This year’s draw for the first knockout round of the Champions League has thrown up some fascinating ties. The blockbuster is Manchester United versus Real Madrid, two of the elder statesmen of elite European football clashing for what should be an electric affair. Historically, both teams like to play quick counter attacking football and if United’s premier league form is anything to go by, this could be end-to-end stuff. The Champions-League-trophy is Mourinho’s last chance to really leave Madrid with a sense of success. He may have led them to 100 points in La Liga last season but the Decima, or 10th Champions League title, is what the Madridistas really want. With this almost certainly being Mourinho’s last season at the Bernabeu he would love nothing more than to do what he did with Inter- leave after winning the biggest club cup in world football, and in that process vindicating himself and portraying all his antagonists at Madrid as in the wrong. Overcoming Manchester United however is no mean feat. They are in the process of running away with the Premier League and have Champions League pedigree. However, their defensive issues should mean that Madrid, who have an abundance of attacking talent as well as being frugal at the back, should be able to get past them at this stage.
Arsenal, the only other English team remaining in the competition, face an arguably greater challenge against Bayern Munich. Arsenal have struggled so far this season in a domestic league that does not have any teams of the calibre of Bayern. A mammoth 12 points clear in the Bundesliga, the Bayern machine does not look like breaking down any time soon. The news that Guardiola will be taking over at the helm next season has not fazed them at all. In fact, it appears to have given them an even steelier determination to see out Jupp Heynckes’ career with great success. Also, these players know they are on trial for when Pep takes over and will strive to impress. Arsenal do not really have either the strength in their first eleven or in depth to compete with the quality of this Bavarian behemoth; a Chelsea-style backs the wall performance also seems out of the question for a side routinely criticised for its ‘soft core’.
The favourites, Barcelona, and AC Milan have a repeat of their quarter final match-up last year. With Milan in an even worse way than they were last time, after the sales of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva in the summer, Barcelona should progress comfortably. The arrival of Mario Balotelli is a potential boon for Barca, and you can never be sure what will happen when he is around. In reality, however, even that probably will not be enough for this young Milan side. In terms of the overall winner of the competition, it is hard to look beyond the Catalans. Tito Vilanova has seemingly built on the foundations Guardiola laid and Barcelona, now more than ever, appear to play on a totally different level to the rest of Europe. For any side to beat them over two legs will take a superhuman effort and Barca will have to have two off nights.
In the last 18 months Juventus have dominated Serie A and re-emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the European stage. A kind draw, with no disrespect to Celtic, means they have a great chance to go far in this tournament. Classy performances in a group containing Chelsea and Shakhtar Donetsk coming off the back of an ‘invincible’ league campaign indicate a team on the up. Their style of play is also very well suited to European tournament football. Barcelona aside, recent winners in Chelsea and Mourinho’s Inter have been quite conservative in their outlook. Juve have this, as well as an ability to control games- when they play, there is an aura of calm on the pitch. Pass master Pirlo dictates proceedings; his virtuoso playmaking is at the heart of most of what the Turin side do.
In terms of competitiveness and excitement, the tie of the round may well be Shakhtar Donetsk vs. Borussia Dortmund. Two evenly matched and attacking teams, it will be interesting to see whether Dortmund’s high intensity pressing game or Shakhtar’s flair will win out in the end. Both teams rely on a core of players from a particular international side. Shakhtar have relocated a cohort of Brazilians from South America to the Black Sea, which no doubt contributes to their expressive playing style. Dortmund, on the other hand, have the three best players from the Polish national team, including Robert Lewandowski, one of the best number 9s in world football at the moment. If Dortmund play to the level they are capable of the intensity may prove too much for a Shakhtar team, who are nonetheless on the up.
Paris Saint-Germain face Valencia in what they will see as a must-win. They have invested so heavily in the squad that reaching the latter stages is imperative in proving that they are here to stay. After finishing third in the past couple of seasons, Valencia are in a little bit of a state of flux at the minute after sacking Mauricio Pellegrino towards the end of last year. On paper, PSG have the players to dominate this tie, however, Ancelotti has found it difficult to get everyone pulling in the same direction at the same time. Nevertheless, in Zlatan he has a match winner worthy of any club.
Without being too dismissive, of course all the teams in the Champions League deserve to be there, the final two games are likely to be where the winners of the other ties get their draws from. Porto vs. Malaga and Galatasary vs. Schalke aren’t exactly glamour ties. It will be interesting to see how Wesley Sneijder and Didier Drogba are settling in at Gala, two transfers Schalke will have been gutted at seeing- turning one of the ‘easy’ draws into something more substantial. Porto, along with Benfica, are predictably running away with Primeira Liga in Portugal and Malaga have been impressive defensively in La Liga this season, conceding the least amount of goals of any team so far this season, but it still feels like they are both a peg below the bigger boys.
After the first leg matches have been played, we will have a better idea of the shape the knockout stages will take. It seems, however, that only a few teams have the capacity to go all the way and win it. Barcelona are obviously the favourites, with Bayern a close second. Juventus could be a dark horse and Real Madrid could provide the best story- the ‘Special One’ yet again going out with a bang.