It’s that time of the year again! The leagues in Europe are all set for the last stretch of the season – a run of matches that will either make or break a team’s campaign. The players’ mettle, the managers’ job security and the fans’ loyalty will all face the test of a grueling finale that will decide which piece of silverware ends in which club’s cabinet. The Premier League in England, as always, is the toughest to call even though Chelsea sit 7 points atop their rivals with a game in hand because Arsenal are in the form of their lives and are yet to host their “noisy neighbors” at the Emirates. Meanwhile, runners-up front-runners Manchester City have tumbled down the table and are now locked in a fierce battle for Champions League competition with the likes of Man United, Liverpool and Tottenham.
Barcelona lead the La Liga in Spain by 4 points after having beaten Real Madrid 2-1 in the second Clasico of the season. Though it would take a miracle for Barca to surrender a 4 point lead with not more than 8 matches to play, they are showing signs of replicating the uncertain form that plagued the first half of their season. Real Madrid are also starting to pull away from the terrible dip that marred their campaign and are looking like their own selves again. Whilst the traditional powerhouses battle it out for top spot, Atletico Madrid have been resigned to battle with the likes of Valencia and Sevilla for the third place
In Germany, Bayern Munich are marching to a third consecutive Bundesliga shield with a 10-point gap over second placed Wolfsburg who will now turn their attention to cementing their place as 2nd best side against the likes of Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen. The latter is also engaged in a battle with Schalke for the fourth and final Champions League spot. Meanwhile, Borussia Dortmund’s hopes of qualifying for Europe are all but over. Their campaign, which began with a battle for escaping the relegation zone, is all set to die a slow death in mid-table in the 10th position.
Paris Saint-Germain join Juventus and Benfica atop their respective leagues after playing catch-up for most of the season first to Marseille and then to Lyon. With parity now restored, all the three sides will look to finish the campaign without any major hiccups and will certainly want to avoid the attentions of the aforementioned Lyon, Roma and Porto respectively.
Though the final act of the leagues is an entertaining spectacle to watch, it cannot top the extravaganza that is the Champions League. The football world’s attention automatically turns towards the real “champions” stage of the Champions League, the quarter-finals. Eight of the best sides in all of Europe will battle it out for the “Holy Grail” of football. The matches drawn this season are as exciting as ever and recent form suggest no clear winner in any of the ties. Barcelona have once again managed to draw PSG (yes, again!), Bayern Munich will face Porto , Juventus will try to reach their first semi final in ages against Monaco and in the best tie of the round, last season’s final will be replayed in two legs as Real Madrid lock horns with Atletico.
Two teams; two styles; one agenda: revenge!
Real Madrid have played the role of a bully for much of the season bullying opponents left, right and center in all of the competitions they have been a part of. 5-0 and 6-0 victories were a routine in the months of November and December and after a recent blip in form, they have gone back to their smash-and-grab approach with a 9-1 demolition of Granada.
However, like most bullies, Real Madrid come up short when faced with an opponent who is physically and tactically stronger. This season, with alarming consistency, that opponent has been the team who had never previously won against the Blancos since 1997 up to 2013, Atletico Madrid. Atleti have become the proverbial “kryptonite” to Real’s Superman. Out of the 6 matches played between the two capital sides this season, Atleti have won 4, 2 times the teams shared the spoils and Real have come out on top a staggering 0 times.
Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo train at Valdebebas Sport City in Madrid on April 13, 2015 on the eve of their UEFA Champions League quarter final first leg football match against Atletico de Madrid. Photo: AFP
Why, for a team who has scored 89 times and conceded 27, is one single team proving to be so unbeatable? The answer is simple: however talented BBC might be, they just aren’t strong enough to win physical battles against the likes of Diego Godin and Miranda. The young midfield, now sans Xabi Alonso, cannot deal with the tactical breaking up of play by Raul Garcia and Gabi. They lack the steel to respond to the overtly physical tackles and in-your-face attitude of the Atleti “bears”. When Atletico break any sort of rhythm the Madrid players create with tactical fouls and resort to verbal exchanges, the pretty boys of Real lose their heads, lose the plot and consequently, lose the match.
