The UEFA Champions League reaches its first knockout stage tonight with two tantalising ties that would have been worthy of the final itself. At the Olimpiastadion, holders FC Bayern München take on the most successful club side of all time, Real Madrid CF, while at the Riazor stadium, in-form RC Deportivo La Coruña host Manchester United FC, the 1999 champions.
With the likes of Luis Figo, Raúl González, Roberto Carlos and Zinedine Zidane featuring in Vicente del Bosque's star-studded lineup, it comes as no surprise that Madrid have scored the most goals in the competition so far. But Bayern, all efficiency and hard work under Ottmar Hitzfeld, possess the most parsimonious defence in the tournament. Irresistable force meets immovable object, it could barely be more perfectly poised.
Equally Sir Alex Ferguson's success at Old Trafford has been based on a free-flowing, attacking style, with David Beckham and Ryan Giggs the supply line for the prolific Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooij, while Javier Irureta has worked miracles on a relatively meagre budget, putting together the most dangerous counterattacking side in Europe. It is simply too tight to call.
Playing for pride
Pride is certain to play its part in these keenly-contested encounters. United will be looking to avenge home and away defeats by Deportivo in the first group stage, and Madrid, in their centenary season, will be desperate not to fall to the Germans once again after last year's disappointing semi-final exit.
If Madrid do triumph over two legs, the second of which will be played on 10 April, they could meet arch-rivals FC Barcelona, who take on Panathinaikos FC tomorrow in Greece, in the last four. If United make the semi-finals, they could face Liverpool FC, if the FA Premiership side manage to edge past the 1. Bundesliga pacesetters Bayer 04 Leverkusen. Club football simply does not get any better than that.
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