 2008

Bookies make United Champions League favourites...hmm...

Firstly let's kick off this post by wishing a Happy St Patrick's Day to any Irish Reds still sober enough to read this blog, which at 19:22pm, probably isn't very many of you.

The bookmakers were quick to adjust their odds following the Champions League Quarter Final draw this past Friday afternoon and it was much to my surprise when I read over the weekend that United were favourites to win the crown that has so often eluded them. William Hill were today offering 3/1 to that the Red Devils will triumph in Moscow - pretty stingy odds when you consider the quality of competition still left in Europe's premier tournament.

Had United landed on the other side of the draw then I may have been slightly more confident that the Red hoardes will be descending into Russia in 2 months time. Over two legs I would be pretty confident that United could despatch any of our domestic rivals, mainly due to the Red's ability to hit teams where it hurts away from home, and the miserly defending of the irrepressive Vidic and Ferdinand. I would also fancy United to wipe the floor with Fenerbache - despite all the off-pitch difficulties that would come with that particular fixture.

However, as fate would have it, United have landed on the more continental half of the draw, with two gruelling legs against Roma awaiting us in the Quarters. Barcelona and Schalke of Germany contest the other tie on this side of the draw.

Following the drawing of the balls, United and Sir Alex in particular, seemed delighted to have avoided domestic opposition. Unfortunately, I fear this optimism could be misplaced. After Liverpool put away Serie A leaders Inter in both legs and Arsenal passed their way to victory over AC a week earlier, English football seems to be under the impression that Italian football has well and truly hit the buffers.

Many observers will recall that Liverpool could only breach the Inter rearguard after playing for about 65% of the game against 10 men. Again, in the second fixture it took another Inter red card before Torres closed the tie and on this occassion the Inter defence was ravaged by both injury and suspension. As for Arsenal against AC - it was apparent the best team won.

To deem Roma a cake-walk would be a short-sighted view for United fans to take prior to a double header against a team we have already faced four times in the last 12 months. Let us not forget that United looked pretty ordinary in the away leg to Roma last season and this was compounded by a 2-1 reverse in that fixture. The 7-1 demolition in the second leg was probably one of the club's best ever European performances and only the most red tinted of spectacle wearers would predict a repeat of that thrashing this time around. AS Roma are no mugs - just ask Real Madrid who they dumped out of the competition in the last 16.

While I would back United to beat Roma it is no easy assignment and an aggregate score of 8-3 is highly unlikely on this occassion.

Should United get past the Italians then there is the small of matter of Barcelona - arguably possessing some of the best attacking footballers in the world, or indeed Shalke, who have a gargantuan task in trying to stop the Spaniards. United versus Barca over two legs is the game all neutrals, and dare I say most United fans would want to see. After all, it is this type of fixture that the Champions League was made for.

Should United qualify and make it to the Semi's, then it would leave the Red Devils in a situation that we have come accustomed to in the years following the 1999 Nou Camp Final. That situation would be coming up against one of European football's genuine superpowers or coming up against unfancied German opposition.

On both these counts United have scored poorly in Champions League knock-out games. Since lifting the European crown United have faced both Real Madrid and AC Milan twice respectively in knockout Champions League football. On each occassion against both these clubs United have been knocked out of the tournament, be it in a blaze of glory (Madrid 4-3 win at home, lost 6-5 on aggregate) or with their tails between their legs (Milan 2-0 on aggregate in 2005 springs to mind).

Similarly, the men in red have disappointed when put against Bavarian opponents ever since turning over the Germans in the '99 Final. While there may have been no shame in going out to eventual tournament winners Bayern Munich in 2001, most United fans believe the Reds blew a golden opportunity to win the trophy for a 3rd time in 2002 by going out to Bayer Leverkusen on away goals in the semi-finals.

Even FC Porto managed to get past United, with the Portugese outfit even playing in the spirit of true German effiecency under Jose Mourinho, in the tie that arguably put the Special One on the map.

While United can certainly claim not to have had much Champions League luck (99 Final aside), it's a sad reality that we haven't put our mark on this competition in the way that many had hoped for after that night in Barcelona.

In all reality, if United overcome Roma then a tie against the Catalans would hopefully await Sir Alex's team. This could potentially be one of the best Champions League ties of the decade if both sides honour their attacking principles.

If United were to face Shalke, then I, along with most other sane football supporters, would back United to put them to the sword. However that memory of Leverkusen still occurs at semi final time - like a bad dream that won't go away.

United versus Barcelona would be far too close to call with any potential game being over one month away.

However, there's only one thing for certain at this stage of the competition, at 3/1 to win the tournament, this red will be keeping his money in his wallet for the time being.

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