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It took just a glance at the rictus into which the face of chief executive Peter Kenyon was frozen as Chelsea were paired with Barcelona in Friday’s Champions League draw to recognise the emptiness of Jose Mourinho’s claim that finishing second in the group stage did not matter.
Bryce Morrison, secretary of Liverpool, who finished above Mourinho’s side in Group G, probably did not mean to rub it in as he mused that a tie against Benfica, fifth in the Portuguese league “shows the importance in this year’s competition of winning your group; it’s kept us away from the likes of Barcelona”. Yet Chelsea would have recognised an uncomfortable truth.
There is a thought that if you are to win major championships, you have to beat the best sides some time so you might as well do it sooner rather than later, but that denies the existence of luck and fatigue. In all sporting contests there is a measure of fortune so the fewer games in which the gap in talent between the sides is so small that the uncontrollable element can be decisive, the better. Equally, it is hard not to believe that Chelsea’s limp semi-final performances against Liverpool last season were not, at least in part, brought about by the draining nature of their epic victories against Barcelona and Bayern Munich in the previous two rounds.
Kenyon, nonetheless, was determinedly if unconvincingly upbeat. “They were two fantastic games last year,” he said. “At this stage you’re going to get a big team and we’ve got one. At the moment they’re as hot as we are but we have one of the best defences in Europe, so we’re well equipped for that.”
Yet this is not merely about the English champions playing the Spanish champions. Last season’s tie was cloaked in controversy, first as Mourinho accused the Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard of visiting referee Anders Frisk at half-time – an allegation that, though unfounded, led to Frisk retiring because of the abuse he received. Then there was John Terry’s winner, scored after a tug by Ricardo Carvalho on opposing keeper Victor Valdes.
“We put all that behind us last season,” Kenyon insisted, but Txiki Begiristan, Barcelona’s general manager, admitted his side have been “waiting to beat Chelsea”.
He added: “Last season it was a great game for football. We hope this year it will be the same. The systems are the same but we have improved a little bit.”
Barcelona are not the only Spanish side facing a trip to London, after Real Madrid drew Arsenal. “Pure showbusiness,” said the Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein. “Fantastic. It’s one of the draws of the round. They’re one of the great teams.”
They also include two Englishman in their squad in David Beckham and Jonathan Woodgate and, encouragingly for Arsenal, have looked even more porous than Arsène Wenger’s side this season.
“They’ve won the European Cup nine times and we’ve got to do it for the first,” said Dein. “You can never underestimate a club like Real Madrid because they’ve such power and strength.”
Rangers, the first Scottish side to reach the knockout phase under the present format, will face Villarreal, probably the least fancied of the group winners.
Meanwhile, in the Uefa Cup, Middlesbrough drew Stuttgart and Bolton Wanderers will face Olympique Marseille.
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