Champions League – The danger men


We profile the four key players who could put paid to the English clubs’ Champions League dreams.

2008-2009 Internazionale Zlatan Ibrahimovic - 0

Internazionale v Manchester UnitedZlatan Ibrahimovic

A lack of self-confidence has never been a problem for the Swede, whose average quote makes Cristiano Ronaldo sound like a shrinking violet (“First I went left, he did too. Then I went right, and he did too. Then I went left again, and he went to buy a hot dog.”).

Ibrahimovic’s inflated ego, like Ronaldo’s, has been fed on a diet of spectacular strikes and silverware. He scored the goal that clinched last season’s Serie A title for Inter, and has set his sights on beating United “to show everybody that I am one of the best strikers in Europe”.

The 27-year-old combines staggering skill with an imposing physical presence that makes him resemble a deluxe model of Didier Drogba – no wonder Jose Mourinho likes him.

The Portuguese has warned Inter’s midweek opponents: “United have had a great defensive record this season, for sure. But they have not had to deal with Ibrahimovic.”

Arsenal v Roma – Francesco Totti

Totti’s inconsistent performances for Italy mean that most English fans have never seen the best of a player who has lit up Serie A for 15 years.

A one-club man, Totti is a virtual deity among Roma fans and has over 200 goals to his name – Italy’s answer to Ryan Giggs, but blessed with even greater skill and game-changing ability.

At 32, the Roma skipper knows time is running out for him to add to the 2001 Scudetto which represents his only major honour at club level, and he will relish attacking an Arsenal defence that has looked porous this season.

Arsene Wenger has praised him as a “fantastic protector of the ball who has a quick turn” and might be well-advised to deploy a specialist defensive midfielder to deny him time in possession.

Totti’s importance is magnified by Roma’s dearth of high-quality strikers, with just Mirko Vucinic and Julio Baptista for coach Luciano Spalletti to choose from.

Real Madrid v Liverpool – Raul

The Real captain is like a particularly persistent Bond villain – every time you think he is dead, he keeps on coming back.

Critics have spent years declaring Raul finished, and it is true that the middle part of the decade did not see him at his best, scoring just 32 league goals in four seasons.

But his 30th birthday in 2007 sparked a spectacular resurgence and he recently scored his 308th goal for Real – breaking Alfredo di Stefano’s long-standing record.

His return to form is just as well given Ruud van Nistelrooy’s season-ending knee injury that left Raul playing alongside the talented but inexperienced Gonzalo Higuain, while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar is ineligible for the Champions League.

Inexperience is one charge that cannot be levelled at Raul, whose 121 appearances and 64 goals in the Champions League are both records.

Chelsea v Juventus – Alessandro Del Piero

Yet another player shining brighter than ever at the twilight of his career, the 34-year-old Del Piero has even more miles on the clock than Totti and Raul, and will play the 600th club game of his career on Wednesday (14 with Padova, the rest with Juve).

Del Piero has stayed with Juve through the thick of five Serie A titles and a Champions League, and the thin of being stripped of two more titles and relegated to Serie B as punishment for the club’s involvement in the Calciopoli match-fixing scandal.

The Old Lady has since reclaimed her seat at Italian football’s top table and, although the Serie A title appears to be heading Internazionale’s way yet again, Del Piero has kept Juve in contention despite a long injury lay-off for perennial top scorer David Trezeguet, who is now back in action.

This season’s Champions League has found the Juventus captain in prime form, with five goals including three in two games against Real Madrid.

Alex Chick / Eurosport

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