Champions League 2012-13: Predicting the Eight Quarterfinalists
Euro 2012 may be the main topic of conversation in the world football community right now, but in less than a week the international competition will be over, and the focus will return to club football.
And when that shift takes place, inevitably the conversation will shift back to club football's greatest competition: UEFA's Champions League.
Last year, Chelsea defied the odds to beat both Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their path to the Champions League title, but with the loss of hero Didier Drogba and all the personnel changes at Stamford Bridge, will they be able to compete for the title again?
Meanwhile, the usual contenders will be hungry for another shot at the crown. Real Madrid finally won La Liga under Jose Mourinho, leaving the Champions League as the only trophy left for them to claim.
Barcelona won neither trophy for the first time under Pep Guardiola, and the world waits to see what they'll produce under the stewardship of Tito Villanova.
Finally, Bayern Munich, who heartbreakingly lost the Champions League final on penalty kicks, will be eager to make amends for their past failures.
How many of last year's semifinalists will make this year's quarterfinals, and who will join them? Read on to find out.
1. Real Madrid
We may as well get this one out of the way. Real Madrid are in their third season under Jose Mourinho, and they will be hungrier than ever for the Champions League title.
Whether they get it or not is a different story, but a place in the quarterfinals is practically assured. There are only a handful of clubs which Real Madrid can't outscore to victory, and it's unlikely that Real Madrid will face off against those clubs in a knockout scenario prior to the quarterfinals.
As has been the case for some time now, defense is the biggest concern for Real Madrid. Mourinho needs to decide on a permanent position for Sergio Ramos, and whether or not to invest in a new centre-back or right-back.
Real Madrid's moves to improve their defense could play a big role in deciding if they finally go all the way in the competition after years of frustration.
Like Real Madrid, Barcelona are practically assured of their place in the quarterfinals. Anytime you have Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi in the same lineup, anything less than a semifinal exit in the Champions League is considered a failure.
Heck, some might even consider Barca's semifinal exit to Chelsea last season a failure.
For Barcelona, transfer acquisitions will be an important determinant of the team's success, but ultimately the team's success will come down to how well Tito Villanova can transition from assistant manager to head coach, and how quickly the team can adopt his alterations to the Barca system.
Could we see a repeat of Pep Guardiola's debut season? Unlikely, but you never know...
3. Bayern Munich
Starting over after being on the edge of glory is always difficult, but luckily, Bayern Munich are well-placed to do it. The core of the team remains fairly young, and the team's excellent transfer acquisitions early in transfer season look to have fixed up many of the team's weaknesses from last year.
Claudio Pizarro had an excellent 2011-12 season with Werder Bremen, scoring 18 goals and recording 10 assists, and will be an excellent backup for Mario Gomez.
If that isn't enough depth up front, Bayern Munich are reportedly in talks with Mario Mandzukic of Croatia, current joint-top scorer of Euro 2012 and Wolfsburg's leading goal-scorer last year. Talk about serious firepower.
In defense and midfield, Dante and Xherdan Shaqiri add a great deal of quality to both departments. Jerome Boateng and Holger Badstuber didn't form the most reliable partnership in defense last year, so Dante would be a major defensive upgrade for the Bavarians.
Unless Arjen Robben experiences a major resurgence of form, I don't anticipate Bayern Munich threatening for the title this year the way they did last year. Nevertheless, on paper, they are one of the most talented squads in the CL, and should have little problem making the quarterfinals.
Chelsea's run to the title last year was one of the most unlikely ones seen in years. After barely surviving the group stages courtesy to Didier Drogba's heroics against Valencia, Chelsea overturned a 3-1 deficit against Napoli in dramatic fashion to keep their Champions League title hopes alive.
What followed under Roberto Di Matteo were some of the most defensive, but effective games against the giants of world football. Barcelona and Bayern Munich both threw everything they had—and then some—at Chelsea, but neither could conquer the plucky underdogs from London.
But that was last year, and much can change in the span of a year for a team. Chelsea's biggest hero on 2011-12, Drogba, is gone, along with Jose Bosingwa and Salomon Kalou; both were shown the door after four and six years of service, respectively.
In their place have come in Marko Marin and Eden Hazard, and many more signings are expected as Roman Abramovich and Chelsea enter a new era with a new squad.
Ultimately, Roberto Di Matteo's confirmation as Chelsea's permanent manager should unite the squad, and with Hulk expected to join Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres at Chelsea, progressing to the quarterfinals should be a manageable task for London's richest club.
This is of course contingent on Chelsea making the right signings prior to the closing of the transfer window; the team needs at least one more right-back or centre-back, as well as Hulk, to be considered complete and ready for the new season.
Anything less and Chelsea's chances of qualifying for the quarterfinals drop considerably.
