Every year when the time comes for the Champions League quarterfinal draw I spend countless hours thinking about who I would like Barcelona to face. There is usually a distinct line between the teams I would like to face, and the teams I would rather avoid – the blanks and the bullets, respectively. This year is a bit different as Barcelona is accepted in many circles as the clear favorite. This doesn’t mean we are looking at a gun full of bullets – anything can happen in the Champions League and it would be foolish to take any of our potential opponents lightly. With that said, let’s take a look at the teams still in the competition.
Barcelona: Suffice to say, we are the bullet in this year’s edition of the Champions League.
Tottenham: Tottenham is an interesting team. They denied AC Milan even a single goal in the last round, yet they have only maintained a clean sheet in 5 of their 28 Premier League games. A Tottenham – Barcelona draw would certainly be exciting; Tottenham has an attacking mindset and they score goals, but they also sport a notoriously leaky defense. Against Milan they looked to play the ball wide and make crosses to the 6’7″ Crouch lurking at the back post. Van der Vaart has been successful creating in the hole behind the strikers and according to Capello, Bale is the best player in the world. Harry Redknapp has certainly crafted a successful and entertaining squad, but the team lacks experience at this stage and that will ultimately prove to be their kryptonite.
Schalke: When you look at this list of teams Schalke stands out as the weakest. Schalke is currently lounging in 10th in the Bundesliga, and although they knocked out Valencia it was a closely fought affair. If you stopped me on the street and asked me to name Schalke players I could give you Raul and Huntelaar. Raul has been rolling back the years with 13 goals in all competitions, including 3 in Europe. Huntelaar has added another 3 and Farfan is leading the team with 4. Looking further back Neuer is a beast between the posts and he could certainly cause our forwards some headaches – especially if we are as profligate as we were in London.
Shakhtar Donetsk: Ahh, the undeniable dark horse of the competition this season. Lucescu has built a really cool team that relies on the grit of their eastern European players and the flair of the many Brazilians at the club. Their intriguing style and the fact that they are the home of the ex-Barcelona player Chygrynskiy has me hoping they do well (aka we don’t draw them). They score goals from all over the field; with 18 goals in Europe this season and not one player with more than 4. Having won the last UEFA Cup in 2009 they are no strangers to the European stage. They haven’t lost at home since October 22, 2008, despite moving to their shiny new Donbass Arena in that period. That is not a home record to be trifled with. Their recent 6-2 aggregate win over Roma was reminiscent of how we were beating teams in ’08-’09, and on their day they could beat any team left in the competition.
Inter Milan: My blood pressure still rises when I think about Inter knocking us out last year, and I’m torn between wanting revenge and thinking it is too soon to see them again. Although they limped through the first half of their season, they have been much better since the winter break (and the departure of Benitez). Samuel Eto’o, a man close to my heart, is their obvious danger man and with 8 goals in Europe he is tied for the lead with our very own Messi. They like to play a physical, fast brand of football and this is they type of football that can cause us trouble. While they had trouble with Bayern, the fact that they were able to pull through when it counted is a testament to their mental strength (who said tough men don’t cry?) The team is hitting form at the right part of the season and they have the quality to make a serious push for the trophy.
Manchester United: Although currently leading the Premier League, United isn’t the feared powerhouse they were only 3 seasons ago. Their long unbeaten run in the league covered up some of their weaknesses, but the cracks are starting to show. Rooney has been a shadow of himself, their center midfielders are either old or not of the highest quality, and their defense has cracks whenever Ferdinand or Vidic is out. It’s not all bad for United though, as Hernandez has an eye for goal like I have a nose for freshly baked brownies. They also have the mental toughness of a battle hardened Marine, and it is this quality more than anything else that makes them so dangerous. They know how to win even when they aren’t the better team on the day, and that separates the winners from the losers in the Champions League. Despite this, their lack of quality compared to United teams of yore will cause them issues this season.
Chelsea: Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea. Here is a team that causes us trouble pretty much every time we play them. It’s been a roller coaster type of year for them, both in terms of results and because they spent a ridiculous amount of money on Torres and Luiz in the winter window. The squad boosts some big names but they are rapidly aging in some key areas (Terry and Lampard) and Ancelotti seems to be having trouble finding the right formation to effectively fit in all those big name players. Anelka has been their danger man in Europe with 7 goals in 7 appearances. A comfortable 2-0 aggregate win over Copenhaven doesn’t tell us much about their prospects, but all the other evidence seems to suggest they are at the beginning of a rebuilding period. I’m of the opinion that they missed their window to win a Champions League and may have to wait a year or two for the window to open again.
Real Madrid: For the first time in 7 years we have the chance to face Real in the Champions League (ohhh burn!). As it is hard to not follow their result in La Liga and we have already faced them once this season (with two more already guaranteed), I’m not going to go into detail about how they play other than to say I think they are a better team when Ronaldo isn’t on the field. Although the possibility of a manita of wins against our bitter rivals is enticing, I would prefer not to draw them. The longer they remain in contention for the Champions League, the more worn out they will be in the league race. It is also just more fun to play a team that we aren’t guaranteed to play at least twice every season.
My personal blanks: Tottenham, Schalke, Manchester United, Chelsea
My personal bullets: Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan, Real Madrid