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» Ronaldo return heads blockbuster draw
Ronaldo return heads blockbuster draw
If the history of the old European Cup and modern Champions League can be broken up into different eras, this season's second round may well be the start of a dividing line.
Compare it, after all, to the competition's two most recent trends. Between 2004 and 2008, the English Premier League's broadcasting money created an unprecedented domination of the semi-finals.
From 2008-09 on, as signalled by that season's final, the Champions League has spun on an axis between Pep Guardiola's Barcelona and Jose Mourinho's bullish personality.
Now, as the likes of Celtic make the Catalans look that bit more vulnerable and talk grows of both of those managers decamping to either side of Manchester, so much of football's history and immediate future would appear to be wrapped up in the most eye-catching tie of the stage: United v Real Madrid.
Not that the rest of the round needs to make up for any shortfall, but it is a match-up invitingly rich in narrative. Even beyond the 12 European Cups between them and a series of monumental matches from the '50s, '60s and early 2000s that helped give rise to those records; there is also a potential job audition for Mourinho, a rematch with Alex Ferguson and the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford.
The form of the teams, however, only further indicates change.
A year ago - or even two months ago - it would have been pretty difficult to look beyond Real completely overpowering United. Since then, though, Ronaldo hasn't been scoring at quite the same rate, Real haven't looked anywhere near as formidable and Mourinho has apparently started to look elsewhere amid a lot of discontent.
The only such unrest at Old Trafford is in a porous defence but that has so far been more than made up for by what is genuinely one of the finest attacks in Europe. Robin van Persie hasn't just decided so many games that United otherwise might have dropped points in, he has given them a different dimension and further altered the dynamics of the attack. In truth, a lot like this tie, it is much more sophisticated.
And, although it should still be assumed that Real's natural level is last season's form rather than that of this campaign, and that they may well recover it in the meantime, it still makes for the most blockbusting tie of the round.
Almost as engaging, though, is the match between Shakhtar Donetsk and Borussia Dortmund. In fact, although neither exactly have the history of either Real or United in the competition - despite the Germans winning it in 1997 - both had been talked about as potentially creating a fascinating new future, with that impression only enhanced by the sleek modern football both play.
In that, it's perhaps something of a pity that two sides could have posed such genuine threats to the established sides - and even met in the semi-finals instead - will face off now.
But then, the rest of the draw will more than compensate for that, with the remaining ties only further strengthening that sense of a dividing line between old and new.
As it is, in fact, four relatively new forces will definitely find themselves in the quarter-finals while four sides who are either previous winners or deeply established sides will be eliminated.
Even more tellingly, it is clashes between the latter which provide the biggest mismatches. As consistently as Arsenal reach this stage, as much as Celtic recreated the glory of the late '60s and as much as Stephan El-Shaaraway has replicated the form of Marco van Basten at Milan, it is still hugely difficult to see any of them getting past Bayern Munich, Juventus or Barcelona respectively.
By contrast, it is the ties between the slightly less historic sides that are harder to call. Some of Schalke's excellent attacking play, for example, may reflect the growing reputation of the German game but their league form means Galatasaray will be awkward opponents.
Similarly, Paris Saint-Germain may have been presented with an early opportunity for their money to make a huge impression on a knock-out they will surely become a fixture in but, other than Carlo Ancelotti and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, they don't exactly have Valencia's experience of the competition. Finally, Porto and Malaga represents a clash between two sides who have applied very different financial philosophies, but are still exceptionally close in terms of quality.
Then again, it is exactly such contrasts which have made this draw so compelling.
Who is the Top Goalscorer
Robin van Persie
Stephan El Shaarawy
Antonio Di Natale
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