With the final set of last 16 games complete and the draw for the quarter and semi finals having just taken place, we now know the route that each of the final eight must take to get to the final of the Uefa Champions League at the Santiago Bernabeu.
A recap of the draw:
Lyon v Bordeaux
Bayern Munich v Manchester United
Arsenal v Barcelona
Inter Milan v CSKA Moscow
Semi Final Draw
Inter Milan/CSKA Moscow v Arsenal/Barcelona
Bayern Munich/Manchester United v Lyon/Bordeaux
Quite a few talking points so I will start off with perhaps the tie of the round, which will see friends reunited as Arsenal will try to stop the holders Barcelona. Of course, Thierry Henry will come against his old side, as will Arsenal skipper Cesc Fabregas, who has been linked with a return to the Camp Nou for some while now. It is a mouth-watering draw for football purists – two sides who love to get the ball down and play. As a neutral, I cannot wait to see these two sides lock horns.
A more pragmatic manager than Arsene Wenger might look to alter his tactics for the two games as both sides employ a very similar style of football – short passes and neat interplay between mobile, technically gifted midfielders and forwards. One might revise their choice of tactics when facing Barcelona because a midfield trio of Iniesta, Xavi and Yaya Toure (or Sergio Busquets) is better technically than Fabregas, Diaby (though Wenger could use Nasri, Denilson or Rosicky here) and Song. Arsenal could play on the counter-attack, but Wenger, in my opinion, will once again place his perpetual faith in his team. I think the issue for Arsenal is that their style will allow Barcelona to exhibit the full repertoire of the Catalans talents. The Gunners are definitely a step up in competition relative to Stuttgart, who Barcelona danced all over en route to a convincing 4-0 win in midweek. The game was interesting as it was one of the first times in this season’s competition that Barcelona did not come up against a side determined to park the bus in front of the goal and frustrate the Spanish champions. Arsenal, as I have mentioned, will not do this either. While it might appear a daunting prospect for Arsenal, the fact that they will fight fire with fire might work to their advantage, especially if William Gallas recovers from injury to replace the creaky Sol Campbell, because, while Messi et al. will provide a stern test for Arsenal, the English side themselves can get at the Blaugrana’s backline, which, let me emphasise, is not impregnable. Furthermore, Wenger will do well to look at how Manchester United have played against Barcelona in both 2008 and 2009 – Wenger must ensure his players do not allow Xavi and Iniesta to dictate the pace of the game, as they did in 2009, or else his side will be chasing shadows against a team that has averaged 67% possession in their matches so far in the competition. Instead, like United did in 2008, Wenger should employ Song and Diaby to disrupt the rhythm of Barcelona.
Inter Milan have got the tie that everyone wanted – a pairing with CSKA Moscow, the rank outsiders in the last eight and the surprise package thus far, having beaten a highly-fancied Sevilla side in Andalucia 2-1 (though, Andres Palop had an absolute howler with Keisuke Honda’s free-kick that ended up being the winner). CSKA have just begun the new Russian league season last weekend. Now, this can work in one of two ways: either Inter will have a match sharpness advantage or CSKA will be fresher as their players have had a break. Against Sevilla, the latter seemed to be the overriding factor. I did chuckle when the Guardian’s journalist Rob Smyth suggested that Inter would get pasted by Chelsea 3-0 prior to the Italian champions actually winning at Stamford Bridge 1-0 thanks to a clinical finish by Samuel Eto’o in a match that saw Jose Mourinho utilise an attack-minded 4-3-3 formation to exploit both Chelsea’s need for a goal and their injury-hit defence. It is mainly due to the Nerazzurri’s performance over the two legs that they have now shot up in many people’s estimation as serious contenders for the competition. Let us not forget that they struggled in a group with another Russian side, Rubin Kazan, and Dynamo Kyiv and they have been hauled back in the Serie A title race after a run of one domestic win in six outings. Perhaps this has had a positive effect though, as Inter have coasted to the title in previous seasons, with the final months being nothing short of a formality. Personally, I still fancy Inter, given the experience of Mourinho and the quality of the squad, but do not count out CSKA. They have some excellent individuals – Milos Krasic and the much-improved Mark Gonzalez, new signing Keisuke Honda and a competent finisher in Tomas Necid. CSKA have been lucky, however. As I mentioned earlier, the Sevilla victory was fortuitous, as was their qualification to the last 16, with a second-string Manchester United side trouncing Wolfsburg in Germany – a highly unlikely result. Inter will miss Lucio and Thiago Motta in the first leg, but more of a concern would be if something happened to Wesley Sneijder, who seems to be the only one in the squad who can link defence and attack.
