In just a day’s time, Manchester United begin their trek to the 2011 UEFA Champions League Final at Wembley when they learn their opponent for the Round of 16.
In the draw on December 17, United has the possibility face six of the eight second-place finishers from the Group stage – AC Milan, AS Roma, Internazionale, Olympique Lyonnais and Olympique de Marseille and FC Copenhagen – in the opening round in the Knockout phase.
As everyone knows by now, United topped Group C by three points over Valencia, which has seen them avoid some of the most feared European clubs like Barcelona, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid at this stage, but Sir Alex Ferguson will remain honest, because any of the other 12 teams have a real chance to go on to win this year’s competition as well.
Each of these possible six European teams can cause United troubles, because they are all filled with international players, and on their day can cause the Reds some trouble.
AC Milan has won the European Cup seven times – four more than United – and has made positive strides since they were outclassed in the Round of 16 by the Reds last season.
United strolled to a 7-2 aggregate win over the Italian giants in same stage last season, which included a never-before-seen 4-0 result at Old Trafford.
It was only fair that United took it to their European foe, because the Reds were on the losing end to Milan twice before at this same stage in the Champions League in the last six years.
In 2004/05, United were undone by a couple of defensive miscues, and luck was definitely not on their side as they crashed out of the competition 2-0 on aggregate against the Rossoneri.
Two years later, the 17-time Italian top-flight winners taught the young players at United a footballing lesson by defeating them 5-3 on aggregate, which was aided by a 3-0 win at the San Siro.
Part of the resurgence of Milan has been down to appointing a new manager in the summer with the highly-regarded Massimiliano Allegri taking over the managerial reigns from Leonardo.
As it stands right now, Milan hold a six point advantage in the Serie A table after 16 matches – which is five places better than AS Roma, who is another likely Round of 16 challenger.
Roma finished second place in Group E on 10 points, which was five points adrift of Bayern Munich, but a 3-2 win over the winners secured their progress to this stage.
During the 2006/07 and 2007/08 Champions League seasons, United and the Giallorossi matched up six times, which the Reds won four of them.
The result that will always live long in the United supporters’ memory is the resounding 7-1 win at Old Trafford after they lost 2-1 at the Stadio Olimpico to advance to semi-finals in 2006/07.
The following season they two were paired up in Group F, which United won the first match 1-0 and then drew 1-1 at the Stadio Olimpico, but, amazingly, the Reds and the Romans were pinned against each other again in the Quarter-Finals, and the former triumphed 3-0 (2-0 home, and 1-0 away).
Under the guidance of former Chelsea manager, Claudio Ranieri, Roma finished second in the Serie A to United’s last probably Italian opponent.
The final club that United could face from Italy is none other than the reigning European champions, Internazionale, who also did the domestic double as well (Coppa Italia and Serie A).
Although the core of the team has stayed intact, their most special ingredient, Jose Mourinho, departed in the summer to take over the hot seat at Real Madrid, and the despised Rafael Benitez took over.
For obvious reasons, the former Liverpool boss has never been very well liked by the United supporters, but his infamous, “Rafa’s Rant” in January 2009, which took the hatred to a whole new level and made the Reds’ title triumph that much sweeter.
Since taking over, the Spaniard has led a virtually unchanged Nerazzurri squad to 13 points behind their fellow San Siro foe, AC Milan, and ruined Inter’s chance to top a very winnable group as they lost out to Tottenham.
However, Inter won their Semi-Final match against Seongnam Chunma 3-0 at the FIFA Club World Cup, which is a competition that United won two seasons ago.
United also has the possibility of facing the former seven-times Ligue 1 champions, Olympique Lyon, and the reigning French champions, Marseille.
OL finished runners-up to Schalke 04 in Group B, but that was because they lost 3-0 on Matchday 5 at the Ramat Gan Stadium in Germany.
The last time that Lyon and Manchester United met up in the Champions League it was surrounded with a bit of controversy when their manager, Claude Puel, who managed Lille against United as well, audaciously pulled his players off the pitch in protest, but eventually he regained his senses and the match continued.
The Reds narrowly eked out a 2-1 aggregate win, but the difference between the two teams came down to a smartly taken free-kick by the Ryan Giggs at the Stade de Gerland, which caused Puel to temporary lose his mind.
The only other time that these teams were squared up against each other was in the 2004/05 Group stage, which saw United draw 2-2 in Lyon, and then win 2-1 on Sir Alex’s 1000th match in charge at Old Trafford.
Lyon made it to the quarter-final stage of this competition last season, but they bowed out to the same club that knocked United out of the previous round, Bayern Munich, 4-0 on aggregate.
Domestically, Lyon are only two points off the top of the table after 17 games, and the Les Gones are two points ahead of Marseille, the other French team United could be matched against.
Marseille, under the guidance of former Chelsea player, Didier Deschamps, won the latest Ligue 1 title to give them nine French top-flight championships.
In Group F, l’OM showed that they can offer any of their Round of 16 opponents a real match, because they knocked off the group winners Chelsea 1-0 on the final match of the group.
With their four clean sheets in their group, Marseille was tied for second for the most – only behind Real Madrid and Manchester United’s five.
Tied with Arsenal, Olympique de Marseille had the most points by any second-placed team with 12, and their +9 goal differential was good enough for seventh out of all of the 32 teams that competed in the Champions League Group stage this season.
FC Copehagen, who was only founded in 1992, is the final team that United encounter in the first round of the Knockout phase, and they are the club that all of the supporters are hopeful to get, but it could very well be a booby trap.
The reigning Danish Superliga champions finished second with 10 points in Group D, which was lined with Barcelona, FK Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos, to qualify for the first time in their history for the Round of 16.
Their 1-1 draw with Barcelona at the Parken Stadium needs to be noted, because not many teams can say that they have limited the Catalan giants to just a single goal after going a goal down.
FCK, who is in the midst of a three-month winter break in their domestic schedule, is leading the top of the Danish Superliga by a country mile – 19 points after as many games.
Since coming into existence 18 years ago, which is a year after Giggs became a full professional player with United, Løverne has won domestic 19 titles.
All of these six teams, AC Milan, AS Roma and Internazionale, Lyon, Marseille and Copenhagen have some of Europe’s finest players on their payrolls, but that should not stop Manchester United from advancing to the Quarter-Finals of the UEFA Champions League.