To borrow a British soccer phrase, we're getting down to the "business end" of the UEFA Champions League.
The European Cup, the forerunner to the Champions League, was the brainchild of French sports journalist Gabriel Hanot.
English league champions Wolverhampton Wanderers defeated Hungarian side Honved in a 1953 exhibition match, leading Wolves' manager to rather arrogantly dub his team the "champions of the world" in the next day's newspapers.
Hanot, editor of influential French sports newspaper L'Equipe, used this as the impetus to pitch his idea for a continental-wide tournament featuring the best European clubs. UEFA, European soccer's governing body, approved Hanot's idea in April 1955 and the European Cup began in 1955-56 featuring league champions across Europe
In 1993, the European Cup was re-christened the Champions League, and in 1997-98 the tournament was expanded to include more teams, not just league champions.
The 32-team field is divided into eight round-robin groups. Teams play three games at home and on the road with three points for a win and one for a tie. The top two teams in each group at the end of the group stage advance to the next round.
After the first round, the tournament takes on a single-elimination format. The remaining 16 teams are paired off and play a home-and-away playoff. If the teams each win a game, the overall score over the course of the two games acts as the tiebreaker, followed by goals scored on the road. If the teams are still tied, a penalty shootout solves the issue.
This two-game playoff format carries over into the quarter-finals and semifinals before the last two teams standing meet in the final on May 27 in Rome.
Previous European Cup/Champions League winners
- 2008 - Manchester United
- 2007 - AC Milan (Italy)
- 2006 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
- 2005 - Liverpool (England)
- 2004 - FC Porto (Portugal)
- 2003 - AC Milan (Italy)
- 2002 - Real Madrid (Spain)
- 2001 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
- 2000 - Real Madrid (Spain)
- 1999 - Manchester United (England)
- 1998 - Real Madrid (Spain)
- 1997 - Borussia Dortmund (Germany)
- 1996 - Juventus (Italy)
- 1995 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
- 1994 - AC Milan (Italy)
- 1993 - Olympique Marseille (France)
- 1992 - FC Barcelona (Spain)
- 1991 - Red Star Belgrade (Yugoslavia)
- 1990 - AC Milan (Italy)
- 1989 - AC Milan (Italy)
- 1988 - PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands)
- 1987 - FC Porto (Portugal)
- 1986 - Steaua Bucharest (Romania)
- 1985 - Juventus (Italy)
- 1984 - Liverpool (England)
- 1983 - Hamburger SV (Germany)
- 1982 - Aston Villa (England)
- 1981 - Liverpool (England)
- 1980 - Nottingham Forest (England)
- 1979 - Nottingham Forest (England)
- 1978 - Liverpool (England) 1977 - Liverpool (England)
- 1976 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
- 1975 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
- 1974 - Bayern Munich (Germany)
- 1973 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
- 1972 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
- 1971 - Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands)
- 1970 - Feyenoord (Netherlands)
- 1969 - AC Milan (Italy)
- 1968 - Manchester United (England)
- 1967 - Celtic (Scotland)
- 1966 - Real Madrid (Spain)
- 1965 - Inter Milan (Italy)
- 1964 - Inter Milan (Italy)
- 1963 - AC Milan (Italy)
- 1962 - Benfica (Portugal)
- 1961 - Benfica (Portugal)
- 1960 - Real Madrid (Spain)
- 1959 - Real Madrid (Spain)
- 1958 - Real Madrid (Spain)
- 1957 - Real Madrid (Spain)
- 1956 - Real Madrid (Spain)
Club soccer's greatest and most prestigious competition resumes Tuesday as eight of the best soccer teams from across Europe continue their quest to be crowned continental kings.
The quarter-finals feature four intriguing matchups, but the series of the round has to be Chelsea versus Liverpool in a battle of English Premier League heavyweights. Manchester United and Porto renew old acquaintances in the Champions League, as do Villarreal and Arsenal, while Spanish kingpins FC Barcelona face a tough task against German giants Bayern Munich.
Which teams will take one step closer to reaching the final on May 27 at Rome's Stadio Olimpico?
Liverpool (England) vs. Chelsea (England)
Nigel Reed: It has become an annual fixture in the Champions League, and the Reds seem to hold most of the aces. Both teams know they have the personnel and the ability to reach Rome - last season Chelsea got the better of Liverpool only to suffer the heartbreak of a penalty shoot-out loss to Manchester United in the final.
How do you separate them and find a winner? John Terry versus Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard versus Frank Lampard, Fernando Torres versus Nicolas Anelka - there's hardly a weakness to be detected on either side.
Chelsea, however, will be hoping history is on their side. The Blues have home advantage in the decider and in each of the previous three semifinal meetings, the team playing at home in the second leg has prevailed. Then again, Liverpool have already done the double over the Blues in the Premiership this season without conceding a goal.