France, along with England, is the only country to have two teams in the quarter-finals. Some may see it as a shame that Lyon and Bordeaux will meet, but I think it is positive for French football as we are guaranteed a French team in the last four. Both teams are embroiled in a fascinating six-way battle for the Ligue 1 crown, held by the tightest defence in the Champions League this season, Bordeaux. Many people are expecting the winner of this quarter final to be defeated by the winner of the Bayern Munich/Manchester United match. I, for one, do not hold this view. French football is clearly on its way back up. Lyon have eliminated both Real Madrid and Liverpool, albeit the latter is a very poor side in comparison to the one we have seen in previous years. Bordeaux were drawn in a tough group, but topped Bayern and Juventus, albeit, again, the latter have been shocking this season. This battle between the last two champions of France will be fascinating. They have met once this season at Lyon’s Stade Gerland, with the visitors and reigning champions triumphing 1-0. I expect two more tight battles as the managers, Claude Puel and Laurent Blanc, will look to nullify the threats of the other. A lot will rest on the battle between Lyon anchorman Jeremy Toulalan and Bordeaux playmaker Yoann Gourcuff. If Bordeaux’s talismanic midfielder can win that battle, he could really test Les Gones defence and look to release his sides attacking full-backs. Furthermore, dead ball situations might be key in this game – Bordeaux have scored 8 out of 12 goals from set plays. If Toulalan can shackle Gourcuff, expect to see Pjanic, the hero of the Bernabeu result, pull strings of his own and in Lisandro Lopez and Cesar Delgado, Puel’s charges have two strikers who have demonstrated a propensity to score goals.
Finally, in a rematch of the 1999 final, Manchester United meet Bayern Munich. I think both sides will be happy with this draw. United should look at the centre of Bayern’s defence and believe that Wayne Rooney will get more than enough chances to score the goals to send the English champions through. Furthermore, Sir Alex Ferguson showed against Milan that he has a squad capable of nullifying star players. He utilised Ji-Sung Park in a role to solely track and disrupt Andrea Pirlo. I would not be surprised if he does the same, using Park and Darren Fletcher up against the wing wizardry of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. However, Bayern will strongly believe that their good form and dangerous wing pair will be sufficient to test United. Furthermore, United’s defensive disruptions means that the wingers, along with attacking players such as Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez, Miroslav Klose and Ivica Olic, can get at a United backline lacking a dependable right-back. If Bayern can stop Rooney, they might be able to stop United.
United are overwhelming favourites with the bookies to reach the final from this half of the draw. One reason why is that Bayern were incredibly lucky to reach this stage – Klose’s winner in the first leg, the goal that ultimately sent Fiorentina out, was visibly offside. That said, United were lucky in the first half of the first-leg, with Milan’s profligacy sparing United a serious deficit. Both teams are battling for their domestic titles, though Bayern are in the driving seat, something United are definitely not in given their difficult run-in.
This is where I (potentially) embarrass myself.
I have Barcelona to beat Arsenal. I think Arsenal will get a result at the Emirates, but will ultimately succumb to the sheer difference in quality in the second-leg.
Inter should beat CSKA, though I think it will be anything but straightforward for the Italians.
It is hard to call, but I feel that Lyon will just edge Bordeaux. I think Lyon have more experience than Bordeaux and have more match-winners in their side. That said, it is tough to separate these two.
I fully expect Bayern Munich to give Manchester United a rough ride in the Allianz Arena and would not be surprised if the Bavarians took a lead to Old Trafford. However, United are formidable at home and can take apart the best of sides, so I think they will go through.
On to the semi finals and in an upset result, I expect Inter to nullify Barcelona and for Jose Mourinho to lead a side to the Champions League final for the first time since 2004, thus robbing us of a potential rematch of last year, as I feel that United will beat the winners of the French quarter-final. That said, United against Inter would be a fascinating final in its own right and one that I would love to see.
It promises to be an excellent month or so of Champions League football.
Finally, a notice for the readers of this blog – I will be writing one blog a week now given Easter, essays, dissertation and exams. I probably won’t be doing a weekly round-up, just a mid-week feature on an interesting issue arising from the European game.