The Last Word: The Champions League is back

At long last, after a break of more than two months, the UEFA Champions League returns Tuesday night. And it will definitely be worth the wait, with the round of 16 throwing up some mouthwatering matchups - from Bayern Munich vs Milan to Arsenal vs Real Madrid, not forgetting the big one, the rematch, Chelsea vs Barcelona. Once again, what has become the most prestigious club competition in the world has come up trumps and captured the attention and hearts of soccer fans around the world. It hasn't always been like this. When the Champions League was first launched in 1992, it was viewed with distinct cynicism and trepidation. What was wrong with the original European Cup knockout format?, people asked. The talk among soccer fans was that the top clubs in Europe were planning to breakaway and launch a "European Super League," taking all the TV money and leaving the lesser clubs stranded. As the competition expanded in its early years, soccer fans grew ever more concerned that UEFA was squeezing the passion and real fans out of European competition and was simply interested in making as much money as possible. When it was announced that the team that came in fourth place in the English Premier League would be allowed to enter the qualifying stages for the Champions League, the situation became laughable. In what way could you call a team finishing in fourth place a champion? But UEFA saw the error of its ways and trimmed the tournament down to just the best teams in Europe, and now appears to have got it right. Even though Liverpool finished fifth in the Premiership last season, which soccer fan can not get excited at the prospect of the Reds facing the Benfica side that defeated Manchester United back in December, dumping Alex Ferguson's side out of the competition at the earliest stage for the first time? Fans of soccer around the world can sit back over the next two nights and witness some of the best players battling it out to carry their teams through to the next stage. In one of the most exciting prospects, on Tuesday night David Beckham will face an English team in official competition for the first time since he moved to the Spanish giants. Madrid has returned to form in recent weeks after a bumpy start to the season and will be the favorite to defeat a developing Arsenal side at the Bernabeu. But the tie of the round is of course the English champion against the Spanish league winner. After last year's fiery encounters, both Chelsea's and Barcelona's players will find no difficulties firing themselves up for Wednesday's game at Stamford Bridge. Ronaldinho is back for the Catalan team and showed enough touches of brilliance in the 5-1 win over Real Betis on Sunday to worry Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho. However, after last season's scintillating match in London, in which Chelsea was ahead 3-0 after half an hour, the English supporters will know that anything can happen. Finally, a little word for the minnows left in the tournament. Glasgow's Rangers have been going through a tough period domestically and will be looking forward to the away game at Spanish side Villareal. The draw has been kind to the Scottish club and given it the best chance possible to progress to the quarterfinals. Let the games begin! [email protected]