It's impossible to divide these two, but there has to be a winner. For me, it's Liverpool - by a coat of paint. Prediction: Liverpool
Jason de Vos: Why is it that Liverpool always ends up being drawn to play Chelsea? When it comes to the knockout phase of European competition, these two Premier League foes have met in four of the last five seasons. Surely, they must have figured each other out by now?
Liverpool is peaking at the right time of the season, with a morale-boosting victory over title rivals Manchester United, quickly followed by a 5-0 drubbing of Aston Villa. If Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres are on form, I think the Red half of Liverpool will be moving through to the semifinals.
Guus Hiddink has managed to right the sinking ship at Chelsea, and Didier Drogba finally decided to stop sulking and start playing some football. He and his teammates will need to be at their best if they are to halt the momentum of Gerrard and Co. Prediction: Liverpool
John F. Molinaro: Four Champions League encounters in five years? Enough already!
No, seriously, I'm really looking forward to this one because Liverpool and Chelsea bring out the best in each other and their previous encounters have been full of drama. This quarter-final series won't be any different, as both the Reds and the Blues are playing some fantastic soccer in the Premier League and both are at the height of their powers.
I know everyone has been going on about how great Steven Gerrard has been lately, but I've been just as impressed with Frank Lampard. The veteran continues to be the lynchpin for Chelsea and he just makes things happen out on the field. John Terry gets a lot of attention for his stalwart work in the Chelsea defence, but for me, Ricardo Carvalho is the glue that holds the back line together for the Londoners.
Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba haven't been sulking lately and have just concentrated on playing and it's paid big dividends, as they've scored some big goals for Chelsea.
All that being said, I think this is Liverpool's series to lose. Rafa Benitez's boys are at the top of their game, Gerrard and Fernando Torres have been dynamite, and Jamie Carragher continues to be, in my estimation, the finest English defender in the game today.
Liverpool just have the extra bit of class and quality, and that will see them through to the semifinals. Prediction: Liverpool
Manchester United (England) vs. FC Porto (Portugal)
Reed: The Cup holders will have been delighted to avoid the remaining English teams in the competition and Barcelona in the quarter finals as United aim to successfully defend the trophy in Rome.
Sir Alex Ferguson's men will be firm favourites over two legs but before we write off the Portuguese champions as no-hopers, bear in mind they remain unbeaten since early November. It's five months and 21 games since Porto's last defeat in any competition so it's no fluke they've made it this far.
United, in stark contrast, have endured a domestic wobble lately but I don't expect that to last and after the way they dispatched Inter Milan in the round of 16 it's hard to bet against them. Porto, I feel, will finally meet their match at Old Trafford - on their last trip to England, in the group stages, they were spanked 4-0 by Arsenal.
FC Porto are good - unfortunately for them United are a good deal better. Prediction: Manchester United
De Vos: This is a rematch of the 2004 Champions League clash that saw Porto defeat United on aggregate in the second round. Porto fans will be hoping that this will serve as an omen in their David and Goliath battle against the defending champions.
Unfortunately for them, I just can't see anything other than a United victory here. The Red Devils have too much going for them as a team to be troubled by Porto. Wayne Rooney gets the plaudits up front, but the pairing of Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand at the back is where their strength really lies. They have both been superb this season, and Vidic in particular, apart from his defensive howler against Liverpool, has been exceptional.
Porto will be hoping that Dimitar Berbatov's ankle injury is serious enough to keep him out of both legs. The Bulgarian is a wonderful talent, and if he returns to fitness in time to face the Portuguese front-runners, it will spell an end to Porto's run in the Champions League. Prediction: Manchester United
Molinaro: United enter the quarter-finals riding high after their emotional, last-gasp win over Aston Villa on the weekend, a result that allowed them to maintain their Premiership lead over Liverpool.
They have some injury problems - Berbatov will likely miss both games of the series - but Sir Alex Ferguson has so much depth that the absence of the talented Bulgarian will hardly be noticed.
The reigning English champions have been the class of this tournament thus far, cruising through the group stage and easily brushing aside Inter Milan to book their spot in the final eight.
Porto will be a tough nut to crack and United shouldn't take them lightly because they are riding an incredible unbeaten streak back in the Portuguese league.
But Porto simply can't match United's first-team strength or depth on the bench. It would take a miracle for them to upset United and, unlike last time, they don't have Jose Mourinho pulling the strings. Prediction: Manchester United
FC Barcelona (Spain) vs. Bayern Munich (Germany)
Reed: Jurgen Klinsmann has much to ponder. The Bayern Munich coach must prepare his team for the most difficult of quarter-final ties on the back of the Germans' worst domestic defeat in seven years.
The Spaniards, by contrast, continue to motor along like a well-oiled machine and are considered by many as favourites to win it all at Rome's Olympic Stadium next month.
It's all too easy to forecast a straightforward passage to the semifinals for Barcelona, but don't forget Munich have been virtually flawless in the Champions League this season and destroyed Sporting by a record 12-1 aggregate in the last round.
Sadly, the continued absence of star striker Miroslav Klose will hurt Bayern and Luca Toni is not fully match fit. Barcelona's Samuel Eto'o just can't stop scoring and at this rate will easily top 30 for the season, while Lionel Messi can win games almost single-handed.
