While the next phase of the 2012-13 UEFA Champions League does not begin until after the New Year, on Thursday afternoon, football lovers from across the globe will tune in to find out the draw for the Round of 16, making their best predictions as to what clubs will sink or swim in pursuit of European glory.
However, while it may seem a bit premature, the matchups for the knockout rounds probably matter very little this season. In fact, it might be safe to just place your money on Barcelona right now to take home the trophy, then save yourself the mental anguish of figuring out who else will meet them in the final.
It will not matter.
Although there are always those terrible flukes when a team defeat the Catalan giants by parking the bus and exploiting the counterattack on the few occasions they pull out of their own half—for example, last season's away loss to Chelsea, which eventually damned Barcelona to elimination from the Champions League—this year, the team are possibly so unstoppable not even that can prevent them from ultimately claiming victory.
On no occasion in Europe this season have they genuinely been outplayed, as they were in the 2-1 away victory against Real Betis in the league two weeks ago.
In Group G of the CL, Barcelona finished first on 13 points with a 4-1-1 record. Their only loss came to Celtic at Hampden Park, although Barcelona out-possessed (66 percent to 34 percent) and outshot (25-3) their opponents. The other setback was a 0-0 draw against Benfica on the final day of play, when Barcelona fielded a team with four reserve team players in the starting 11 (Martin Montoya, Sergi Roberto, Carlos Planas and Rafinha).
Aside from those two results, the Catalans have been spectacular. Especially Lionel Messi, who scored five times in the group stage and already has 34 goals in all competitions this season.
In the league, they have been more dominant; undefeated in 16 matches, with only one draw against Real Madrid to tarnish a record of pure victories. The fact that this was accomplished with one of the most unnatural defenses in world football makes it even more spectacular. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique, the only experienced centre-backs in the first team, have only features in seven and 10 matches, respectively, leaving midfielders Alex Song, Javier Mascherano and wingback Adriano playing all along the backline for much of the season.
Aside from Messi's record-breaking brilliance (the Argentine already has more goals in 16 matches than he did in the 2008-09 season and every one prior to that campaign), Barcelona also feature two of the most exciting and creative attacking midfielders on the continent in Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas, who have contributed 12 and 10 assists each in all competitions.
That also doesn't take into account the contributions of Pedro, who has looked out of form despite his eight assists and two goals, David Villa (eight goals, three assists), Xavi (four goals, five assists), Adriano (six goals, one assist) and the fluid integration of new signings Jordi Alba and Alex Song into the Barcelona system of short-passing and possession football.
All in all, it would be pretty silly to bet against the team that have won two of the last four CL competitions and have claimed trophy after trophy under the guidance of Pep Guardiola and now Tito Vilanova.
Even when taking into account the potential of some of the most exciting and attack-minded teams left in the competition, Group Death winners Borussia Dortmund, last year's losing finalists Bayern Munich and oil-rich Paris Saint-Germain, it seems hard at this point to rule out another Barcelona victory.
On Thursday, the Catalans will draw one of the second-place finishers aside from Celtic, Real Madrid, and Valencia, leaving Porto, Arsenal, Milan, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Galatasaray as potential opponents to prepare for in the first leg of the Round of 16 in late February.
There certainly is quality left in the competition. And viewers would love to see some delicious upsets and storylines, especially following the shocking, but not entirely unexpected exit of title-holders Chelsea in the group stage.
But at this point, it's hard to imagine any team toppling the Catalan giants.
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