Champions League returns to show its worth

February 18, 2008

MILAN, Feb 18 (Reuters) - English Premier League clubs will enjoy the international exposure they crave this week when the Champions League returns with a bang thanks to several mouthwatering clashes.

Europe's premier club competition is out to prove its worth after the Premier League unveiled plans for world domination by introducing an overseas round of matches.

The idea has been widely condemned by fans and football authorities, leaving the Champions League to lighten the mood and show that nothing else can quite compete.

Holders AC Milan travelling to Premier League leaders Arsenal on Wednesday is just one of the delights on offer in the last 16, first-leg matches. The Gunners are reeling from Saturday's 4-0 FA Cup fifth-round defeat at Manchester United.

'Now we will try to recover and prepare properly for our next game - we know we need a top-class performance against Milan to have a chance,' Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger said.

English champions United visit French counterparts Lyon on Wednesday with 2006 European champions Barcelona facing a tough trip to the Parkhead cauldron to play Celtic. Outside bets Sevilla travel to Fenerbahce in the night's other contest.

Tuesday's menu is equally delicious with Serie A champions Inter Milan, 11 clear at the top this season, visiting 2005 winners Liverpool, who lost 2-1 to second tier Barnsley in the FA Cup on Saturday.

Free-flowing AS Roma at home to Spanish champions Real Madrid promises to be a footballing work of art while Chelsea's more direct approach takes them to Olympiakos Piraeus. 2004 champions Porto visit Schalke 04, Germany's last remaining hope.

Several top players will be forced to miss the party though through injury.

Milan striker Ronaldo, cup-tied last season after signing from Real, is out for at least nine months with a knee injury.

The champions are also sweating on the fitness of goalkeepers Zeljko Kalac and Dida, who have finger and back injuries, while 18-year-old Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato hopes to make the Arsenal trip after ankle trouble.

Kaka made his comeback from two games out with tendinitis in Milan's 0-0 draw at Parma on Saturday, the latest in a string of disappointing domestic results for the fifth-placed Rossoneri.

Real Madrid midfielder Wesley Sneijder will miss the chance of a Roman conquest because of a broken rib with Robinho, Javier Saviola, Pepe and Christoph Metzelder also out.

Gabriel Heinze is struggling but Raul should shake off a knock picked up in Saturday's surprise 2-1 loss at Real Betis.

Barca are without defenders Carles Puyol and Oleguer while Cameroon striker Samuel Eto'o returned from the African Nations Cup with a thigh strain but is hoping to travel to Glasgow.

The second legs take place on March 4 and 5 with Inter entertaining Liverpool a week later to avoid two games in two days at the San Siro.