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Will predictable Champions League have new winner?
The 16 teams that reached the Champions League first knockout round were again the usual suspects expected to go through. The group stage of Europe’s premier club competition unfolded rather predictably after a few early shocks.
Ten of the teams qualified for the same stage last season while the other six include twice winners Juventus, who returned with a roar after a two-year absence, as well as former finalists Panathinaikos and Atletico Madrid.
Debutants CFR Cluj and Anorthosis Famagusta started brightly but the gulf in class between them and their more heralded rivals eventually condemned them to early exits from Europe.
The shortlist of potential new winners essentially boils down to last season’s finalists Chelsea, 2006 finalists Arsenal and 1984 runners-up Roma, who lost that final at their Olympic Stadium to Liverpool and will hope to surpass the achievement if they reach this season’s showdown at the same venue in May.
So, who will win it? Can Manchester United defend their title after an unconvincing run to top spot in their group or will Barcelona be too strong for everyone this time?
Will Jose Mourinho achieve with Inter what he could not with Chelsea? If the unimpressive group stage performances are anything to go by, it will take something special from the ‘Special One’ to bring the trophy to the San Siro.
While he might even be relieved that Tuesday’s 2-1 defeat at Werder Bremen at least allowed him to avoid his former club in the Dec.19 draw, Mourinho said after the lacklustre display that top-level opposition will bring the best out of his outfit.
Nine-time winners Real Madrid should figure as contenders if their new coach Juande Ramos can restore the aura of confidence shattered by Bernd Schuster’s defeatist comments that ultimately led to his dismissal.
Last but not least, Liverpool’s commanding march into the last 16 suggests they have what it takes to go all the way while also bidding for their first English league title in 19 years.
The long-suffering Anfield faithful must be dreaming of snatching the elusive double from United’s grasp, but is that dream still far-fetched at this stage of the season?
PHOTO: Miroslav Klose (C) of Bayern Munich celebrates after scoring against Olympique Lyon during their Champions League match in France, Dec 10, 2008. REUTERS/Robert Pratta