No English club in the quarter finals. The first time since 1996. That’s the story of this year’s Champions League. At least, that’s what you’ll hear on this side of the Channel. But there’s still a competition, and it’s shaping up to be a great one. The draw has been really kind to the neutral observer, with a couple of great ties this time around and easier games for the Spanish giants all but absolutely guarantee two huge semi-finals.
Real Madrid vs Galatasary
After the Turkish side went on a winter spending splurge, many were tipping Galatasary as the dark horses of the competition before the last-16, but they failed to convince in both ties against a Schalke team without Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Drogba and Sneijder are the star-names, although the supporters seem more excited about Burak Yillaz, the Turkish forward who has dominated the Turkish division for the past two years and now seems intent on making a European splash. They’re not a bad side, lead by former-Turkey coach Fatih Terim, who has reputation for getting the very best out of his players.
But how do they approach playing Madrid? Jose Mourinho’s season – and possibly even his tenure at Madrid – will be judged on whether they can finally win the European Cup this time around. Solid at the back, and lethal going forward, surely they will only falter if they buckle under the weight of expectation, like many said they did in last year’s semi-final. Xabi Alonso has had a couple of injuries recently, and talismanic presence Iker Casillas is out for the season, but surely Madrid will look to prioritize the clean-sheet tomorrow at the Bernabeu, before sucking Galatasary in and spitting them out on the counter attack in two weeks time. If Galatasary attack cautiously, it’s hard to see them scoring at all, but maybe sitting back and hoping the old guard will nick an away goal is the best strategy they’ve got?
Prediction: Real Madrid
Barcelona vs PSG
A fixture involving a far-superior Spanish club and a team lead up front by a physical and metaphorical giant who’s just a little bit past it. Sound familiar?
Maybe, but Barca may find more than Ibrahivomic standing in their way when they travel to Paris tonight. PSG are slowly becoming a solidly built side, with good players all over the pitch. Thiago Silva is branded by many as one of the world’s best centre-backs, and if his resistance of the Barcelona strike-force (ie. Messi) is successful, PSG can definitely win this tie. Barca have been beaten in the past by tenacious and, frankly, lucky defensive performances while poachers have fed off scraps up front (Gabriel Milito in 2010 being the best example) and PSG certainly have the men to sting them on the break.
Having said that, Barcelona will be buoyed by the return of coach Tito Villanova (and Eric Adibal – what a man!) and still have to be favourites to win the competition. For PSG’s Ibra there’s Barca’s Messi, and if the Parisians midfield isn’t world-beating. Expect Xavi and Busquets to dominate, and Barca to come through less shaken this time than they were against Milan.
Prediction: Barcelona – surely it’s certain if they score more than one tomorrow?
Borussia Dortmund vs Malaga
Probably the one English observers will know and care the least about. Borussia Dortmund are quickly becoming the ideal footballing club in many people’s eyes. Run by old players, publicly-financed, and managed by European Football’s next Arsene Wenger, the double-German champions’ manager Jurgen Klopp made the Champions League their priority this season, and it’s gone very well so far. Knocking out Manchester City in the group stages, they beat Real Madrid to top spot before making relatively light work of Shaktar Donetsk. It’s a team that some might argue adds up to more than the sum of its parts, although Lewandowski, Gotze and Marco Reus are three incredibly talented players coming into this tie in the form of their lives. Nuri Sahin, who many Liverpool supporters may not believe is the same player as the one seen at Anfield earlier this season, has returned to the club where he caught Madrid’s attention, and all-in-all the Germans look very strong.
But Malaga could surprise us. They did last round, overturning a 1-0 deficit against Porto to progress this far. Funded by the Qatari owners, head coach Manuel Pellegrini has built a solid side with star quality. Isco, a young Spanish playmaker, who scored a fantastic goal against Porto, has attracted most of the plaudits – and scouts – so far this season, and there’s every reason to think he will carry on impressing, even against Dortmund’s defensive might. It’s difficult to see who else will create and score goals for Malaga, and the defense looks shaky at best. Playing at home first could seriously hinder the Spanish side, and there’s every chance that the Germans might once again score a couple of away goals in a Champions League tie. If that’s the case, don’t bother tuning in for the second leg.
Bayern Munich vs Juventus
The big tie of the round. With German and Spanish sides dominating, Juve are the chief flag-wavers for the rest of Europe. Both games, will, one imagines, be dominated by the midfielders. Pirlo and Vidal against Schweinsteiger and Luiz Gustavo. It’s hard to know who will win that battle, although Juve’s three man defense might well mean that they have a crucial spare player in the middle from time to time. However, up front, Bayern are clearly stronger. Juve’s top goal scorer in Serie A this season, Fabio Quagliarella, has just 8 league goals to his name (Edinson Cavani has 22). The team do need a star striker, and the arrival of Fernando Llorente, due in the summer, can’t come soon enough. Munich have Gomez, Euro 2012 star Manzukic and Muller.
Both teams have incredibly strong defenses. Bayern have conceded 13 goals all season in the Bundesliga. Juve have let in 19 league goals, and have gone 5 Champions League games without conceding, although two of those games were against Chelsea. This is the first real challenge of the competition for both sides and it wouldn’t be surprising if one, or maybe even both, choke under the pressure. Finally, this tie brings together the two best goalkeepers in the world head-to-head, and considering how close it looks set to be, the prospect of a Buffon vs Neuer penalty shoot-out is one we can all savor.
Prediction: Munich, because they play away in the crucial second game.
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