Barcelona must surely be the only non-English team in the final four. Prediction: Barcelona
De Vos: What a great match-up! If this fixture doesn't get you excited about the Champions League, I don't know what will. These are two great clubs with a proud history in the game, both capable of scoring a bucket full of goals. I've probably gone and jinxed it now and both legs will end up 0-0!
Lionel Messi is the best player in the world right now, bar none. He is capable of winning games on his own, and he scores beautiful goals with frightening regularity. Throw in the likes of Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto'o, and Barcelona have a truly fearsome attack.
The same could almost be said about Bayern Munich, if you consider their record-breaking 12-1 aggregate victory over Sporting Lisbon in the previous round. But they are hurting up front right now, as Miroslav Klose is sidelined with an injured ankle, and Luca Toni has only just returned from a month out with a heel injury. Landon Donovan has been shipped back to the Los Angeles Galaxy, having been deemed too expensive for what he brings to the table, leaving Lucas Podolski the only other option up front.
Frank Ribery is a classy player who is able to score goals from midfield, but I suspect that Barcelona will have too much for the Germans, with Messi being the one to inflict the most damage. Prediction: Barcelona
Molinaro: For my money, Barcelona is the best team in the world right now and is in an entirely different class than Bayern.
Lionel Messi is, by a wide margin, the best player in the world, but the Argentine wizard is just one of many explosive super stars for the Catalan giants. Samuel Eto'o is the most lethal striker in the game today, Thierry Henry has rediscovered his top form, and fullback Dani Alves provides the Barcelona attack plenty of width with his pillaging runs forward. The supporting cast of characters are just as impressive, Yaya Toure and Carlos Puyol being foremost among them.
As for Bayern, they're dealing with the absence of top scorer Miroslav Klose, who's out with an ankle injury. Italian striker Luca Toni has only recently returned from the infirmary, so you can't expect much from him. That leaves Franck Ribery to lead the attack. The Frenchman is a marvel to watch and terrorizes opposing defenders, but he can't do it alone.
I think Bayern's 12-1 pasting of Sporting in the previous round was a bit misleading because the Lisbon outfit, with all due respect, simply mailed it in during the second leg. The German aren't going to put 12 goals past Barcelona. And even if they do manage to score, Barcelona has the ability to bag of a number of goals in quick succession and just bury their opponents.
I'm picking Barcelona to win it all, so Bayern will just be a stepping stone for the Spaniards. Prediction: Barcelona
Villarreal (Spain) vs. Arsenal (England)
Reed: Two teams who currently occupy fourth sport in their respective leagues but the similarities end there. Arsenal is on a roll and look to be getting back to their best with the return from injury of key players such as Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott.
Villarreal surprised me by winning in Athens in the last round to book their quarter-final berth since, by and large, the Spaniards don't travel well in Europe. In addition, their recent loss to Almeria was compounded by a serious injury to midfielder Santi Cazorla who will now miss the remainder of the season. On the plus side, influential skipper Marcos Senna should return after recovering from an ankle injury.
El Madrigal is not the biggest stadium in Europe by any means, but the Yellow Submarine must make best use of home advantage in the first leg to give themselves a realistic shot of holding the Gunners in the decider.
This could be close, as Arsenal discovered in Rome, but I'm backing Arsenal to win it over two legs. Prediction: Arsenal
De Vos: These two teams met in the Champions League semifinals in 2006, with Arsenal securing a 1-0 aggregate victory. Robert Pires was part of the Arsenal team on that occasion, but this time around he will be pulling on a Villarreal jersey instead.
Shown the door by Arsene Wenger following the 2006 season, he has played fairly well for the Spaniards since then, although his best days are certainly behind him. Still, the opportunity to get one over on his old team will be a mouth-watering proposition for the Frenchman.
Injuries have really hampered Arsenal's progress in the Premier League this season, yet they still find themselves in with a chance of making the semifinals of the Champions League. The return of Cesc Fabregas will be a big boost for the Gunners, who I fancy will just edge this one. Prediction: Arsenal
Molinaro: Arsenal have been flying high in the Premiership - overtaking Aston Villa for fourth place - while Villarreal have floundered in La Liga.
Things only got worse for the Yellow Submarine when influential midfielder Santi Cazorla broke his leg on the weekend and has been ruled out for the remainder of the season. That leaves former Arsenal star Robert Pires front and centre for the Spaniards, and it'll be up to the French veteran to lead the way and lend some inspirational creativity to Villarreal's attack.
Arsenal will welcome back Spanish playmaker Cesc Fabregas and English forward Theo Walcott.
Arsenal was somewhat fortunate to win their second-round series against AS Roma, but the Gunners have been playing some fantastic football of late, and appear to be brimming with confidence and swagger. They'll need both of those qualities in abundance when they go to El Madrigal, which has served as a fortress for Villarreal over the years. Prediction: Arsenal