With the climax of the UEFA Champions League season approaching, European club football's most prestigious competition lived up to its reputation in a stunning round of 16.
"As we know the round of 16 normally throws up some surprises – but this year it has exceeded itself," UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino told the audience at the draw ceremony for the 2011/12 quarter-finals and semi-finals at the House of European football in Nyon on Friday.
"For the first time since the competition is open not only to the champion clubs, seven UEFA member associations are represented at this stage of the competition with six former winners, one former finalist and one newcomer. For the first time ever, we have participation in the quarter-finals of a club from Cyprus – thanks to APOEL FC."
The last-16 action, Mr Infantino reflected, provided tremendous entertainment for the fans in the stadiums as well as for millions of television viewers. "We saw a record number of goals," he said, "56 goals in total over the eight two-legged ties. That's 56 goals in 16 matches with an average of 3.5 goals per match, quite unbelievable.
"And yes, we saw one player score five goals in a UEFA Champions League match for the very first time – a new record. Well done to a certain three-time Ballon d'Or winner – Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona.
"Yet again," the UEFA General Secretary continued, "all the matches we have seen to date in the UEFA Champions League have lived up to expectations in terms of entertainment, drama and quality, and attendances have once again been high – proving that for the fans this is the No1 club competition in Europe."
Mr Infantino called for respect and fair play to prevail in the forthcoming rounds. "Despite the high pressure of the quarter-finals, we ask, as always, that the players and fans maintain their spirit of respect and fair play on and off the pitch," he said.
"The UEFA Champions League continues to attract a truly global audience and it is more important than ever that the performers remain aware of their role-model status to ensure that the very best of sporting values are on display."
Mr Infantino then conveyed the European football family's sympathy with the families of the victims of the bus crash in Switzerland earlier this week. "It is a time of great sadness," he said. "We therefore offer our sincere condolences to the families of the 28 persons, including 22 children, from Belgium who lost their lives so tragically just three days ago not far from here in Sierre. Our thoughts and our prayers are with you at this most difficult time."
The UEFA General Secretary also offered best wishes to FC Barcelona full-back Éric Abidal. Barcelona have announced that French international Abidal is to have a liver transplant.
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