Porto aim to confound the pundits
With most of the Champions League attention seemingly focused on Beckham facing Manchester United, Jose Mourinho's Inter coming up against Chelsea and Barcelona's ambitions of retaining their title, one team seems to have been overlooked in my humble estimation, namely Portuguese champions Porto.
Even Uefa seems to have almost forgotten they have made it through to the last 16.
Before writing this blog, I looked at their website and had to scroll down to the middle of January before I found any news on the team.
It's not as though Porto haven't any Champions League credentials - remember their impressive victory in 2004 which propelled Mourinho into the arms of Roman Abramovich.
They also won the old European Cup in 1987 and so can claim to have more of a pedigree in Europe's top club competition than Arsenal, who they play host to at their intimidating Estadio do Dragao on Wednesday.
Admittedly, Porto didn't have the most difficult group from which to qualify for the knockout stages.
They won all four of their games fairly comfortably against Cypriot minnows APOEL and a dysfunctional Atletico Madrid, with the much-heralded Hulk and Falcao being particularly impressive when I saw them win 3-0 at the Vicente Calderon in December.
Arsenal's increasingly fragile defence could have a torrid time if the pair can repeat the form they produced that night in the Spanish capital.
Porto's Colombian Ramadel Falcao is a dangerous partner to Brazilian Hulk. Photograph: AP
Impartial observers were also generally agreed that there was little to choose between Porto and Chelsea, even though the Premier League leaders emerged as 1-0 winners in both their meetings during the group stage.
Porto also gave Manchester United a very tough time in last season's quarter-finals. It could easily have been Porto in the semis, instead of Sir Alex Ferguson's men, if the Hulk hadn't had an off-day at home in the second leg, with the Brazilian sending most of his shots wide or straight at Edwin van der Sar.
I'm sure Arsene Wenger, in his meticulous way, will have watched all four matches on his DVD player and will have gathered enough information to realise that Porto will provide very serious opposition, having also faced them in last season's Champions League group stage.
Arsenal's recent matches have also been required viewing in the north of Portugal.
"We've been watching Arsenal's last few games closely and they're not as strong as they've been in recent years," said the Porto's Brazilian goalkeeper Helton, perhaps choosing to remember when they beat Arsenal 2-0 at home last season rather than the trip to the Emirates stadium which ended with him picking the ball out of the net four times.
"Emmanuel Adebayor is not there any more and Robin van Persie is injured (both men scored twice against him in the 4-0 defeat last season), Arsenal are not as explosive in attack," he added.
"The tie is very balanced and we certainly don't see Arsenal as the favourites. We've not had much luck against the English clubs in the last few seasons. Now is the moment for us to break that run of setbacks and reach the Champions League quarter-finals."
The reason why Porto tend to fly a little under the radar in European terms is, quite simply, that they play Portugal. There is a blithe assumption that they are simply not up to competing with the top clubs from England, Italy and Spain.
Certainly, there is a lot less money in Portuguese football. The 16 teams in the Liga Sagres together receive roughly the same amount of money from local TV rights as Manchester United on their own in the Premier League, although Porto do get the lion's share - or should that be the dragon's share? - along with the big Lisbon clubs Benfica and Sporting.
Porto have also done relatively well financially in recent years from their Champions League runs, having made the knockout stages every year bar one since their 2004 triumph, but it is still not enough to keep the top Portuguese players in Portugal.
The fact that they were eventually despatched from last season's Champions League by a screamer from Cristiano Ronaldo was immensely galling to Porto president Jorge Nuno de Lima Pinto da Costa, who has been in charge since 1982 and been almost solely responsible for Porto rising from being a middle-of-the-table team to challenge the dominance of the Lisbon duo.
Vice versa, it also means that they are unable to pay top dollar for foreign players and have to scout around for young promising South Americans, especially Brazilians for language reasons, and other cheap imports.
However, they annually punch above their weight and there is still a feeling that, even if being crowned the kings of Europe for a third time is beyond them, they shouldn't be taken for granted.
Porto have won the Portuguese title for six of the last seven years, but their domestic form has not been as convincing this season and they are currently a distant third behind leaders Benfica and surprise package Braga.
Three of the players that made them such a potent force last season have also departed in big-money moves: Argentine striker Lisandro Lopez and French defender Aly Cissokho both went to Lyon, for €24m and €15m respectively, while Argentine midfielder Lucho González went to Marseille for €18m.
Nevertheless, with Falcao and Hulk up front, Portuguese international Bruno Alves, who is arguably one of the best central defenders in Europe at the moment, and a much-improved Helton between the posts, they may yet cause some surprises.
The bookies say Barcelona and Chelsea are the two favourites for this season's Champions League. I'm not so sure, so I've got a few quid on Mourinho to triumph over his old team and I also have a feeling that Real Madrid could do well, especially as the final on 22 May will be in the Santiago Bernabeu.
However, if Porto do beat Arsenal, their confidence will be sky-high and there is unlikely to be any team in the quarter-finals that will overawe them.
Comments on the blog in the space provided. Other questions on European football to email@example.com. I don't need your full address but please put the town/city and country where you come from.
Here's a couple from last week's postbag, both on Spanish football.
I might not have read all your blogs but I have rarely seen you mention Valencia's Juan Manuel Mata. He is still very young, and has been playing for the Spain national team as well. How do you rate him?
Chris Cleary, London
Very highly. His only problem, such as it is, is that Spanish coach Vicente Del Bosque seems quite set on starting with his Valencia team mate David Villa and Liverpool's Fernando Torres. Assuming that Torres is fit, this means that Mata is possibly only going to get 15-20 minutes a game in South Africa. Nevertheless, he has been a revelation this season, starting 21 games this season. Watching Saturday night's 1-1 draw at Sporting Gijon, he was arguable the best player on the field. As well as getting Valencia's goal, his creativity almost provided a winner for them on several occasions in the last 15 minutes.
Just looking at the Spanish games last weekend, I was amazed to see the extreme number of yellow and red cards. What do you think is the reason for this? It doesn't seem to be a one-off.
Harvey Mayne, Frankfurt
Recent statistics from the last two seasons suggest that Spanish referees in domestic matches hand out almost twice as many yellow and red cards as their counterparts in the Premier League, with Italy, Germany and France somewhere between the two extremes among Europe's five 'big leagues'. Spanish matches average just over five yellow cards a game while the Premier League averages just over three. I've seen a lot of comment, much of which I agree with, that suggests that there are significant differences in the way the laws are applied in domestic games between Europe's leading football nations. Fernando Torres once commented that English referees, "only give you a foul once you are bleeding!" By contrast, Spanish referees tend to punish many more minor transgressions, which might be let go in the Premier League.