So when the draws were revealed, it was obvious why there was no cheer in the white part of Spain’s capital. Real have to contend with a team they simply cannot seem to break down tactically, physically and mentally on the back of a humiliating 4-3 loss to Schalke at home that left their weakness for all to see and laid the disturbances within the team bare. But, at the same time, there are some positives that Ancelotti can take home.
The loss to Schalke exposed Real’s weaknesses for sure, but it also means they now know where Atleti can hurt them and may be better prepared to deal with such attacks than they were in any of the previous encounters with the Colchoneros. Likewise, they can also take strength from the fact that their last victory against Simeone’s side came when it mattered the most, in the Champions League, for the Decima, when their backs were against the wall. That night in Lisbon is similar in circumstances to this quarter final: time is running out for Real, their backs are against the wall and they have a point to prove; they have revenge to be taken.
The setting is perfect for Carletto’s side: a Champions League tie, where they are more experienced than any other club in the world, gunning for payback, and when their best players are returning from injury and a loss of form. Bale seems to have left his terrible form at the international scene, Ronaldo has burst back into life with 5 goals against Granada and his 300th for the club a game later and the best news for Madrid fans is that Luka Modric is back into the side, in top form and is ready to take center stage. It is set in stone that Modric will be the glue that holds the team together while simultaneously orchestrating the side. If Real can escape with something against Atletico, it is now.
However, the setting might even be perfect for Atletico to have their revenge. They were just a minute away from crowned European champions last season and then were unfairly demolished in extra time when all the players were tired, exhausted and lifeless. Their European season, spotless till the infamous “Minuto 93”, was marred and smeared with “white ink” and the Sergio Ramos header left a scar that no Atelti fan will ever forget. Though last season cannot be undone, Atleti have the chance to inflict similar damage on Real this time around.
Atletico might have beaten Real 4 times this season (6 considering the 2 draws helped Atleti more than Real) but their detractors still maintain that Real were far from full strength on each of the six occasions and that these results do not matter because Atleti flunked on the one result that mattered. This is a chance for Simeone and his men to beat Real at full strength because, even though their players are returning to form, Real are there to be taken. They still haven’t beaten quality opposition this year. Again, if Atletico can ever beat the traditional giants of Europe in European competition, it is now.
It is the ultimate “grudge match”. Both sides hold grudges against each other. When the teams come out first at the Calderon and then at the Bernabeau, it will be no holds barred. Bones are going to be broken, cards are going to be given out, flares are going to be thrown (maybe even boots; remember Arda?), pleasantries are going to be exchanged (if you know what I mean) and revenge is going to be taken. But, there can be only one team who manages to successfully pay back the other: either Real will show once and for all that they are the best team in Madrid when it comes to ‘important’ games or Atletico will avenge the terrible night in Lisbon and get one step closer to finally clutching “big ears” in June.
Prediction: Real Madrid may have quality on every position on the pitch but they are yet to fully recover from the trauma of Jan-Feb-March and hence Atletico will manage to deal the fatal blow. They might not even be the better team after two legs but they will have had a great psychological advantage which will translate itself into the score line.
The romance between a magician and a princess
The love-story between Barcelona (magician) and PSG (princess) continues. After having met a total of 4 times over the last two years, the two league leaders in their respective countries will meet again, the ties tied at a win each and 2 draws. Barcelona managed to secure a 2-2 draw in Paris in 2013 albeit in controversial circumstances and then managed to sneak through into the semis with a 1-1 draw at the Camp Nou, again thanks to some controversial decisions including a failed penalty appeal from the Parisians.
