Friday, March 21, 2014

2013-14 Champions League Quarterfinal Draw Reflections

Football fans all over the world were waiting in excitement for the quarterfinals draw of the Champions League, as the octet of teams remaining featured some of the biggest names that this stage of the competition has seen in a while. After all the hoopla in the buildup, the draw itself was done and dusted in 12 minutes. Here, I provide some quick reflections on all four match-ups.

Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid

The Blaugrana’s immediate focus will be on Atletico’s neighbours in the upcoming Classico this weekend. Barcelona have shown flashes of their imperious best in the past two weeks, scoring goals to complement some of their sublime midfield play. Crucially Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta have been playing with the handbrakes off, and when that is the case it is extremely hard to stop Barcelona.

Atletico on the other hand have leapfrogged Barca as Real Madrid’s closest competitor in the race to win La Liga. After an underwhelming start to the year, Diego Simeone’s men seem to have got things back on track, winning three consecutive games in La Liga and defeating AC Milan over two legs of an entertaining round of 16 encounter in the Champions League. Like Messi, Diego Costa has regained his mojo in March, grabbing games by the scruff of the neck, in the process gaining crucial points for Los Colchoneros.

It’s slightly underwhelming when teams from the same league meet before the semifinals of the UCL, but with three Spanish teams in the draw, there was always a chance of a La Liga derby. Atleti will approach the match with no fear as is customary for Simeone’s men. The three matches they have played against each other this season have all ended in draws, and only 2 goals have been scored. I think therein lies an indication of how this affair might pan out, where goalscoring opportunities are going to be at a premium. The obvious narrative is that Atletico will make things difficult by being physical against Barca, denying them space in midfield and defending resolutely. However, I think Barca’s monopoly of the ball also renders Atletico’s main attacking threat of playing through balls ineffective. It is for this reason, coupled with Barcelona’s midfield supremacy that I see them prevailing against Atletico over two tense matches.

Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund

At the time of writing Real Madrid have gone 32 games unbeaten. On the other hand, Borussia Dortmund have lost two consecutive games at home. Injuries have decimated BVB this season with Jurgen Klopp missing five first-team regulars throughout the campaign. As admirable as Klopp’s ethos is, the backup at Dortmund is simply not good enough to perform consistently at the highest level of the game.

Meanwhile Carlo Ancelotti has quietly developed an efficiency to Los Blancos play, with the front three of Cristiano Ronaldo, Gareth Bale and Karim Benzema having developed a fantastic understanding. Not only are the “BBC” scoring regularly, but they also manage to find each other with good passes consistently. Behind the trio, Luka Modric, Angel di Maria and Xabi Alonso are a formidable triumvirate in midfield. Alonso is the zen master dictating the flow of play, Modric is equally at home releasing key passes to the forwards or coming back and helping Alonso, while di Maria is darting through balls from the centre of the park at will. Even the defence is now looking settled after some scares earlier in the season.

Last season, Dortmund and Real played a classic semifinal, with the underdogs riding on Robert Lewandowski’s four goals in the first leg to clinch a place in the final. The Polish striker will be suspended for the first leg, only adding to the feeling that Real will be too strong this time around. Despite the injury crisis, Klopp’s men will not make it easy, but Real’s variety of difference makers should see the Madridistas reach the semis for a fourth consecutive campaign.

Paris St. Germain vs. Chelsea

A clash between two of the richest clubs on the continent is the one that has got the most attention of the neutrals. Under the tutelage of Laurent Blanc, PSG have looked at their most cohesive since the QSI takeover. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s form has been obvious for everyone to see, but it is the work of midfielders Marco Veratti, Blaise Matuidi and Thiago Motta that has made the French champions play fluid football. Alex and Thiago Silva have an excellent understanding at the back, with young protege Marquinhos also performing to a high standard whenever he’s been called upon.

Meanwhile Chelsea have been operating in clockwork fashion since the turn of the year, the only blip coming in a shock defeat against Aston Villa. Like all Jose Mourinho teams, Chelsea’s foundation is based on a solid defence. John Terry and Gary Cahill are in excellent form, as are full backs Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta. Further up the field, Eden Hazard and Willian have been difference makers, and against Galatasaray Oscar seemed to have woken up from his slumber as well.

I think this match is a tricky one to call. Both midfields are pretty robust, and it is hard to see the away team winning in either leg. I think Mourinho will want to prove a point in this encounter, and that coupled with the fact that the second leg is at Stamford Bridge, should see Chelsea edge through.

Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich

It’s hard to believe that many are predicting this match between two of the giants of the game to be the most one-sided. That’s how far Manchester United’s stock has fallen in this most gloomiest of transition seasons after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Even in their comeback against Olympiakos in the second leg at Old Trafford, there were signs of vulnerability as David Moyes reverted to a default safety first approach. As many have wisely pointed out, if Olympiakos can have you on the ropes at Old Trafford, what chance do United have against Bayern’s excellent midfield.

I could use a lot of words in a comparison between the two teams across all positions, but suffice to say Bayern Munich are the clear favourites. Of course, one could fall prey to underestimating their opponents, but Pep Guardiola will ensure that there is no complacency amongst his players. Can David Moyes pull of the greatest coup by overcoming Guardiola? Not a chance! Bayern to make into the semi’s for the third successive year.
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