The man who has Europe running scared
Published 19/03/2010 | 05:00
When Arsene Wenger declared, after Arsenal's despatch of Porto last week, that he hoped to draw Chelsea or Manchester United in the Champions League quarter-finals the suspicion was that he did not mean it.
Instead he was seeking to build confidence within his young squad in case the Gunners were paired with their English rivals, both of whom have beaten Arsenal home and away in the Premier League this season.
Internazionale have since removed Chelsea from this morning's draw, but Manchester United, who rolled over Arsenal in last season's semi-finals, remain. It is hard to imagine that Wenger really wants to meet them, not when there are two French teams (useful, but lacking experience at this level) and outsiders CSKA Moscow (although that would involve a wearying trip to Russia and a plastic pitch).
Bayern Munich, weak defensively, if a threat offensively, are surely also preferable to United. Nevertheless, there is an opponent Wenger would like to avoid even more than United, and it is not Inter, even if Jose Mourinho's team are serious contenders.
Barcelona are the team no body wants to face. The Spanish champions, after a dip, are back in form, no one more so than Lionel Messi, who followed his weekend hat-trick against Valencia with two goals in Wednesday's demolition of Stuttgart. According to Josep Guardiola, Barca's coach, the Argentine has recovered his "mojo."
The same could be said for a Barca team seeking to become the first since Milan in 1990 to retain Europe's premier club title. Milan had five players who could be described as great, the Dutch triumvirate of Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard, plus the Italians Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.
The current Barcelona team is still developing, but arguably has only two players in that category, Messi and Xavi (currently injured), though Thierry Henry has been and Andres Iniesta leads a clutch of players who may, in time, be described as such.
The focus, though, is increasingly on Messi, even more than it was on Gullit with Milan. "It's kind of ridiculous what he's doing. He's amazing," said Henry. "He is the best player in the world," said the Stuttgart coach Christian Gross.
Gross's team gave Messi too much space on his deadly left foot, which helped him take his season's tally to 29 goals in 32 games, but far better defences have failed to restrain the striker, a problem which is likely to be exacerbated by a new roving commission.
Usually Messi plays wide right, coming in off the flank onto his left. On Wednesday he had a loose role behind Henry, a mobile striker himself compared to the dropped Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
"Every great player has a tendency to influence his team, like (Michael) Jordan with the (Chicago) Bulls. He's the best, wherever he plays," said Guardiola. Victor Valdes went even further. "He could become the best player in history," said Barca's goalkeeper.
While that is a stretch, even the assertion he is the world's current best is arguable, not least by Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, albeit that the latter pair have suffered injury and loss of form respectively. Of the quartet only Rooney and Messi are in today's draw. Wenger, surely, would prefer to see them paired together.
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