Champions League draw sets up a potentially epic Real-Barca final
Wow. I'm not sure the Champions League draw could have been scripted any better. Real Madrid and Barcelona can't meet until the final. And that's good because a 2011-12 Champions League decided by a clásico, the seventh of the season, would be unprecedented and special, not to mention "right" in the sporting sense: these two are the best teams in the world right now.
But that's a hypothetical. We're not there yet, of course. Barca and Real still have to play their way to the Allianz Arena in Munich. And there's plenty that can go wrong between now and then.
Real Madrid, on paper, has an easy ride. APOEL is dwarfed by Jose Mourinho's troops in every possible way. The Cypriots have been good as well as lucky to get this far. There's no shame there. You need both qualities and, just as important, you have to be clever enough to seize the opportunity when good fortune presents itself. Even if Ivan Jovanovic's crew has proved that the gap between the haves and have-nots is not as large as we would like to believe, let's not kid ourselves. It would take the biggest upset in the history of the game for Real Madrid to go out in the quarterfinal.
Bayern is also highly favored against Marseille. Coach Didier Deschamps' team was near the relegation zone earlier this season, and even though things are now somewhat better, there's a woeful inconsistence hovering over this team. On the other side, the Bavarians have -- in public anyway -- given up on the Bundesliga title and put their eggs in the Champions League basket. Up front, Bayern is devastating, especially now that Mario Gomez is back scoring freely, Arjen Robben is fit and Franck Ribery is having a career year. At the back, it can get jittery, but there's always Manuel Neuer between the sticks, and the knowledge that he can single-handedly carry a team, like he did at Schalke last season, should put Bayern at ease.
Barcelona faces Milan in a replay of their group-stage clash which ended with the Rossoneri getting a point at Camp Nou but getting beaten at home. Pep Guardiola greeted the draw with his usual stoicism: "It doesn't matter who you face, if you want to be the best, you have to beat everyone."
But there's one player Guardiola always wants to beat. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was brutally critical of Guardiola after the Swede's disappointing spell at Barcelona, and clearly, their relationship is a subtext that can't be ignored. Ibrahimovic is not the most consistent of performers. If he's on top of his game, he presents serious matchup problems for Barca defensively. If he's not, the risk is he'll either try to do too much or wither and disappear as he occasionally does.
If Guardiola opts to ramp up his possession-style with Thiago and/or Cesc Fabregas in the lineup -- a favored tactic of late -- things can get very hairy for the Rossoneri, who really aren't built to defend in that way.
And then there's the Leo Messi factor. He has 52 goals (in all competitions) already this season which means he's on his way of producing soccer's equivalent of Michael Johnson's 19.32 or Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game.
Superstitious Chelsea fans may want to remember what happened the last time the club replaced a Portuguese coach with a member of staff amid much controversy: Avram Grant got the club to within a missed penalty kick of winning it all. Nobody expects Roberto Di Matteo to replicate that, but, on paper, the club is well placed to give it a go. Since they sacked Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea have shown more cohesion and a bit more tactical sense. It's still a badly assembled team with aging players and it probably needs to be blown up and rebuilt in the summer. But you'd still expect Chelsea to get the better of Benfica. Experience matters as do match-winners and Chelsea has plenty. On the other side, Jorge Jesus' crew is very adept at minimizing their mistakes and exploiting those of their opponents, as they did against Zenit in the last round and Manchester United in the group stage. Is that enough to reach a Champions League semifinal? Probably not, unless the opposition plays its part.