There was a time when I thought the goose bumps I got when that European Champions League theme song played were unique to me, but now I know it was a truly silly thought.
I have since felt the thickness of the air of anticipation around my mates before kickoff, literally seen the butterflies crawl up their - in some cases - very big stomachs, and even total strangers have confessed to a bout of the jitters on these special nights for those eternally wedded to the beautiful game.
That all too familiar tune didn’t have to play Thursday lunchtime to flood the system, the joyous agony of the draws was music enough; so the rich fulfillment of Christmas will come and go, get replaced with the ‘dryness’ of dragging January, and then those nights will be upon us once again.
But not before the conspiracy theorists make every attempt to fill the void, perhaps with claims that Michel Platini has it in for English clubs and has connived to see them prematurely exit the world’s most awe-inspiring and lucrative club football competition.
You see, having ‘ensured’ that English champions Man City were handed the group of death and unceremoniously bundled out, the UEFA president ‘instructed’ Shaktar to let Juventus through and relegate Chelsea to the Europa League, before ‘handing’ Liverpool man Steve McManaman the ‘opportunity’ to spite hated rivals Man United and Arsenal by pitting them against the mighty Real Madrid and Bayern Munich machines. As conductor of the draw, all McManaman had to do was pick a heavy ball here, a warm one there …
Seriously, the luck of the draw (or the lack of it in the case of the English) only serves to lend more drama to an already intriguing competition, and in Manchester and London they are going to have to live with that.
Man United vs Real Madrid
Have the odds ever been stacked so heavily against one side in a battle of two giants as they are against Man United in this one? I don’t recall that ever being the case.
Move over Barcelona and AC Milan, this really is the glamour tie of the round. With twelve Big Ears trophies between them to go along with their global fan bases, institutional size, brand power and marketability, Man United and Real Madrid tip the scales; throw in the romance of Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to an old home and Jose Mourniho’s visit to what some believe will soon be his new home, and you have yourselves one hell of a banquet.
Yet Real Madrid are the stronger squad with the better quality overall; the better tactician in one-offs like these who is rumoured to be leaving the Bernabeu next summer and is desperate to leave a legacy as the man who won La Decima; a man seemingly pre-ordained to have fling after fling with the Champions League, and who is left with little else to fight for with his La Liga crown virtually gone; a club with a great head-to-head record with Man United which once failed to do the job at home and finished it off at Old Trafford thanks to another Ronaldo …
Not even having the second leg at home seems to be an advantage, and for all their firepower, great wing play and the larger-than-life stature of their manager, the only thing United can really do is cause an upset. Because that is exactly what it would be.
Arsenal vs Bayern Munich
This one has mismatch written all over it, and by the look of thing the English Premier League will have no interest in the Champions League as early as the Final Eight.
If ‘upset’ would describe the unlikely two-legged victory for Man United over Real Madrid, ‘massive shock’ would be the phrase deployed were Arsenal to topple Bayern Munich.
Never mind the miles that separate the two in the pedigree stakes, Bayern are simply stronger across the field, from back to front.
Barcelona, Dortmund and Shaktar might play the most free-flowing stuff in Europe today, but no team left in the competition has as much firepower and as many regular goal scorers; Mario Gomez, Mario Manduzkic, Arjen Robben, Frank Ribery, Thomas Muller and Toni Kroos all scorer on any given weekend, while Claudio Pizarro, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Gustavo, Alaba, Xerdhan Shakiri and even the skipper Phillip Lahm are not averse to pulling the trigger either.
Over two games that will end up being end-to-end affairs whichever way the managers initially set up stall, contrast those munitions with the ones at the Emirates where - outside of the hit-and-miss Olivier Giroud - the only reliable goal scorers are Lukas Podolski, Santi Carzola and Theo Walcott. The Englishman had better not leave town before Feb …
Barcelona vs AC Milan
There are nine trophies here with Milan just ahead in the count, but the balance of power has since shifted as underlined by the fact that the Catalans have won three of the last six and only been denied a near-clean sweep by the huge upsets that saw Inter Milan and Chelsea past them in recent times.
Milan might be the least intimidated by Barca of all their European foes and produced some sumptuous stuff over two legs last season, but a young team in transition is likely to find this chore a touch beyond them, never mind their recent resurgence. Not even cancer will get in Barca’s way, although an injury to the mesmeric Messi surely would …
In pure footballing terms Dortmund vs Shaktar will be the most thrilling; the Iberian clash between Porto and Malaga should make for a feast too; the Celtic-Juve duel will be a battle of grit from the terraces to the turf; the Turkish connection will add flavour, flair and flares to the Schalke-Galatasary contest, while PSG-Valencia will go by largely unnoticed.
The two surviving English teams would have hoped for draws as unattractive as some of those, but without the adrenaline rush where would I, my mates and all those strangers be? … and then the dj played that song …