Touch of romance returns to Champions League

Berne: A touch of romance has returned to the Champions League quarter-finals with seven countries, including Cyprus, represented in this week`s first legs with AC Milan-Barcelona topping the bill.

Although Wednesday`s heavyweight clash at San Siro dominates the ties, the most intriguing clash sees upstarts APOEL Nicosia against nine-time Euroepan champions Real Madrid, in the sort of David-versus-Goliath clash that has become a rarity.

The presence of Benfica, twice winners in the early 1960s, has added a dose of nostalgia to the last eight, although their policy of recruiting South American players rather than developing Portuguese talent has provoked criticism.

Benfica host Chelsea, the Premier League`s lone survivors, while Bayern Munich, whose stadium hosts the final in May, are at Olympique Marseille in their first meeting.

It is the first time so many countries have been represented in the quarter-finals since 1996-97, the last year in which the competition was restricted to the champions of domestic leagues.

Since then, the Champions League has been expanded to include runners-up and then third and even fourth-placed teams from some countries and the quarter-finals have become the preserve of the wealthy few.

From 1997-98 until last season, only 11 of UEFA`s 53 member associations -- Germany, Spain, Ukraine, France, Italy, England, Greece, Portugal, Turkey, Netherlands and Russia -- managed to get teams to the last eight.

In the 2000-01 season, Spain and England had three teams apiece in the quarter-finals, while two seasons later Spain and Italy had three each and in 2007-08 four of the quarter-finalists were from the English Premier League.

UEFA president Michel Platini, however, has been keen to make the competition more democratic and open.

His Financial Fair Play programme, which comes into effect for the 2013-14 season, aims to force clubs to live within their means and prevent those with rich owners taking a stranglehold.

UEFA has also reserved five places in the Champions League group stage for the winners of smaller domestic leagues such as Cyprus.

Although most of those, such as Viktoria Plzen, BATE Borisov and Dinamo Zagreb, sank without trace in the group stage, APOEL have managed to keep going.

"That has helped a lot, it gives the smaller teams a much better chance of qualifying," APOEL chairman Phivos Erotocritou told Reuters after the draw was made.

"The reason for our success is nothing you can find written in a book or taught in universities," he added.

"We are just ourselves, a big plus is our coach Ivan Jovanovic, he`s the one who built the team, 100 percent, he`s done fantastic job."

An APOEL victory on Tuesday would be a stunning upset while a win for a weakened AC Milan over Barca in a repeat of the 1994 final, which the Italians won 4-0, would also be a surprise.

Seven-times European Cup winners Milan have been plagued by injuries and will be without Thiago Silva, the lynchpin of their central defence, with a thigh injury which is the last thing they need when facing the apparently unstoppable Lionel Messi.

The teams met in the group stage with a 2-2 draw at the Nou Camp followed by a 3-2 win for Barcelona at San Siro, a match in which both sides had already qualified for the last 16.

Messi has scored 18 goals in his last nine games and became the first player to score five goals in a Champions League game as Barca dispatched Bayer Leverkusen 7-1 in the last round.

Bayern also put seven goals past FC Basel in the last 16 as they destroyed Swiss hopes of getting a team to the quarter-finals for the first time in 33 years.

The Bavarians, whose three-pronged forward line of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Mario Gomez also makes them a force to be reckoned with, visit Marseille who are in the quarter-finals for the first time since winning the competition in 1993.

Chelsea visit Benfica, who are unbeaten in their last 10 European games, on Tuesday only three days after a Premier League match at home to Tottenham Hotspur in their battle to finish fourth, which has angered manager Roberto Di Matteo.

"The other federations, they do tend to help their teams to be able to perform as good as possible in Europe," he said. "It just doesn`t seem to be happening in England."

Bureau Report

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