Barcelona's Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez take part in a team training session. Photo: AFP
In what will be a repeat of the heated fixture two years ago, Barca and PSG will lock horns again after having met twice already this season in the group stages. PSG took heart from their previous two encounters for the first leg in Paris beating their opponents 3-2 thanks to an inspired performance from David Luiz, but thanks to him, lost the return leg by 3 goals to 1 a month and a half later, against a top-quality Barcelona side which kick started its top form that continues till date.
PSG not only have to deal with the mesmerizing trio of Messi, Neymar and Suarez but they also have their own problems to contend with. The “phenomenal one” Zlatan ‘Ibra’himovic will miss the first leg in Paris through suspension as will the midfield master Marco Verratti. The absence of Ibra will not necessarily be felt as PSG have proven time and again that they play better in general with more fluidity with the Swedish “God” out of the side but Verratti being out especially for the home leg is going to give Blanc the jitters. After all, he is going to be without his midfield enforcer against the famed might of the Barcelona midfield.
Verratti has been the best PSG midfielder for the past season and a half not only doing his job of keeping out the creative mids and attackers of the opposite side but also assisting the likes of Motta and Matuidi in creating play. The young Italian was his side’s best player in that hard-fought victory against Chelsea in the round-of-16, completely stifling out Fabregas, Hazard and company and suffocating them to a point where Chelsea looked like they were a man down despite it being the other way round. That he will miss the home leg of the tie throws more cold water on PSG’s chance of progressing given the fact that the hero in the Chelsea game, David Luiz, whose header kept PSG in the competition and eventually took them into the semi final, will also be out through injury. Add to that Thiago Motta’s injury and the PSG side not only looks bare, but also ready to be knocked out.
Barcelona on the other hand, though, have no injury problems to contend with and will field their best XI in Paris looking to seal the tie within the first 90 minutes itself. The fabled “MSN” trio will look to feast on the depleted Paris defense especially given that there will be no shield protecting it in midfield. Messi is in the form of his life, creating and scoring goals at will while Suarez and Neymar support him ably. Rackitic is the main man now in the changed Barca midfield set-up and though Iniesta might not have a goal or assist to his name the entire season, he opens up spaces for the aforementioned quartet to leave their mark on any game. Xavi is slowly returning to the form that won the Catalans 3 Champions League trophies in the last 9 years and showing why the board has to keep him at the Camp Nou for at least another season. In short, all is rosy in the garden of Enrique and the coach’s progression to his first semi-final appearance in the competition is more than just evident.
Though Barcelona have the perfect atmosphere to deal a crushing blow to PSG’s hot and cold campaign, they will be wary and should not let complacency sneak in, if they have seen the Paris side’s performance against Chelsea in the previous round. PSG dealt with an unforeseen catastrophe in the best possible way, going more than 90 minutes with a man down and managed to open up the best defensively astute side in the world constantly. They not only created chances but also stopped Chelsea from getting out of their own half in their own stadium and ultimately managed to knock the English side out on away goals. This they did within minutes of losing their best player. Now, they have days to prepare for the loss of personnel.
PSG will be optimistic of progressing through if they can get a positive result at the Parc des Princes. With the cavalry returning for the return leg in Spain, PSG will surely be looking to repeat the result of the previous round – they will look to go through on away goals. Likewise, Barcelona will not be dumbfounded like Chelsea were and will know what they have to deal with surely having been through both their opponent’s round-of-16 games more than once already. If Barcelona can exploit PSG’s weaknesses in Paris and if Messi, Suarez and Neymar replicate their league form at the Parc, surely there will be no way back for Blanc and company in Catalonia despite the return of Ibra and co. due to the simple fact that Barcelona almost always outscore their opponents at the Camp Nou.
Prediction: Barcelona will be ready for any surprises that PSG might throw up and will certainly not repeat Chelsea’s terrible performance against the French champions. PSG’s loss of stars will ultimately accrue to them and Barcelona should have enough talent and form to see them progress to the semi-finals after missing out last season without any major hiccups.
