The Champions League last 16 has been built up as the clash of four of the game’s great managers. In Milan on Tuesday literally millions of neutrals tuned in to see José Mourinho resume hostilities with Manchester United‘s Sir Alex Ferguson, while yesterday fans at the Bridge welcomed back Claudio Ranieri and watch the Tinkerman pit his wits against new Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink. Both games ended in good results for their respective Premiership representatives. But the highlight of the first leg matches, at least, was not the elaborate play acted out by these forceful characters before and immediately after the final whistle. It was the performances on the pitch by two players from among the less well heralded teams left in the competition.
I’ve spoken on this blog before about my admiration for Bayern Munich‘s midfield maestro Franck Ribéry, and the Frenchman duly delivered yet again with two goals and two assist in the German team’s 5-0 away demolition of Sporting Lisbon. His opening goal in Lisbon was a joy to behold as Ribéry barged past two defenders before coolly slotting home. But it was clear throughout the 90 minutes that the former Marseille and Galatasary man was pulling all the strings for Bayern, linking up with big Italian front man Luca Toni with devastating effect. On the basis of this performance, it would be no exaggeration to say that Bayern Munich look like genuine contenders this year and will take some beating in the quarter finals – as long as they can keep the key attacking trio of Ribéry, Toni and Miroslav Klose fit and in form.
Another of the dark horses of the competition, Olympique Lyonnais, ran the game against Pep Guardiola‘s much fancied Barcelona side and were unlucky to have to settle for a draw. Lyon are a side jam packed with talent, from powerful midfield duo Jérémy Toulalan and Jean II Makoun to coveted striker Karim Benzema. However it was an old hand who weighed in with a game changing contribution, and not for the first time. Lyon captain Juninho Pernambucano is still one of football’s best kept secrets despite nearly 100 goals in over 300 appearances for the seven times French champions. On Tuesday Barcelona fell victim once again to the Brazilian’s incredible free kicks – in 2007 he scored against the Spanish side with an effort from 45 metres out, while Bayern Munich and Real Madrid are also among his victims. Juninho has now scored 43 direct free kicks in all competitions for Lyon, and could justifiably claim to be the natural successor to David Beckham‘s dead ball specialist crown.
While most of the 72,000 people who have bought tickets for the final in Rome will be hoping to see the like of Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka or Lionel Messi gracing the field, after this week’s matches I would be more than content to see Ribéry and Juninho battle it out for the title of most underrated playmaker in Europe.
See one of Juninho’s trademark free-kicks