Champions League Last Eight: Let the Games Begin
CHAMPIONS LEAGUE QUARTER FINALS:
Bayern Munich v Juventus
PSG v Barcelona
Malaga v Borussia Dortmund
Real Madrid v Galatasaray
As good and as dramatic as the last 16 ties were, now that the draw for the quarter-finals has been made, you get the sense that the main events in this season's UEFA Champions League can now be served up. Four courses. Two indulgent starters. Two tantalising desserts. The football world cannot wait to tuck in.
The first set of quarter-finals are mind boggling as Bayern Munich take on Juventus and Paris Saint Germain meet Barcelona. They would be two semi-finals to die for, let alone last-eight clashes.
Bayern's progress to this stage has not been as straight forward as they would have liked suffering a defeat in their second group game and then almost throwing it away against Arsenal in their last 16 tie. Their league form has been untouchable and with the Bundesliga already in the bag by virtue of a 20-point lead their attention can be fully focused on Champions League glory. With attacking options of the quality of Mario Madzukic and Thomas Mueller they have the weapons to hurt anyone. They also have the motivation of losing a final they should have won last year against Chelsea. They have unfinished business.
Juve are proving as redoubtable as ever. They had a lot to live up to in Serie A last season when they went unbeaten but they currently top the division again this time round and came through a tough group phase that saw Chelsea fail. They know all about what it takes to make the final of this tournament. No other team can beat their seven appearances in the showpiece event (ironically Bayern can match it), although they have only won it twice. The eventual winner of the Champions League may well come from this tie.
For glamour you cannot get past PSG against Barcelona. What a two legs this promises. Carlo Ancelotti's French version of Manchester City have all the money in the world but will it be enough this year to get past a resurgent Barca? PSG were the most impressive qualifiers for the last 16 with 15 points from their group stage and their domestic form has helped maintain that momentum. Of the many sub-plots thrown up by the quarter-finals Zlatan Ibrahimovic's return to face his former employers is probably the most eagerly anticipated. His absence from the first leg through suspension for being sent off in the last round may prove costly though. They will not relish the return to Camp Nou without a healthy lead. With players of the artistry of Lucas Moura and in-form Ezequiel Lavezzi they may yet do just that.
Many have been penning Barcelona's obituary as a major European force for a while. Defeat to Celtic in the group stage was shocking but that was nothing compared to their loss to AC Milan in the first leg of their last 16 tie. Write Barca off at your peril though. The second-comeback against Milan was the stuff of comic books as Barca remembered who they were, remembered what they can do and showed, despite the vulnerabilities, how eternal their spirit is. When you have a player like Lionel Messi it is no wonder you never feel beaten. They made history against Milan, they will eye more if they can win a third final at Wembley. Who would back against them?
The other two ties seem a bit more predictable. Malaga, the third club from Andalucia to make it this far, head into their fixtures with Borussia Dortmund knowing the odds of progressing are higher than the Sierra Morena. The loan acquisition of Manchester City striker Roque Santa Cruz looks inspired and with the talented Isco pulling the strings Malaga may just have a puncher’s chance.
It will take some blow to deal with Dortmund though. They have made ominously relentless progress so far. They finished top of a group containing Manchester City, Real Madrid and Ajax and that deserves respect. Dortmund’s attacking quartet of Jakub Blaszczykowski, Mario Goetze, Marco Reus and Robert Lewandowski can slice through steel and with the Champions League their sole focus with Bayern uncatchable in the Bundesliga they may take some stopping.
The last quarter-final sees Real Madrid face Galatasaray where Jose Mourinho will come up against his former totem at Chelsea Didier Drogba. Mourinho, who could well be in his final season with Real, is desperate for a third European title with as many clubs. He has one or two creases to iron out in his side’s fitful form but as their tussle with Manchester United showed in the last 16 they remain capable winning when not at their most fluent. Like Barcelona they have their own trump in Christiano Ronaldo and, with two wins over Barca in recent weeks, they seem to be timing their run of form nicely.
The turks are one step away from equalling their best ever run in the tournament. But a repeat of their place in the last four in 1989 looks a distant bet. Drogba has been accommodated into coach Fatih Terim’s formation where, unlike his days at Stamford Bridge, he shares the focus of the side’s attacking intentions with Burak Yilmaz rather than forms the focal point. Their impressive away form has got them this far. They will need it like never before to go any further.
Ties to be played 2 & 3 April 2013