5. AC Milan
AC Milan may have had a disappointing 2011-12 season, but it wasn't because of poor transfer strategy. AC Milan got their business done efficiently, intelligently and early in 2011-12, and have done the same in 2012-13.
Already, the Milanese giants have signed up Riccardo Montolivo on a free transfer and acquired Bakaye Traore, former of Nancy, for free as well. Francesco Acerbi has been added for depth in defense.
Of course, two of those three players aren't known on the international stage, and have much to prove if they hope to get any playing time next season. Even the best free transfers of AC Milan have a habit for backfiring (see: Taye Taiwo).
Still, with Zlatan Ibrahimovic coming off the best season of his career, Alexander Pato returning to full fitness and Antonio Cassano fully recovered from his heart issues, AC Milan once again have one of the most fearsome strike forces in the world, and should perform at a higher level than they did in 2011-12.
Considering they reached the quarterfinals in emphatic fashion (defeating Arsenal 4-0 in the first leg) and were rather unluckily eliminated by Barcelona, Milan should find themselves back in the quarterfinals without too much trouble.
6. Manchester City
If you think about, Real Madrid and Manchester City have followed a similar track over the last few years. Both won the domestic cup in 2010-11, and both won the league in 2011-12. Now both clubs have their eyes on the Champions League title.
After the two La Liga giants, Manchester City are as good as anyone in the CL, and one could argue that they're rapidly becoming good enough to challenge even Barcelona and Real Madrid.
The biggest obstacle that City will likely face is the fact that they are still considered a second pot seed, meaning they'll be put in a group containing one of the traditional giants of Europe.
Should they survive though, I imagine they'll make it to the quarterfinals at least before getting knocked out. And if they can hold on to the likes of Yaya Toure throughout this summer, a run at the title can't be ruled out.
Arsenal have a long way to go before they join Europe's elite, but they look good ahead of the 2012-13 season. With Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud already confirmed as new signings, Arsenal already look significantly more dangerous than they did in 2011-12.
Of course, much still depends on whether Robin van Persie commits to staying with Arsenal or not. If he leaves, Arsenal will be in major trouble, even with Giroud now available as a solid replacement for the centre-forward.
Still, with Jack Wilshere set to make his long-anticipated return to competitive play with Arsenal, and Bacary Sagna also set to return to the lineup after an injury-hit season, things look promising for Arsenal.
Who knows, we may even get to see Abou Diaby feature in Arsenal's oft-injured midfield, and Andrei Arshavin may be given a second chance in Arsenal's attack.
Arsene Wenger faces a long summer of decisions and adjustments to make, but in the end, he's proven his ability to deliver. Arsenal are a safe pick for a quarterfinals berth season after season.
8. Manchester United
There were a lot of teams I was considering for this spot, but ultimately I decided to go with the reliable and experienced Manchester United.
Last season saw Manchester United fail to make the knockout rounds for the first time in a number of years, but Sir Alex Ferguson is one of the best managers in the game, and isn't a man to repeat the same mistakes twice.
He has already invested in Shinji Kagawa of Borussia Dortmund, and reports are stating that Robert Lewandowski could be United's next transfer acquisition of the summer.
I'm doubtful that that transfer will happen, especially given SAF's pragmatic approach to squad-building, but anything is possible, and certainly United's added hunger in the transfer market shows that United mean business and will be fighting for silverware next season.
Especially with Nemanja Vidic back at the heart of United's defense next season, it'd be ridiculous to expect United to repeat their failings of 2011-12 once again.
They won't be good enough to challenge for the CL title without major changes, but they certainly should be good enough to make the quarterfinals, especially under SAF's leadership.
There are a number of really good teams who'll be in the CL next season, but won't be good enough to make the quarterfinals in my opinion. Here's the reasoning for their exclusion:
Borussia Dortmund have won the Bundesliga two years in a row now, but they failed to impress this past season in their return to the Champions League.
With Shinji Kagawa gone, and Lewandowski rumored to be heading for the exit door, it'll be hard for Dortmund to repeat their past success or improve on their Champions League performances.
Juventus have finally re-established themselves among Italy's elite, but they're still a few signings away from being big threats on the continental stage. The team still lacks a dependable centre-forward, and without one I don't expect them to progress far in the Champions League.
Furthermore, they've been seeded in pot three for this year's Champions League, meaning that they'll like be included in this year's Group of Death. Not good for their chances of making the knockout stages.
Paris Saint-Germain may have Carlo Ancelotti, a Champions League expert, as their manager, but they're not even officially the best team in their own domestic league yet.
PSG failed to impress last year along with Borussia Dortmund in the CL, and even with Ezequiel Lavezzi, they still lack a dependable centre-forward, much like Juventus. Furthermore, they'll be included in either pot three or pot four for the CL group stage draw.
None of that bodes well for their hopes of a deep run in the Champions League.