x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Uefa Champions League: Window of opportunity for the last 16

No fewer than five former winners of the coveted Uefa Champions League title are still in the hunt as several clubs are hoping to get a boost from their seasoned signings, writes Ian Hawkey.

Nicolas Anelka was part of the Real Madrid team that won the Uefa Champions League in 2000 but now he is with Juventus.
Nicolas Anelka was part of the Real Madrid team that won the Uefa Champions League in 2000 but now he is with Juventus.

Football's most glamorous club competition resumes Tuesday, impatient after its two-month pause, and with a number of its most ambitious contestants feeling renewed and rearmed.

Glance through the list of players whose names have been added to the 16 squads embarking on the knockout stages, and it bristles with Uefa Champions League specialists. No fewer than five former winners of the coveted title have been freshly registered.

The most high profile will not be on the field at Valencia's Mestalla on Tuesday night, alongside his new Paris Saint-Germain colleagues who are entitled to feel curious about what precise role he will have in a competition in which he first appeared more than 19 years ago.

David Beckham, it was reported variously from New York and the French capital yesterday – Planet Beckham has many headquarters – was having trouble, because of adverse weather conditions, making the scheduled flight connection to get him to Spain's Mediterranean coast from Manhattan, where he had been with his family over the weekend.

Beckham, who signed for PSG on a five-month contract at the end of January, was never likely to play in the first leg of the French league-leaders' last-16 tie against Valencia, although the training regimen designed to bring him to match fitness after several weeks of inaction since his last game for Los Angeles Galaxy means, according to the PSG coach Carlo Ancelotti, he should be ready well in time for the reverse fixture on March 6.

A number of questions surround Beckham's return, at 37, to European club football, but some were answered by Ancelotti in conversation with the French sports newspaper L'Equipe: "His passing, over long range and his shorter passing game could really help the team," said Ancelotti, aware of a wide belief that hiring Beckham is as much about the publicity he brings to employers as the precision of his distribution.

"He has not got the speed he used to have, so I see him playing in central midfield, an area where two of our players [Momo Sissoko to Fiorentina and Mathieu Bodmer to Saint Etienne] moved on the transfer window. He won't play every game, but he could be important to our season."

Ancelotti knows the player, and his appetite for the Champions League. Beckham won it with Manchester United in 1999, experienced frustration in its knockout stages with Real Madrid between 2003 and 2007, and the same in two short-term loan spells, with Ancelotti's AC Milan in 2009 and 2010.

The circumstances and fanfare around Beckham's latest deal may invite scepticism, but experience and know-how are valuable commodities at a club without much tradition in the unique byways of Europe's most elite environment. It is 12 years since PSG's previous adventure in the last 16 of the Champions League.

And it is a decade since Juventus, Italy's most titled club domestically, have been in a final; 16 seasons since they won the European Cup.

Even Juve have felt the need to add to a potent squad a touch of worldliness, some Champions League lustre.

Nicolas Anelka, a European Cup winner with Real Madrid fully 13 years ago, signed for Juventus last month from the Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua on a five-month deal.

The much-travelled striker could make his debut, most likely from the bench, at Glasgow Celtic on Tuesday, and become a useful weapon to play as the competition develops.

If there is a club shaping up as the potential joker in the last-16 pack, an outsider candidate to upset a hierarchy in which Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich occupy the upper rungs, it is Galatasaray.

The Turkish champions, seeking to breach the last-eight stage for the first time in 12 years when they meet Schalke next week, have elevated their collective Champions League expertise substantially with a pair of major transfer coups.

Didier Drogba, the scorer of the winning penalty when his Chelsea beat Bayern in last May's final, resisted other suitors once he made it clear he wished to leave Shenhua Shanghai after six months in China, precisely because Galatasaray could offer him Champions League football.

Wesley Sneijder, a mainstay of Inter Milan's 2010 European Cup-winning side, has also moved to Istanbul. The expectation on them both is high, and directly focused on lifting Galatasaray's status in Europe.

The Turks, like PSG, see a status quo ready to be challenged, a tournament open to conquest to team from outside the so-called Big Four leagues – Spain, England, Germany and Italy – with substantial investment and some big-match individuals committed to the task.

The fact that none of Anelka, Drogba, Sneijder or Beckham were cup-tied for the competition – as the AC Milan newcomer, Mario Balotelli is – enhanced their attractiveness to their new clubs.

From among Drogba, Sneijder, Anelka or even Beckham, a Champions League game-changer might well emerge.

Last 16 Uefa Champions League (first leg) fixtures

Tuesday

Celtic v Juventus 

Valencia v Paris Saint-Germain

Wednesday

Real Madrid v Manchester United

Shakhtar Donetsk v Borussia Dortmund

February 19

Arsenal v Bayern Munich

Porto v Malaga

February 20

AC Milan v Barcelona

Galatasaray v Schalke

Last 16 Uefa Champions League (second leg) fixtures

March 5

Borussia Dortmund v Shakhtar Donetsk

Manchester United v Real Madrid

March 6

Juventus v Celtic

Paris Saint-Germain v Valencia

March 12

Barcelona v AC Milan

Schalke v Galatasaray

March 13

Bayern Munich v Arsenal

Malaga v Porto

All games 11.45pm kick off

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