Last season's Champions League final was the first in six years not to feature an English club and, for all Tottenham Hotspur's encouraging progress and Premier League pride in having three representatives in the last eight, Wembley in May could yet stage a repeat.
There is guaranteed to be one English club in the semi-finals as a result of Chelsea and Manchester United being drawn against each other in the last-eight tie that begins on Wednesday, though just as certainly another must go out. With Spurs scarcely favourites to overcome Real Madrid over two legs, the likelihood is that only one English side will make the last four and, though the considerable obstacle that is Barcelona is safely in the other half of the draw, the old foes of Chelsea and United must guard against the possibility of taking too much out of each other to do themselves justice in the later stages.
The sides meet three times before the end of the season, with the Premier League title still in the balance as well as European progress, and Sir Alex Ferguson is not thought to be attempting to undermine Arsenal's confidence when he admits that Chelsea have been United's most formidable opponents over the past few years – with a little help from match officials, obviously.
"I think they've had important breaks against us, I really do," the United manager says, clearly unable to drop a theme that has already earned him a fine and a touchline ban. "I think everyone recognises that in the last four games major decisions have gone their way. But we beat them in the European final. We were the better team in the European final. And we were the better team just a few weeks ago at Chelsea. We have the quality, there's no question about that. We just need a bit more luck. Fortunately everyone is fit that needs to be fit for this game, we have had a brilliant week in that respect and that's good, because it's going to be a massive match."
United did indeed beat Chelsea in the European final of 2008, or at least a version of Chelsea, even if they did so only by dint of John Terry's penalty spot slip. With Ferguson providing continuity at the helm and even Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes still chipping in 12 years after winning the treble, United have adhered to a consistent philosophy in all their battles with Chelsea since Roman Abramovich's money turned them into genuine contenders, while the London club have been subtly different in almost every season. It was José Mourinho's Chelsea, for instance, that confidently interrupted United's run of Premier League success, while it was Avram Grant's surprisingly dogged performers that took them the full distance in Moscow.
It is Carlo Ancelotti's side that United must now beat, knowing that Chelsea pipped them to the title last season and won the most recent game between the clubs at Stamford Bridge last month though, if Ferguson is going to carry on claiming that referees always favour the team playing in blue, he could at least spare a thought for Guus Hiddink, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and the rest after the refereeing travesty that denied Chelsea a rematch with United in the 2009 Champions League final. In his brief stay in London Hiddink organised his players more impressively than perhaps any coach in the Abramovich era and it was to his lasting regret, eloquently expressed after winning the FA Cup in 2009, that he did not got the chance to pit his wits against United.
As United were outplayed in Rome that year by the very same Barcelona team that Hiddink's Chelsea came so agonisingly close to putting out, there is reason to suppose that but for one man, a Norwegian referee named Tom Henning Ovrebo, London would by now have claimed its first European Cup.
Ancelotti is aware of all the previous disappointments, he even suggests it may be Chelsea's destiny to achieve something this season in the way that it was Milan's destiny to meet up again with Liverpool in the 2007 final to exorcise the bitter memory of Istanbul in 2005. "This could really be the time for Chelsea to do something in the Champions League," he says. "But we have to play against a team with a fantastic tradition and history in Europe, and in the Champions League, and that counts. The reason Milan won a lot of Champions Leagues was the tradition of the club, and United are the same. Experience, personality and character are very important in games where there is a lot of pressure – history and tradition can give you power.
"The philosophy of Chelsea is not quite the same and in England the Premier League and the Champions League have the same importance. I stayed at Milan for eight years and it is not quite the same in Italy. They were always focused on the Champions League for the image of the club. They think more about winning in Europe because Serie A is not as important as it was 10 or 15 years ago."
Ferguson has long suspected Italian clubs of doing exactly that, freewheeling in the domestic league in order to conserve energy for Champions League ties, whereas United have usually found it impossible to prioritise. This season is an even more extreme example than usual. It would be an affront to supporters were United to take their eye off the ball in the league because they hold a winning position and to be caught from behind for a second year running would be unforgivable.
So would putting out a weakened team in the FA Cup semi-final when Manchester City are providing the opposition and, though Ferguson resolutely refuses to confirm which target he has in mind when he says he would be happy with one major trophy this season, quite a few United supporters would willingly settle right now for beating City at Wembley and making sure of the 19th title, rather than sacrificing domestic success for the chance to be savaged again by Barcelona.
At least Chelsea, out of the FA Cup and with a lot to do in the league, could be excused for deciding that this season it is Champions League or bust. That is what Ferguson thinks, in any case. "Abramovich seems to have earmarked the Champions League as the thing he wants to win, I think that's why they signed [Fernando] Torres," Ferguson says. "When you pay £50m for a player in January, with only four months of the season left, to me it's obvious you must be going for the European Cup. But they've got us in the road now. They have to get past us to win anything."
Torres has not quite been the instant success that Chelsea might have envisaged yet, if Ancelotti is concerned by statistics that reveal the striker has had only one shot on target in two months in the Premier League, he is outwardly relaxed. "I don't like to look at statistics," he says. "They are important in football but not as important as all that. Statistics don't show how the player is moving for the team."
Ancelotti also denies Drogba was sulking about the new arrival and that a rift had developed between the two strikers – "Didier is intelligent and understands his role very well and Torres is the same. They can play together". But he is more comfortable talking about the last game against United. He has left it a little late to spring to Ferguson's defence in his one-man war against refereeing inconsistency, yet essentially he agrees with his rival's assertion that United were the better team last month and were unlucky to lose.
"We were dead after 45 minutes," Ancelotti says. "They played better. We were able, fortunately or not, to come back and win the game. It was a very important moment for us because, if we had lost, we would probably still be recovering, but the first half against them was very difficult."
No one is pretending the latest first half, the one that lasts 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge, is going to be any different. An away goal could be crucial, though Torres in his Liverpool incarnation used to be good for a goal or two at Old Trafford.
Ancelotti admits the Champions League is his favourite trophy and perhaps his impressive European CV was what attracted Abramovich to him. Yet he is now in a purely Premier League slugfest.
While an English winner may be certain, as an Italian he will be fully conversant with the concept of a Pyrrhic victory.
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