Champions League – Who Will Triumph?

In this mid-week edition, I will run the rule over the four teams that progressed through to the quarter finals of the Champions League, looking at the reason why each team could win, but also, why they might stutter in the next round.

Arsenal

Perhaps paired with the kindest draw of the last 16, given Porto, as I pointed out in previous blogs, do not travel well, I would not read too much into the Gunners emphatic 5-0 win over the side in third place in the Portuguese league. However, I will credit Arsenal for beating what was put in front of them. The much-maligned, often-ridiculed Nicklas Bendtner silenced a few critics with a hat-trick, though the show was stolen by an absolutely sublime effort by Samir Nasri – please youtube it. Personally, I think Bendtner is a good player and is actually a key player for Arsenal. Statistics corroborate this idea. Arsenal win percentage without Bendtner over the last 50 games is 52%. With him in the side, it rockets to 76%. By way of comparison, in the same period with Arshavin in the side – 66%, Fabregas – 64%, van Persie – 52%. One could pick through the statistics, but Bendtner does have a positive impact on the side. He is an excellent physical presence, in the sort of way Emile Heskey is for England, except the big Dane does have an eye for goal, though his performance in the last league game displayed finishing akin to that of a child with a plate of broccoli. I was also glad to see Emmanuel Eboue score. Do not get me wrong, he has a history of possessing a nasty, cheating side that disgusts even the most hardcore Arsenal fan, but his introduction for Rosicky added pace and directness that the Czech midfielder just does not give to the team. I have felt for many years that Rosicky is a square peg in a round hole at Arsenal.

Why Arsenal can win the Champions League

While they did possess the easiest group and last 16 draw, Arsene Wenger’s charges have disposed of everything put in front of them with a degree of maturity, avoiding the proverbial banana skin and showing a little more directness which has been missing in their game. With talismanic skipper Fabregas to return and the team galvanised in the league, now hot on the heels of the leading pair, the Gunners have real momentum on their side. Bendtner is finding his feet as the spearhead of the attack and is in a hot streak of form.

Why Arsenal cannot win the Champions League

Well, it is hard to judge their performances in the Champions League so far. They have not faced Europe’s elite yet – beating an expectedly diabolic Porto side at the Emirates is not really what I would call a major achievement. Had they beat them in the Dragao, then that would be a little more impressive. When challenged with the top two domestically, Arsenal crumbled on three out of four occasions, and on the other, they did not deserve to lose at Old Trafford, but did so anyway. Wenger’s post-match desire to face Chelsea or Manchester United is not a reality the Frenchman wants to face, because both sides have the gameplan to nullify his fledglings. Furthermore, I look at Manuel Almunia and just cannot see him shutting out the best attacks in Europe. Put another way, the draw will have to carry on being kind to the Gunners. Also, Arsenal need to ensure they do not revert to type by trying to score the perfect goal – a sure way of elimination.

Overall

The fans have been grumbling about five years without a trophy, so the pressure is on for Wenger’s men to deliver. The manager will talk about the potential of his side until he is blue in the face, but there is only so long that one can talk of potential – now is the time for it to be fulfilled. I fear that they might fall short once again.

Bayern Munich

I thought it was a little harsh for the Fiorentina fans inside the Artemio Franchi to shout that the Germans were “thieves”, but you can understand their frustration. Ultimately, Miroslav Klose’s offside goal in the first-leg eliminated the Viola, despite the 3-2 home win against the Bavarians. While luck was a major factor in Bayern’s progress to the next round, Arjen Robben’s rocket that gave the German’s the second away goal was scintillating.

Why Bayern Munich can win the Champions League

Louis van Gaal’s CV suggests that he is a man with the right attributes to lead the German powerhouse all the way, having done so with Ajax in 1995. Bayern are looking down on the rest of the Bundesliga and have put together a long domestic unbeaten run that stretches 18 games. The side has shown admirable mental strength after being completely outplayed by Bordeaux, only to then go to Juventus and dump the Old Lady out of the competition. Every side needs a bit of luck to get through to the final and it looks fortune is favouring the Germans. van Gaal has a settled side and, provided he can keep them both fit, the wing combination of Ribery and Robben is the best in Europe at the moment.

Why Bayern Munich cannot win the Champions League

The last German side to progress beyond the quarter-finals was Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Bayern had a massive slice of luck in the Allianz Arena three weeks ago and may be their luck will run out in the next round. Bayern will want to avoid Barcelona, provided the Catalans progress, as they were pasted by them in the Camp Nou 4-0 last year. The defence, in my opinion, might not stand up to the best in Europe.

Overall

Bookmakers have priced Bayern at 11/1 to win the competition. It is not a bad price for a side that does have quality. Much depends on the draw, but I would love to see Bayern and Arsenal lock horns.

Lyon

Did Madrid press the Pjanic button or what? I was probably a victim of being seduced by the manner of Real’s comeback without putting into perspective their season so far. I also was sloppy when failing to realise that Xabi Alonso was suspended for the second-leg – having seen how Madrid played, you could see they missed him, as he dictates the play from deep like no other. They destroy the smaller teams, but tend to concede against the better ones. Bosnian playmaker Miralem Pjanic ensured that Real’s curse of failing to progress beyond the last 16 since 2004 continues. To be fair, having soaked up the pressure from the Spanish league leaders, after the equaliser, Lyon should have won the game, had it not been for wasteful finishing by the visitors. However, the huge turning point of the match was Gonzalo Higuain’s inexplicable miss. The Argentine forward, the same one I purred about a couple of weeks ago, rounded Hugo Lloris and, with the goal gaping, proceeded to hit the post. Unbelievable.

