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Soccer Age Special: Champions League Flashback
15.11 || Seamus

Sixteen down, fifteen more to go. That's how we stand after the first six Matchdays of this year's UEFA Champions League and before we begin discussing prospective battles, strategizing new tactics or modifying our fantasy lineups, there is time to look back at the intense action that we have just left behind.

It would only be apt to start with the reigning champions and the 'best' team in the world. With yet another bank-breaking transfer, Flo Perez added the third big signing in as many season to his assortment of big names. With the arrival of Ronaldo, who would stop the Real Madrid that swept the Champions League title back to the Bernebau last year? By the looks of it now, plenty could. While the Spanish giants clubbed their way past Roma and Genk with 3-0 and 6-0 victories on the first two Matchdays, they failed to win a single game after that. They were almost stunned away to AEK on Matchday 3, and followed it up with another tough draw, this time at home to the Greeks. The following week, AS Roma came to town and left with three points and although Madrid qualified, they could only manage a point against Genk in their last game.

Rather shabby for the Madrid side that was expected to go close to collecting 18 points from their Group C matches. Whether it was a matter of over-confidence or if the merengues took their foot of the pedal in anticipation of an easy qualification remains to be seen. But, others across Europe are already licking their chops relishing a go at this unsure Real side in the second group stage.

If Real failed to impress, as they should have, the Spanish contingent as a whole did not. Barcelona equalled the Champions League record by winning their group by an astounding 11 points (the Catalans won all their games) while Valencia cruised threw their group without breaking too much sweat. And while Deportivo struggled in a couple of games (most notably their 0-4 loss to Milan), they bounced back well to ensure yet another clean sweep for Spanish sides. The 100% record ensured that Spaniards remained the number one club sides in Europe…at least for the time being.

Even though Barca collected maximum points, Valencia were especially impressive, beating both Liverpool and Spartak twice and also hammering Basel 6-2 at the Mestalla. If any team looks like they are set to go all the way, it has to be Los Ches. After two heart-wrenching defeats in the finals, they will not let a third one go by should they make it that far. Deportivo will be criticized for their failures against Milan and Lens, but Javier Irureta's side shut the critics up with fantastic wins over Bayern and Milan on the last two Matchdays to end speculation of a crisis.

After years of despair, Italy has finally lived up to its historical record in Europe. With huge transfers like Crespo, Cannavaro, Nesta, Rivaldo and Di Vaio taking place in the big clubs in Italy, surely a better year was expected. And the big four of Italy delivered. AC Milan, AS Roma, Internazionale and Juventus all made it to the second group stage to join their Spanish rivals. An entire nation celebrated as, at least temporarily, the ghost of Euro failure had been exorcised.

Milan and Juventus were especially harsh on their opponents in the opening matches. While the rossoneri won their opening four to cruise through what was to be a competitive Group of Death, Juve took one extra Matchday to clinch their place. Milan's 4-0 drubbing of Deportivo at the Riazor, their double-win over former European champs Bayern and Juve's clinical 5-0 demolition of Kiev clearly the highlights of the Italian campaign.

But, the cream of Italian results was a subtler one: that achieved by AS Roma when the most needed the points. Fabio Capello's men travelled to the Bernebau in Madrid and beat the hosts 1-0 to remind the reigning Champions that Italy was back! Inter too must be mentioned for their double over Ajax thanks to Hernan Crespo's three goals over two games.

Whether it be Turkey or Deportivo Alaves, Senegal or Chievo Verona, every competition has its surprise packages. The 2003 edition of the Champions League has Swiss outfit FC Basel. The unfashionable side were tipped to finish bottom of their group, much like Bruno Metsu's Senegal were in WC 2002. Six Matchdays on, Spartak have been condemned to six straight losses and Liverpool are sitting head-held-in-hand awaiting their next UEFA Cup opponent. FC Basel set off on the right foot, winning their opening game against Spartak. Well begun is half done they say…and such was the case for Basel. They went on to claim a point at Anfield and although they got only one more point from their two fixtures against Valencia, the dominance of the Spaniards in the group favoured them. They knew the task at hand and took another giant leap towards a historical achievement by beating Spartak for a second time.

It was all up for grabs on the final day as Liverpool travelled to Switzerland for the winner takes all. Gross's sensational side raced into a stunning 3-0 lead before Liverpool began a steady comeback in one of the greatest Champions League matches ever. It ended 3-3 and Basel had squeaked through by the skin of their teeth to become the first-ever Swiss club to make it to the second group stage.

