It’s always fun times when the Champions League returns because as a fan you get to see the best competing against the best.
I remember dreaming of one day playing in the Champions League after going to watch Ajax by myself. My friends would tell me it is too cold to watch, so I would go to my teammates and ask them – but would hear the same thing. “It’s too cold, you’re crazy!”
So I would go on my own. If I told you the number of times that I sat on my own in the stadium watching Ajax, with my knees and ankles being frozen, you would tell me this guy is an iceman. But I learned so much and sometimes I got goosebumps and sat there with a big smile on my face as the team walked out with flowers to throw to the fans while the famous Champions league music played.
Not long after it was my turn to play against the best, with the likes of Zidane showing me football that was out of this world. Damn that guy was good. I can go and talk to you for days about how great it was but it think we will need a couple more pages for that because watching and playing will be never the same sensation.
Now that I’m a fan and watch the action from a birds eye view it still gives me that amazing feeling when I hear the Champions League song. That piece of music gives you the feeling a boxer gets when he hears “let’s get ready to rumble!”
Back to the guys who are active and entertaining us today, I think Madrid are looking great again. Ronaldo is always demanding the best of himself, which is what makes him so unique, and the team is so well-oiled and look like the hunger is still in the team and I love seeing that. They all want it again and will do whatever it takes to make it three in a row.
All the English teams have started strong and I expect a lot from them this season because they have invested a lot of time, money and effort to make their squads big enough to compete in two competitions. This is going to be a long season so all the players want to end it with a big trophy before going away for the summer to fight for the even bigger one, the World Cup.
Chelsea’s main focus is winning the Champions League because that’s always the next objective after you win the domestic league. You want more and there’s only one trophy out there to make your season even better. But they have Man Utd and City going after it with the same determination, that we could see in all of their first games. This season could be the time that the English teams start ruling again.
Spurs also looked impressive in their win over Dortmund. This German side have become one of the dark horses to watch out for in Europe, finishing as runners-up in 2013 and making the quarterfinals last season. But Spurs showed why they are becoming one of the top sides in England with a 3-1 win.
Liverpool could also cause some surprises with their counter attacks and speed. They’re England’s most successful club in Europe and their comeback against AC Milan in the 2005 final shows how you can never rule them out.
PSG look great but can they play the way they did in that great first half against Barcelona throughout the whole tournament? I’ll be watching them closely over the next couple of games to see if they are solid enough to win it. The surly have the players to do so.
Barcelona are impossible to leave out of the conversation as they are always in contention of winning it. Messi and co can pass their way through any defence in the world as they showed against Juventus in their opening game. It’s Buffon’s last chance to lift the trophy and if they can repeat their performances from last season and get a bit of luck along the way it could be the best sendoff possible for Gianluigi.
Bayern are the other big team that are in with a real chance of winning the competition. They have made the final three times since 2010, winning it in 2013.
Whatever happens this season it can’t be missed. Watching and playing football is still one of the happiest things in my life!
The football elite know how to win games.
I was working in the studio at Fox Sports last night and much of the pre-match discussion was about Real Madrid. It was clear to see they had a tough task ahead of them, as everyone knows how good the Germans are at shutting down opponents. Just look at how the German National side performed at the last World Cup.
We all know the saying “teams beat individuals”.
Wolfsburg’s coach Dieter Hecking said himself that all his side needed was a special night like the first leg in Germany. They turned up confident because they had already done something special against a great team, and all they needed was one more big performance.
Zidane’s response was that there was no need to panic. Madrid just had to stay calm – even if Wolfsburg grabbed a goal. The Bernabeu is a special place and the supporters are great, so belief was still high.
And oh boy – how special was it?
The magic man Ronaldo showed us why he is one of the best players in the world. And he did it when his team needed it most in the greatest club competition in the world.
He said before the game that Madrid needed big performances and that they had to do it all together. Although Ronaldo stole the show, Real won together as a team, because he still needed the other ten men to defend and feed him the ball.
Madrid needed an early goal to get the fans excited and make the Germans uncomfortable. They got their two early goals and it was game on.
Madrid moved the ball around fast and gave Wolfsburg no time to reorganise. That created space between the Wolfsburg midfield and defensive line. That is how big teams dismantle you and before you know it they had scored.
If you can’t reorganise quickly as a compact team when you’re playing against top midfielders like Kroos and Modric, they will use their vision and intelligence to find the perfect pass to the striking force.
And when you have a man in your team who is as hungry as they come, and shows the world every week how bad he wants to win – you see special things. Ronaldo’s eyes and body spoke volumes from the moment he arrived at the stadium until the last minute of the match. He was ready to take on who ever was going to face him. Energetic, intelligent and a real leader.
The stats say it all about Ronaldo. Last night we saw his 16th Champions League goal in 10 games this season, as he clinched his 37th Real Madrid hat-trick (thirty seven!).
