There was almost an audible sigh of relief in west London when Chelsea were drawn against Benfica in the Champions League quarter-finals. The general feeling is that it could have been a lot worse, though the Blues will still have their path to the final blocked by either AC Milan or Barcelona should they emerge unscathed.
Undoubtedly, this a good chance for the Blues to reach the last four and rescue something from what has been a turbulent season.
It’s been a miserable few days for British clubs in Europe and maybe the Premier League isn’t as competitive as their PR people would have everyone believe. But Arsenal made a bold bid to overturn a significant deficit against an Italian club in the Champions League last week and Chelsea begin the second leg of their last 16 tie in slightly better shape having at least scored a goal in Naples two weeks ago.
So which Arsenal will turn up for their Champions League, second-leg tie with AC Milan at the Emirates? Will it be the one that surrendered so meekly in the San Siro two weeks ago – or the one that fought back from two goals down to blow Spurs out of the water in their last home game?
Chelsea couldn’t win the Champions League when at their peak under Jose Mourinho so it’s difficult to imagine the team in transition under Andre Villas-Boas will prove good enough to go all the way.
Still capable of playing attractive football, the Blues also resemble a car crash at times and have developed a habit of shooting themselves in the foot so a place in the last eight would be a notable achievement.
Scudetto holders AC Milan have added promising young striker Stephan El Shaarawy to their Champions League squad ahead of the visit of Arsenal to the San Siro. New signings Djamel Mesbah and Maxi Lopez will also be eligible to face the Gunners but veteran Fillipo Inzhagi has been left out by Rossoneri coach Massimiliano Allegri as the seven-times European champions begin their quest for yet another quarter-final appearance.
Manchester City’s failure to make the same impact in the Champions League as they have at home suggests the Premier League may not be as strong in comparison to other European competitions as some believe, and Roberto Mancini’s team have given themselves a mountain to climb if they are to reach the last 16.
With a tricky finale coming up against a vastly experienced Bayern Munich, Manchester City will want to wrap up qualification for the knockout stages of the Champions League as quickly as possible and that means winning in Naples this week.
Arsenal were undoubtedly a shade fortunate to take a point of German champions Borussia Dortmund at the Signal Iduna Park earlier in their Champions League campaign and, though in far better form now, face no easy task taking all three points against Jurgen Klopp’s team at the Emirates.
A lot of water seems to have flowed under the bridge since Chelsea blew away Genk in west London two weeks ago. Andre Villas-Boas’ side have lost both matches in the Premier League since, though did win a Carling Cup tie at Everton in extra-time, and captain John Terry has been at the heart of a racism row. So is the controversy that plagued Carlo Ancelotti’s reign going to de-rail Villas-Boas’ efforts to turn Chelsea back into a major force in English and European football? After back-to-back defeats, they now trail Manchester City by nine points in the Premier League and that’s a gap that, even at this stage of the season, will take some closing.
Manchester City’s hopes of progressing to the knockout stages in their first-ever Champions League campaign received a massive boost with Sergio Aguero’s last-gasp winner against Villareal at the Etihad Stadium a fortnight ago and they’ve not looked back since.
The Carlos Tevez incident in Munich has rather overshadowed Manchester City’s debut campaign in the Champions League but Roberto Mancini’s team need to rediscover their focus quickly if they aren’t to make an early exit from the competition.
Chelsea would have been disappointed to concede a late goal against Valencia in the Mestalla last month which spoiled their one hundred per cent record in Group E. But I suspect that coach Andre Villas-Boas will still be happy that his team sit at their top of their section with two games against Champions League novices Genk to come.