Speaking of surprises, it would be wrong not to mention another brilliant up and comer. After the UEFA Cup success of Hapoel Tel-Aviv last year, another Israeli team put the country on the European football map; this time on the biggest stage of them all. Maccabi Haifa pulled-off fantastic 3-0 wins over Olympiakos and Manchester United on their way to a valuable UEFA Cup berth. Indeed, had the Israelis not lost twice to Bayer Leverkusen, they may well have made it to the next round at the expense of the Germans.

The shock of the tournament was definitely one that no one could have predicted. Perennial quarter-finalists Bayern Munich were drawn in the aptly termed Group Of Death and happened to be the ones ear-marked for the early demise as they finished 31st (their measly two points was second worst only two Spartak Moscow's six straight losses). The Bavarians looked set to the campaign of strongly when they entertained La Coruņa at the 'fortress' called Olympiastadion. However, that night, Roy Makaay was to wreak havoc on the Germans and inflict a defeat that would set the stage for a grand collapse for the former European champions.

A shell-shocked Bayern (who had just surrendered a 32-match unbeaten run at the Olympiastadion) struggled to a 1-1 draw against an energetic Lens side on the following Matchday. Then on, the pressure was always going to be on Ottmar Hitzfield's men. On song AC Milan came and went and destroyed the Bayern dream by inflicting two 2-1 losses on the Germans. And as if they had not been humiliated enough, Group G's remaining two sides ensured that Bayern took home just one point from their last two matches. Deportivo eliminated them from Europe altogether with a 2-1 win at the Riazor and Lens rubbed salt into their wounds by pulling off a thrilling 3-3 draw on Matchday six. Within a little over a year, Bayern had gone from European champions to nothing.

With all sorts of records tumbling, Sir Bobby Robson's Newcastle decided that it was time they put their own name down as well. The Magpies has suffered tremendously in recent years in the league, but set the record straight once and for all by joining fellow countrymen Man Utd and Arsenal in the second round. Newcastle became the first club in the competition's history to lose their opening three games and still progress to the next phase. What's more, they didn't even score a single goal till Matchday 4 and at one point it looked like the Toon Army were going to end up being the clowns of the cup. But a fantastic win over Italian champions Juventus set up a dramatic finale that saw Welshman Craig Bellamy score in the 91st minute on Matchday 6 to send Robson's men through.

While Newcastle may have stolen the prize for the greatest comeback, once cannot overlook the heroics of last year's runners-up Bayer Leverkusen. Klaus Toppmoller's side were murdered 6-2 in Athens by Olympiakos Piraeus and lost at home to Man Utd on the following Matchday. However, three well-taken wins ensured that the Germans would be saved the embarrassment suffered by countrymen Bayern as Leverkusen made it to Round 2 with a game to spare.

Having mentioned Olympiakos's demolition job on Leverkusen, it would be astonishing to think that they would fade away and crumble as the competition wore on. But, that is exactly what happened. The Greeks conceded 15 goals in their next five games and collected only one point (on Matchday 6) to finish bottom of the group, ruled out of Europe altogether.

The Greek tragedy didn't end there. Athens' other team AEK were also eliminated from the Champions League, however in very contrasting circumstances. Dusko Bajevic's side tied all six of their games and finished in third to qualify for the UEFA Cup. However, unlike their fierce rivals, they did so in style. Real Madrid will remember with shivers AEK's brilliant performances against them. The Greeks held the Spaniards to 3-3 and 2-2 draws and had they squeezed in a winner in any of their four meetings against Real or Roma, they would have been through in sensational manner.

With only sixteen teams to pick from, the task of picking the top contenders for ultimate glory becomes a little easier than before. However, with eight former champions (Madrid, Milan, Barcelona, Inter, Juventus, Dortmund, Ajax and Man Utd) present, and educated guess is all that is possible.

Valencia and AC Milan have looked the most competitive of all the sides. While Valencia's composure and lack of unforced errors has been matchless, Milan's stunning displays in the early stages (not including their games after they secured qualification) have been the talk of the town. However, it is impossible to discount nine-time champions and hence Real Madrid are inevitably in the picture and one more side I would throw in there would be Italian champions Juventus. The Old Lady of Turin may just be warming up for the big dance. Marcello Lippi has a well-oiled unit that has been playing together for more than a year now. They are a wall in defence and lethal going forward. If David Trezeguet gets back to his best, the European Cup may well be in Turin in May 2003.

3-4-3: Antonioli; Thuram, Curro Torres, Panucci; Veron, Aimar, Rui Costa, Baraja; Crespo, Inzaghi, Makaay

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