If that doesn’t silence the doubters, nothing will.
“How are Arsenal going to stop the 3 amigos?”
That’s what much of the discussion has been focused around in the build up to tonight’s Champions League clash.
Everyone knows about the quality of Barcelona’s fierce front three. Messi, Suarez and Neymar each have the skill to outplay a team on their own.
Defenders often explain how they’re going to stop Messi, and it happens to be a total waste of time because the little magician would dribble around you in a phone booth, and if you bring a friend he’ll take care of him too.
Lining up alongside Leo is Suarez – and I think (I hope) the days of biting are long gone. The first time I saw Suarez play was at Ajax, and people made a comment that he’s sometimes lucky. Now I look at him, and what he’s done, and ask myself why I ever listened to them. His determination and perseverance are some of his greatest attributes – when you think he’s down he gets back up fighting and scoring.
All you have to do is look at the impact he had at Liverpool, an how badly they missed him when he left.. They are still looking for a replacement.
Completing the trio is Mister Samba. I call Neymar Mister because I recently enjoyed Carnival with the team and school from Santos, where he and Pelé came from.
What Pelé has done for Santos and Brazil we all know. But now it’s all about Brazil’s new poster boy.
Neymar is a nightmare to play against. Not only does he have lightening pace and great vision, but he also has crazy skills that make the world gasp. Some say he’s disrespectful to his opponents but I see it as simple as this: If you can’t handle the game you shouldn’t enter the arena, because when you cross that white line you either kill or get killed. It’s as simple as that.
The man pulling the strings and feeding the balls is Iniesta. Stopping the supply from him will also be key for Arsenal.
Arsenal have been trying to play like Barca for years. They’ve always done a great job, especially during my playing days. That suited one of their best, and the Premier League’s class act Thierry Henry, as he made the transfer to the Camp Nou.
This game will be very tactical and of course Arsenal will be the underdogs.
Arsenal should play the game as compact as they can, and use their counterattack to hurt Barca. Barca will press high and make Arsenal work when they have possession, but I believe if they can stop Barca from getting the ball back as quick as they normally want and keep hold of it, they can exploit the space behind Barca’s defensive line.
Barca are quick on the flanks but in the middle they have guys who read the game well, and that doesn’t always go together with pace so they have to be patient. If Arsenal can be patient too and use their speed effectively, they can surprise Barca.
I often get asked whether I want to do something or go somewhere and most of the time I respond with “I’m busy”. That always gets people wondering – what keeps me busy?
During my career my schedules were always made for me and there was never a dull moment. When I retired I kept that lifestyle going. I live by the quote “always moving, always growing”. I wake up early every morning, train and then go on to my business meetings.
Just this month I’m taking around 8 flights within a 2 week time frame.
Amsterdam is my first stop, where I host my yearly Children Charity Tournament. I invite kids of all ages and backgrounds to come to my ‘Mario Melchiot’ Football Field and spend the day playing soccer, enjoying live music from one of the top artists in Holland and eating our traditional “Vlaamse frites”.
Straight after, I will be flying into Manchester to play a charity game alongside some of my fellow Wigan players and coaches of yesteryear. The charity, Joseph’s Goal, aims to raise awareness of NKH (Non Ketotic Hyperglycinemia) and give children who suffer from the condition a better life. It’s an honour and a pleasure to play for such a good cause.
I will always cherish the excitement of one of the children’s parents when I called to let him know I’d be taking part in his charity game. It is little things like this that make me realize the beautiful game goes so much further than the football field.
After the game I’m off to London for a scheduled interview with the BBC. And later that Sunday I’ll be at Stamford Bridge watching Chelsea lift the BPL Trophy.
I never turn down an invite to watch Chelsea, but this one in particular will be special for me. It’s always beautiful to see players get rewarded after a season of hard work – especially when those players are ex-teammates.
After only a few short days in London, I’m flying on to Glasgow to be the best man at my friend’s wedding – and believe it or not – I’ll be wearing a kilt. If that doesn’t show how much he means to me, I don’t know what will.
From Glasgow I’m going to Berlin to watch Barcelona play Juventus. I still have mixed emotions when it comes to the Champions League final. I’m always reminded of my time playing for Ajax, and the day we lost the final against Juventus. It was a sad day, although softened by the fact it was my first time meeting Vialli. I went to ask him for his shirt but since he had already given it away, he took off his shorts and said I should keep them.
Two quick years later I got the call from Vialli to join Chelsea, on the one condition that I gave him his pants back.
I never did. But I still managed to play for five straight years.
From Berlin it’s a one way to Las Vegas, where I’ll be holding a Q&A with American Chelsea fans. I’ll also get to play referee for once – blowing the whistle for one of their games. We mutually agreed that it’d be best I take the referee position, (one that I never liked) instead of taking on a myriad of excited fans.
For my wellness and health, I believe it’s for the best.