No pain, no gain
Bayern Munich are, like for the past 3-4 seasons, among the favorites to win the Champions League. They have been terrorizing the Bundesliga like never before, currently holding a 10-point lead over Wolfsburg with 8 matches to play. Pep Guardiola’s charges have displayed their attacking might and defensive steel time and again this season, proving why no team can match them player for player. They beat HSV Hamburg 8-0 in the league, followed it up with a 6-0 win over Paderborn and most recently crushed Bremen by 4 goals without reply.
The Champions League has also seen the Bavarians’ flair in the 7-1 and 7-0 demolition of Roma and Shakhtar Donetsk respectively. In defense too, Bayern have been rock solid as the Jerome Boateng-led back line has allowed the ball to fall into the net a measly 13 times in the league while Lewandowski and co. have scored 71 in reply. Additionally, Manuel Neuer has kept a clean sheet on 27 occasions with 6 of those coming in the Champions League.
Bayern Munich's Thomas Mueller and Robert Lewandowski in action. Photo: AFP
After the 5-0 humiliation at the hands of Real Madrid last season, Pep Guardiola has taken it upon himself to make Bayern’s play unreadable for the opposition. The team switches from a back 4 to a 3 week after week, sometimes even in mid-game. It is always a question as to who will line up in attack: Robben, Ribery, Lewandowski, Gotze or Muller? Only Pep knows where Lahm will play – in midfield or at right-back. There are more long balls for Lewandowski to chase, more direct runs from Rob-bery and more counter-attacks. With that personnel strength, those stats and Guardiola’s tactical nuance, one would not have been wrong to think that Bayern were a sure-shot to reach the semis even before the ball had been kicked when they were drawn against Porto.
Porto might just be 3 points behind Benfica in the league and might have had a similar passage to the quarter-finals to Bayern, but there is no doubting that the Porto squad is a David as compared to Bayern’s Goliath. They have a total of 0 players in the squad who have won the Champions League and their coach, Lopetegui of Spain might be considered the next Pep, but he isn’t on the same level as the Catalonian coach yet. They couldn’t beat Shakthar at home, the same team that were brushed aside 7-0 by the German champions just a month ago.
At the same time, Porto showed a touch of class and a performance that would demand respect from every side in the Champions League when they beat Basel 4-0 at the Dragao. Basel might not be in the elite of Europe, but the nature of Porto’s performance – where all their forwards scored, where their best young midfielder Casemiro controlled the pace of the game from start to finish – would have made every team sit up and take notice. Their passing was terrific, they carved open the Basel defense like a poached pear, gave nothing away and were perfectly unshakable at the back. They showed, in that one match, they can mesmerize during open play and also strike venomously on set-pieces. They may even have the best “group” of free-kick takers amongst the teams that are still competing for the title.
But Porto’s biggest advantage comes not from their strength, but from Bayern’s weakness. Bayern might have only 14 fit players to take to the Portuguese city with some of their best players on the shelf. Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger are in danger of missing out on the first leg while the likes of Robben, Alaba, Benatia and Javi Martinez might miss the tie altogether. Further, Lahm, Thiago and Badstuber have just returned from long-term injuries and might not be able to play the full 90 minutes, let alone play at their best. If the scales were unfairly tipped in Bayern’s favor when the draw came out, the loss of these players to injury has lifted the weight and tipped the scales in the balance. Now is the time when Porto will be the most confident of slaying the Beasts of Bavaria. Porto might not be able to match Bayern strength for strength but they have enough prowess to hurt an uncertain defense and can surely keep out an uninspired attack.
The loss of Ribery and Robben in particular is the most dangerous for the Germans, as even Pep Guardiola agreed that the team plays better when the “terrible twins” are in the side. There is simply no other player that can match Rob-bery’s direct running, dribbling, shooting abilities and pace. The play can no longer stretch out wide, the team becomes compact, easier to defend against and more susceptible to quick counters through the center. Lopetegui will surely try to seal the tie in Portugal knowing the capabilities of his players like Martinez, Brahimi, Casemiro and Danilo, especially knowing that Pep Guardiola’s sides have only won 2 away knockout games in this competition (both Bayern and Barca).
