Beware Barça's attacking intent and Germany's poor relations
Today's Champions League draw is dominated by the English, but who will they want to avoid? Glenn Moore looks beyond these shores
Friday 20 March 2009
It is tempting, in the light of this month's extinction of Italian hopes, and slaughter of Real Madrid, to suggest that the English quartet of clubs have only each other to fear at today's Champions League quarter-final draw. After all, last season Arsenal were only knocked out by Liverpool, who were only knocked out by Chelsea, who were only knocked out by Manchester United, who won the pot.
And then you remember Barcelona. The La Liga leaders have scored 28 goals in 10 European ties this season; and for good measure have also scored 91 in 35 games at home, where they are already in the final of the Copa del Rey. Barça are not quite in the form of autumn, but they are showing ominous signs of regaining it. If there is reason for optimism it is that they have conceded 43 goals in those 45 games. Carles Puyol, Rafael Marquez, Eric Abidal and Daniel Alves are not collectively the same standard as Lionel Messi, Samuel Eto'o, Thierry Henry, Xavi et al, especially in a side whose licence to attack is underlined by the rampaging runs of Alves. Furthermore, the team that takes the headlines pre-Christmas in the Champions League is rarely the side that takes the trophy.
Another familiar name to be wary of is Bayern Munich, even if they are simply relieved to be there. The four-time winners have not reached the last four since winning the Champions League in 2001 and for a while it seemed Bayern would go the same way as another great European marque, Ajax, confined to the margins by the economic inequalities – in Bayern's case the restrictions on outside investment in German clubs. Bayern still do not pay the wages, or transfer fees, of English clubs, but they have stretched the budget, on playing and coaching staff, and are reaping results.
Not that the return was immediate. When the nights began to lengthen last year Germany's most famous club were in disarray. While Hamburg, then unheralded Hoffenheim, led the Bundesliga, Bayern stumbled from crisis to crisis. The choice of Jürgen Klinsmann as coach seemed as odd as his decision to erect four porcelain Buddhas on the roof of the training complex to "spread positive energy". An ignominious end beckoned. Bayern slipped to 11th, even losing 5-2 at home to Werder Bremen. Then Franck Ribery recovered fitness and Bayern began winning again. They now trail only Hertha Berlin at home, and beat Sporting Lisbon 12-1 on aggregate in the last round in Europe. Like Barcelona, they have goalscorers, Luca Toni, Miroslav Klose, even Lukas Podolski has managed to put aside thoughts of his summer return to Cologne.
Which leaves the Iberian outsiders, Villarreal and Porto, whom Uefa will be praying do not get drawn together. Villarreal are hard to beat. Porto represent the one team from outside the big economic markets. That they are in the last eight, while all Italy's representatives are out, is a triumph in itself.
With four of the eight remaining teams it is likely that two English clubs will meet, as Arsenal and Liverpool were at this stage last year. On this season's form Manchester United would prefer to meet Chelsea, having lost to Arsenal and Liverpool (twice). Chelsea, having lost to all three rivals under Luiz Felipe Scolari, will simply hope that Guus Hiddink – and the equally significant return to fitness and form, respectively, of Michael Essien and Didier Drogba – renders previous form irrelevant. And neutrals, after so many turgid encounters, will hope Chelsea and Liverpool avoid each other.
Champions League best: Winners (1992, 2006)
Last five years: DNQ, 16, W, 16, SF
How qualified: Third (Spain)
Teams knocked out: Wisla Krakow, Shakhtar Donetsk, Basle, Lyons
Current league position: 1st
Coach: Josep Guardiola; Passing midfielder who stepped up from the 'B' team to become coach, his first senior job, in the summer. Making a stunning start. Catalan nationalist.
Key player: Lionel Messi, Argentine forward whom, though only 21, is arguably the world's best player. Very skilful with a low centre of gravity which makes him hard to dispossess.
How are they doing? Had a sensational autumn, winning matches in style, but have struggled to find that fluency since the winter break. Yet, they impressed in defeating Lyon 6-3 on aggregate in the last round and Thierry Henry seems to save his best for Europe. Plus Samuel Eto'o is rejuvenated, Xavi is peerless, Yaya Touré is eclipsing his brother and Daniel Alves is a revelation.
Champions League best: Winners (1974, 1975, 1976, 2001)
Last five years: 16, QF, 16, QF, DNQ
How qualified: Champions (Germany)
Teams knocked out: Fiorentina, Steaua Bucharest, Sporting Lisbon
Current league position: 2nd
Coach: Jurgen Klinsmann; Followed a glittering playing career, as a striker with Bayern and others, by retiring to the US. Returned to take Germany to a World Cup semi-final. First season at Bayern.
Star player: Franck Ribéry, very talented French attacking midfielder signed from Marseilles in 2007. Bayern's mid-season recovery dates from his return following injury.
How are they doing? Not quite the irresistible force their thrashing of Sporting Lisbon would suggest but running into form at the right time. Like Liverpool and Man Utd, they are unbeaten. Experienced midfield and a cutting edge in attack but doubts about Michael Rensing in goal, and the back four in general. Very reliant on Ribéry.
Champions League best: Winners (1987, 2004)
Last five years: W, 16, Gp, 16, 16
How qualified: Champions (Portugal)
Teams knocked out: Dynamo Kiev, Fenerbahçe, Atletico Madrid
Current league position: 1st
Coach: Jesualdo Ferreira; Had a quarter-century's coaching experience, in 11 jobs, when he arrived at Porto in 2006. On course for a hat-trick of domestic titles.
Star player: Lucho Luis Oscar Gonzalez, to give the Argentine his full name, is a versatile midfielder used as a playmaker by Porto, more prosaically by the Albiceleste.
How are they doing? Useful at home, technically good with a decent spine, but they lack depth and quality. The only survivor from Porto's 2004 vintage – Jose Mourinho's finest achievement – is Pedro Emanuel, a defender who was on the bench. At centre-forward is the Hulk, a Brazilian 22-year-old who is promising, but not incredible.
Champions League best: SF (2006)
Qualified: Second (Spain)
Teams knocked out: AaB Aalborg, Celtic, Panathinaikos
Last five years: DNQ, DNQ, SF, DNQ, DNQ
Current league position: 4th
Coach: Manuel Pellegrini; Chilean who spent his entire career in South America before, aged 51, joining Villarreal in 2004. Has taken them to unsurpassed heights.
Star player: Santi Cazorla, attacking midfielder, 24, who caught the eye in Spain's 2008 European Championship win. Stunned Real Madrid by rejecting them this summer.
Overview: Looking to better their 2006 run when only Jens Lehmann's penalty save from Juan Roman Riquelme denied them a final place. Besides Cazorla they have Euro 2008 winners Marcos Senna and Juan Capdevila, plus Giuseppe Rossi, prospering having left Old Trafford, and Robert Pires, still showing glimpses of his Arsenal form.
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