A double meeting between sides from England and Milan, along
with a mouth-watering encounter between Roma and Real Madrid, form
the prospective highlights of the opening leg of the UEFA Champions
League last 16 ties. British football's current robust health
is evidenced by the presence of no fewer than five teams (four
English and one Scottish) in these prestigious fixtures. Moreover,
six previous winners of the tournament are still in with a chance
of adding a further trophy to their cabinets.
Determined to hold sway on the continental scene, almost all 16 clubs have opted to reinforce their ranks during the January transfer window. Indeed, a grand total of 45 new registrations have been received, the most notable of which is the young Brazilian prodigy Alexandre Pato, who is expected to make his tournament debut this week with reigning champions AC Milan. Meanwhile, Germany's Michael Ballack and the Frenchman Nicolas Anelka will both reacquaint themselves with the world's most demanding club competition in the colours of Chelsea. Only Real Madrid have resisted the temptation to make any foray into the transfer market.
Despite several of the qualified teams having chosen to rotate their squads for last weekend's domestic fixtures, only six suffered defeats. Nine managed victories, with AC Milan the only side to draw their match, against Parma.
The big match
These two former European champions find themselves in very different boats at the moment. Inter are cruising calmly towards their third Serie A title success in a row after a 2-0 win over Livorno extended their lead to 11 points. With this domestic treble almost assured, Roberto Mancini is now aiming to recreate the glorious past of the Nerazzurri, whose last win in this competition was back in 1965. Liverpool's ship, in contrast, is markedly less steady, as Rafael Benitez's men only qualified on the last day of the group stage and go into the game on the back of a humiliating 2-1 FA Cup home defeat by Championship side Barnsley. The Reds' recent Premier League form has also been uninspiring, leaving them a disappointing fifth, three points behind fierce rivals Everton. Benitez has reiterated his belief in his players but is still waiting for them to burst into life. And with the Champions League offering their only remaining hope of silverware this season, it is a case of now or never.
The Gunners are definitely playing the best football in the Premier League this season, but Arsene Wenger's men have just paid the price for reshuffling the pack in the shape of a resounding 4-0 FA Cup defeat to Manchester United. The European champions, meanwhile, are quietly climbing back up the table and are unbeaten in six games after a problematic start to the season. Milan may have just lost Ronaldo to a knee injury, but they welcome back Gennaro Gattuso and will also field their Brazilian wonder duo of Kaka and Pato. However, injury could yet deprive them of their first and second-choice goalkeepers, Dida and Zeljko Kalac.
AS Roma-Real Madrid
Beaten 1-0 by Juventus and now 11 points behind pacesetters Inter, Francesco Totti's Roma were very quiet on Saturday and will now be pinning all their hopes on Europe ahead of the visit of Real Madrid. The Merengues, meanwhile, still have a five-point buffer over Barcelona at the top of La Liga but have slipped to two consecutive away defeats, despite their array of attacking talent.
Most of the favourites find themselves far from home for the first leg, but Porto at Schalke, Barcelona at Celtic and Manchester United at Lyon all seem well equipped to lay the foundations for progression to the quarter-finals. In the knockout stages for the first time in their history, Zico's Fenerbahce, always a tough proposition in their home cauldron, will play host to a solid Sevilla side, while Olympiacos will fancy their chances against Chelsea in what should be an equally fiery atmosphere.
Player to watch
With the advent of the knockout stages as well as the final phase of their domestic league, Barcelona will be hoping to see Ronaldinho return to his brilliant best. The Brazilian has only played 14 times in Spain so far this campaign (scoring 7 times, 3 of which were penalties), as well as making six Champions League appearances (1 goal).
"We have had some great occasions and the Barcelona game - there will not - and I emphasise this - there will not be a better atmosphere in Europe next week or last week or the week after," Celtic manager Gordon Strachan.
UEFA Champions League last 16, first legs:
Tuesday 19 February
Wednesday 20 February