More to come
There is more to come with a number of outstanding encounters produced by last week's draw for the second phase of Europe's most prestigious club competition, and many observers are predicting that it could prove the most successful Champions League season in the ten-year history of the event.
There were a number of interesting facets to the first stage, with the failure of 2001 champions FC Bayern München particularly surprising. They finished bottom of Group G without a single victory to their name.
FC Basel confounded expectations in making progress at the expense of Liverpool FC, while FC Barcelona announced their intentions with maximum points in Group H. Meanwhile, Valencia CF clinched their group leadership for the loss of just two points, while decorating the competition with some wonderful football.
David Pleat, director of football at Tottenham Hotspur FC and a lucid match analyser for ITV's Champions League coverage, has been impressed by what Valencia have offered so far, pointing out that, despite the departure and arrival of different players, "they always seem to get the balance just right". However, he expects their progress from the second group stage to be more difficult now, believing that opposing teams will work hard to limit the threat from midfield player Pablo Aimar.
In looking back over nine weeks of fevered action, Pleat says title-holders Real Madrid CF will take some stopping, but also nominates a potential flaw in their armoury. "Madrid obviously have wonderful players in Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Luis Figo, but if there are question marks about them, it would centre on the defence," he said. "But the same was said last season, and look what happened, and it will be interesting to see if their attacking quality can again overcome any deficiencies they have elsewhere."
Arsenal FC look equipped for their most powerful challenge to date. "When they are at their strongest, and able to field all their quick players, they are a major threat to anyone," said Pleat. Barcelona's achievement so far has been "truly remarkable, because they have not been performing that well in the Spanish league", while Manchester United FC have proved that they have "mastered the trick of being able to remain serious contenders season after season".
Pleased for Gross
Pleat is pleased to see Christian Gross doing so well with Basel, believing that the former Tottenham Hotspur manager was unfortunate in his time with the White Hart Lane club.
Right man – wrong time
"At Spurs, he was up against it from the word go, because the players at that time said to themselves: "Who is this man?" He had to make a great impact very quickly and that was always going to be difficult. In addition, he was unable, for administrative reasons, to bring his assistant over from Switzerland, and he was also unlucky in the transfer market.
It was probably a case of the right man at the wrong time," explained Pleat.
Much to savour
There has been much to savour, with 276 goals scored in the 96 games so far, and an emphasis on adventure which has produced 29 away wins and just nine draws. It is perhaps no surprise, therefore, that attendances have risen by almost 300,000, while the average TV audience per matchweek across the six major markets rose to 43.5m compared to last year's 41.5m. The sweetest thought of all, however, is that the best may still be to come. Roll on AC Milan v Real Madrid, Arsenal v Valencia and all the rest.
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