Why Lyon can win the Champions League

No-one really expected them to progress. 1-0 was a great home result, but many expected Real to roll out the big guns and demolish the French side. How good is this Lyon side? Well, they have strength all over the pitch. The defence is capable (yes, that includes Jean-Alain Boumsong, I know, but honestly, he seems to be a different man to the one we saw at Newcastle) and they have an excellent keeper in Hugo Lloris behind them. I am a massive fan of midfield anchor man Jeremy Toulalan and my admiration of him went up a notch last night, as he played the second-half out of position at centre-back, after Boumsong’s withdrawal for what I assume was injury, and looked assured and composed. Jean Makoun was off-colour last night, but he, along with Toulalan and Pjanic look an excellent trio in the middle, and they also have guys like Kim Kallstrom and Maxime Gonalons to bring off the bench. Up front, the pair of Lisandro Lopez and Cesar Delgado have been a revelation together. Eyebrows might have been raised when Lisandro was brought in to replace Karim Benzema, but the former Porto man has done magnificently well. Delgado had a rough start to his time in France, but Claude Puel is really bringing the best out of the Argentine striker.

Manager Claude Puel is the mastermind behind an excellent team. It is true that they are not setting the pace in Ligue 1, fighting probably for third, but that is perhaps because in France, the onus is on Lyon to break teams down. In Europe, they can play on the counter-attack a lot more, which suits the players and the tactics Puel employs. Puel is the former protégé of Wenger – I would not be surprised to see the student topple the master if the two should meet.

Why Lyon cannot win the Champions League

Lyon have had better sides in the last few seasons that have failed to win the competition – think Juninho, Essien, Benzema, Abidal etc. Furthermore, as shown in Ligue 1, there is a good way to nullify Lyon, which is to put the onus on them to come out and play. Real could not do this because they had to chase the game. Domestically, they are in a real scrap to ensure they qualify for next year’s competition.

Overall

Provided Bordeaux beat Olympiakos as expected, France will have two teams in the last 8 – one more than Italy, who might not even have any if Inter lose to Chelsea. Claude Puel is a manager who I am a fan of and his side will give their all, but it is hard to envisage them winning it.

Manchester United

Wayne Rooney is now on 30 goals for the season – an incredible feat for a striker who many considered previously as one who would never be prolific in his career. Rooney’s brace really showed his maturity into the position of lone frontman. The first was an excellent header – another one – after Gary Neville’s superb cross, though one must look at Ronaldinho’s refusal to defend as a key reason why the United skipper had the time and space to deliver such a good cross. Nani laid on the second with a majestic outside-of-the-boot pass into the path of Rooney who beat Christian Abbiati to the ball and rolled it under the Italian custodian. Both goals showed a fantastic goalscoring instinct and technical ability to finish. Ji-Sung Park, excellent again in his role of marking Andrea Pirlo, added a third after neat pass from Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher, tireless as always, added a fourth late on after a brilliant cross from substitute Rafael. For Milan, the highlight was probably David Beckham’s substitute cameo in the second-half. It was great to see the former United player get such a great reception from the home fans and he nearly grabbed a scorcher of a consolation with a fierce right-foot volley from 25 yards out. Had it been either side of Edwin van der Sar, Beckham would have scored again at Old Trafford.

Why Manchester United can win the Champions League

In the last three years, United have reached a semi-final, won the competition and lost the final. They have the experience in the squad to do it. Wayne Rooney is, along with David Villa, the best striker in the world. They are going well in the league and just secured the Carling Cup, which would give them confidence for the remainder of the season. Ferguson seems to have a squad that, despite not possessing many ‘big names’, allows him to adapt his tactics to the opposition he faces. Ferguson has Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand back together in the heart of the defence, so this should help them immeasurably provided they both stay fit. He had Ryan Giggs to return, Nani is showing, with more frequency now, that he can deliver, Antonio Valencia is consistently providing good service for Rooney and Darren Fletcher is fast becoming one of the best all-round midfielders out there.

Why Manchester United cannot win the Champions League

If Rooney gets injured, what happens? Dimitar Berbatov gets a lot of undeserved criticism, but he is not a striker who can lead the line alone like Rooney does. Injuries have plagued the English champions this season, robbing them of their best right-back John O’Shea, which could be crucial as Rafael’s inexperience and Gary Neville’s lack of pace might hinder their hopes against a team which has pace on their left side – Bayern Munich? Juventus were the last team to reach three successive finals from 1996-98, winning one and losing two. Also, let’s not forget – Milan were a shambles and really showed their age. United got a slice of luck with Scholes’ equaliser three weeks ago and Milan, in the first half of that game, could and should have had a bigger advantage, had it not been for their own profligacy.

Overall

If you looked at this squad on paper, you would say that they have no chance of winning anything this season and they probably would not even get close. But, they are in a scramble for the league and have been excellent in the Champions League with a tricky group and last 16 draw. If Wayne Rooney stays fit and in form, then the Red Devils always have a chance of winning.

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