However, if there is any team who can forget these injuries and still perform at the expected level, it is Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola and the team knows that at Bayern, there are no excuses. There is no gain without pain. They may have to scramble, crawl and resort to an uncharacteristically filthy style of play to get results – but Guardiola and his team are prepared to do just that. In the last two matches against Dortmund and Leverkusen, Bayern have sat back, waited for the opposition to come at them, the defense has sent long balls over the top. Robert Lewandowski is assuming more importance in attack and his returning to his best form. Tactical fouls have replaced the slick passing and focus has turned from finding gaps in the opposition defense to hackling them and ruining their play. And the best part is, the methods have worked. Bayern won both the games and if they can beat the two meanest, burliest sides in Germany with such tactics, they can surely cause a problem or two for Porto in Portugal, and seal the deal in Munich.
Most importantly though, as Lahm said, the injuries have brought the players closer together. They know they are responsible for themselves, for one another, for the coach and for the injured players. They are more determined to prove Bayern’s worth to the world and show that injuries won’t keep them down. As such, the injuries might not necessarily be a blessing for Porto. But Porto, too, know that there is no gain without pain. They will have to fight for every inch on the pitch, have to chase every ball and have to keep out every Bayern player if they have to have any hopes of making it to the semis. Bayern’s depleted squad might not be the decisive factor but it is an important one. It gives Porto the glasses to see the light at the end of the tunnel, whilst it gives Bayern the strength to come together and face their sternest to date and march on in the hopes of a second treble in three years.
Prediction: Porto might be able to hold Bayern in the first leg but Bayern’s returning players will have too much quality for Porto in the second leg. Bayern will qualify for their fourth successive semi-final appearance albeit with a little inconsistency in their performance over two legs.
The Dark Horse meets the Underdog
Massi Allegri has done in three-quarters of a season what his predecessor Conte couldn’t do in three whole seasons: he’s turning Juventus into a team that can compete in the later stages of the Champions League. Long gone is the day of Allegri’s appointment when the Turin faithful booed him out of the stadium during his unveiling. His struggles with Milan had dented his reputation but after 11 months at the Old Lady, it is no longer a secret that the mediocrity of the Milan squad was holding him back at the San Siro.
Here, at Juventus, with a considerable upgrade in the quality of his players, Allegri has proved that he can compete with the best of the best. He’s not only kept Juventus clear at the top of Italy but he’s also managed to get them into the quarter-final after the disaster of last season and with a fair shot at getting to the last 4 for the first time in years.
Juventus' players attend a training session on the eve of the UEFA Champions League football match Juventus vs Monaco at the "Juventus Training Centre" in Vinovo near Turin. Photo: AFP
Surely the quality of the personnel has helped his cause but one cannot ignore his tactical tinkering that has changed the fortunes of the Italian champions in Europe. Most visibly, he’s changed from a suicidal back-3 to a back-4 which gives the team more width and is better defensive ploy for most teams in Europe like to play wide with traditional wingers bombing down the flanks. The 5-man cluster mid-field has given way for the diamond formation. It allows Pirlo, who is not the fastest of runners, to sit deep and control play while shielding the defense as Vidal and Marchisio act as the enforcers out wide through the center. It gives Pogba, the best box-to-box midfielder in the world, to roam freely on the pitch. Now he can focus on what he does best, instead of worrying about filling the gaps of the imperiously slow Pirlo and Marchisio. The 2 strikers up front have helped the cause by being in-form throughout the season and causing a nightmare for opposition defenses.
