Champions League quarterfinals: Storylines, picks for power clashes
Although the Champions League draw kept the three most-fancied teams apart, there is no shortage of fascinating storylines going into the first legs of the quarterfinals this week. How will David Moyes fare against Pep Guardiola? Will Victor Valdes' injury harm Barcelona against Atletico Madrid? Does Borussia Dortmund have the depth to overcome absences and contend with Real Madrid? Will Zlatan dare to take PSG by Chelsea?
Here are the key matchups to look out for this week, along with predictions for who will advance to the semifinals:
Manchester United vs Bayern Munich, Tuesday, 2:45 p.m.
Drawing Manchester United was what every remaining team wanted, and that in itself says something about just how far the team has fallen under David Moyes this season. Think about teams that have won the Champions League against the odds in recent years and there's Inter Milan in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012, but both were far better sides than this United one.
The numbers tell only half the story, as Bayern averages over 250 passes more per game than United, and averages 2.9 goals per match this season compared to United's 1.5. The way United's season has gone, with every fleeting high being followed by a more damaging low, things do not bode well ahead of the visit of the reigning European champion, even it is without the injured Thiago Alcantara.
After United's comeback win against Olympiakos came the toothless defeat at home to Manchester City; a 4-1 win over Aston Villa at the weekend restored flickering hope, but what awaits Tuesday? Bayern captain Bastian Schweinsteiger spoke last week of his team's desire to make history: "No one has retained the Champions League for 21 years and that's our motivation," he told France Football.
Schweinsteiger has spent his whole career at Bayern and is keen to follow in the footsteps of Franz Beckenbauer and Karl-Heinze Rummenigge: "It is a long way off, but it would be funny to lead the club in 20 or 30 years in the company of Philipp Lahm and Thomas Müller, for example." An interesting prospect, indeed.
And while every time United meets Chelsea, it's an opportunity for the fans to wonder what might have been as Jose Mourinho prowls the Old Trafford touchline, so too this tie has a "What if?" tinge. Could Pep Guardiola have been a United coach? Maybe, but Bayern moved faster. The biggest knock the German press has found on Guardiola is that his German has decreased in quality since his first press conference at the start of the season. Too much time working on the team and opponents, not enough time learning the language.
"This is the single criticism of Pep in Bayern's latest championship season," wrote Suddeutsche Zeitung with tongue in cheek. "When Pep says 'top-top-top,' it's better than 'top-top,' and 'top' is better than 'super-super-super,' which is better than 'super-super.'"
At least Pep has been able to use those words to describe his team. Moyes can only dream of it.
Tipped to progress: Bayern Munich
Barcelona vs. Atletico Madrid, Tuesday, 2:45 p.m.
Twelve months ago, Barcelona almost lost to Paris Saint-Germain at this stage of the competition, as Lionel Messi's hamstring injury saw him limp out of the first leg. He returned as a sub in the second game and turned the match around. Another injury could derail Barcelona's European season after Victor Valdes' knee injury pushed Jose Pinto, 38, into the most important period of his career.
Pinto has been Barcelona's reserve keeper since joining in 2008 and his overall record - 62 goals conceded in 79 games (he normally starts Cup games) - at 0.78 goals per game is exactly the same as Barcelona's league game game average for the same period, with 174 conceded in 221 games. And yet Pinto gives encouragement to the opposition: put simply, he is nowhere near as good as Valdes; not as clever with his distribution, nor as smart with his feet, and not as safe a goalkeeper.
There are also concerns over his back, which leaves Oier Olazabal, 24 and with one Barcelona appearance in his last six years, as first-reserve. Barcelona's defense has been a worry all season, but it was never between the sticks; now it is.
Atletico, meanwhile, continues to defy expectations and remains on top of La Liga. The Spanish side has won the Europa League and the Copa del Rey in recent seasons and believes those knockout experiences will help this week. The 0-0 draw earlier this season showed there is very little between these sides, but the Valdes factor might just swing it.
Tipped to progress: Atletico Madrid
Real Madrid vs. Borussia Dortmund, Wednesday, 2:45 p.m.
The quest for La Decima, Real Madrid's 10th European Cup in its history, has become even more important after recent Liga defeats to Barcelona and Sevilla left the team three points behind Atletico in the title race. The Spaniards know all about Dortmund too, after four matches last season in which it won only once (group games finished 1-2 and 2-2, the semifinal 1-4 and 2-0).
Dortmund's injury-ravaged squad will be without six of the starters from last season's semifinal, with Neven Subotic, Ilkay Gundogan, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Marcel Schmelzer injured, Mario Gotze now at Bayern and, crucially, four-goal hero Robert Lewandowski suspended. No wonder coach Jurgen Klopp has called his team "the Cinderella of this tie."
And despite that, Dortmund is still on course for its targets this season: second in the league, in the Cup final, and Europe's last eight. For Madrid, captain Iker Casillas comes back into the side, and there are many suggesting he should stay there for Liga games, too. Normal No. 1 Diego Lopez conceded six goals from his nine shots received in those two defeats, which is why 85 percent of the 32,000 fans polled by Spanish newspaper AS voted for Casillas to start all Madrid matches (as opposed to the figure of 59 percent back in August).
Lopez was back in goal for Madrid's 5-0 rout of Rayo Vallecano. Marca has preferred to pin the blame on coach Carlo Ancelotti, pointing out that "with the Italian in charge, Real chokes against the big teams: they have been incapable of defeating Barça (two games) and Atletico (another two), as well as failing to win away against three of the next four teams in the table."
The wobble will encourage Klopp, but it would still take some performance to get past Real Madrid over two legs.
Tipped to progress: Real Madrid
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Chelsea, Wednesday, 2:45 p.m.
This tie, between the two sleeper teams ranked below the favorites for the competition, is the tightest to call with the data-crunchers at Bloomberg Sports giving PSG a 51 percent chance of progression. Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, who this season has depicted his oligarch-owned team as standing no chance against the might of state-owned Manchester City, reckons PSG's chances are ever greater.
"They are the favorites," he said disingenuously after the quarterfinal draw. He even claimed that Chelsea playing the second leg at home, usually seen as an advantage to the host, will actually count against his side, "because if it goes to extra time and PSG scores, that goal will count double."
That's true twisted logic, Jose-style. He has also begun his charm offensive towards Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who has scored 40 goals in all competitions this season (only Ronaldo has more) and is finally ready to bury the hoodoo that follows him in this competition: only one semifinal appearance, and that in his miserable year at Barcelona, and before this season, with just five goals in 30 knockout matches.
He has 12 goals in seven European games this season and is chasing down Ronaldo's tally of 14.
"Ibra was already the player he is today during the two seasons that I played with him in Milan," said PSG captain Thiago Silva. "The difference is that this squad is stronger than we had in Milan."
His outspoken agent, Mino Raiola, went even further, claiming that Ibrahimovic is "Platini, Van Basten and Pirlo rolled into a single player."
PSG will know all about Chelsea's danger-man Eden Hazard, twice winner of Ligue 1's Player of the Year award. Its players have claimed "he is just the type of player we need at PSG," though any attempts to sign him this summer will be rejected by Chelsea. Just like Mourinho, though, Hazard is too canny to slam the door shut on a future move to Paris. His former Lille teammate Aurelien Chedjou, now at Galatasaray, warned PSG that this Hazard is far better than the one who last faced them in December 2011.
"He is much stronger now and you can sense that the whole team has confidence in him," he told Le Parisien. "As soon as he touches the ball, there's danger."
Tipped to progress: Paris Saint-Germain