Their new style has earned Juventus precious results against the dark horses of the previous two seasons, Borussia Dortmund and Atletico Madrid respectively. After struggling initially against Atletico with a new formation, they managed to hold out a draw, while deep into the season, they absolutely terrorized the Dortmund defense scoring 5 goals past them in a performance which saw them dominate the Germans in defense, midfield and attack and made them look like Parma (who languish 20th in the Serie A). So it is fitting that Juventus now hold the “dark horse” tag for this season. They will take it, surely they can’t be called favorites for they haven’t faced Real, Barca and Bayern yet, but they will be hoping to cause an upset and win the tournament for only the second time in their history. The only thing that stands in their way currently is the joint-best defensive side in the tournament: Monaco.
If anybody tells you they knew Monaco would get to the quarter-finals, they’re lying. They stumbled past Leverkusen and Benfica into top spot in the group, managed to get hold of Arsenal in the pre-quarter draw and in a shock result, beat the Gunners 3-1 at the Emirates: a result that was ultimately good enough to get them into the last 8. Monaco’s strange and surprising progress thus far has been built upon a solid backline that hates conceding goals. The French runners-up of last season had to pick the ball from their own net a grand total of 1 time in six group stage matches. They epitomized the notion that you can’t lose if you don’t concede. They might not have scored goals by the dozen, but that is because they don’t have to. Their defense ensures they can win with only a single goal.
But, they have also been plagued by the injury epidemic that has hit most of the sides in every league this season. Veteran mid Jeremy Toulalan is out as is Geoffrey Kondogbia, who scored the decisive goal against Arsenal that eventually put Monaco through. But the biggest absentee for the French side will be Ricardo Carvalho, who completes the defense and who was an integral part of the side up until now. Monaco might have the financial resources but it hasn’t translated into bench strength to deal with such injuries. Thus, Monaco’s biggest drawback comes not from tactical weakness but from injuries.
They may, however, take heart from the fact that Juventus will be missing better and more number of players, at least for the first leg in Turin. Claudio Marchisio is out for the entire season and the Juventus fans’ hostile reaction towards the national team where the midfielder was injured makes his importance to the team evident. Paul Pogba, for whom 7 different clubs are willing to pay 100 million, is also doubtful as is Andrea Pirlo, which puts the entire midfield into jeopardy without any real conductor, enforcer and playmaker. But, the Italian champion’s biggest problem comes up front. Carlos Tevez, who was having the season of his life, terrorizing opponents left, right and center, and chief tormentor in both games against Dortmund, is in danger of missing the home game against Monaco owing to injury. Allegri will need all the talent he can muster to provide for a creative midfield and finishing spark against the stubborn Monaco defense.
Arsenal though, in their return leg against Jardim’s side, showed that their defense can indeed be breached. They were after all just a goal away from dumping out Monaco from the competition altogether. If Arsenal came close, Juventus can certainly knock Monaco out and progress to the semi-final. Alvaro Morata now has the strength and form to lead the Old Lady by himself and will surely look to etch his name amongst the elite in Turin by dragging the side into the semis. Monaco on the other hand, will be strengthened by the fact that Juventus will not necessarily have the experience and quality in midfield to help break down their defense at least in Turin. And if they can get a result away, they can surely hold on to it at home and get one step closer to unexpected glory.
Prediction: Monaco might fancy themselves thanks to the injuries to the Juventus midfield, but Arsenal proved that a mediocre side can beat them at home. Juventus will be made to work and may even be taken to extra time but the Italian champs surely won’t need penalties to make their first semi-final appearance in what seems like eternity.
Whatever the results, whoever qualifies and no matter the injuries, we are still in for 8 good matches over two weeks. The Champions League never fails to disappoint at this stage of the season. The chilly nights of Europe, the packed stadiums, the Champions League anthem and the fight to get into the top four will make the games must-see. The quality of football on display will be top-notch. In the end, whoever qualifies, we will be in for a roller-coaster ride in the semis as well and hopefully the draw will produce even more interesting and tight matches. The road to Berlin continues…