The UEFA Champions League began with 32 teams from various nations across Europe battling hard for the right to be called champions come May. In the group stages, there were some outstanding results as well as upsets, but after a grueling six-match phase, the men were separated from the boys as 16 teams moved on to the next phase, eight teams were granted solace in the Europa League and eight other teams went home with nothing.
In the course of the first knockout round, a few sides gave good accounts of themselves, while others fell by the roadside.
When I saw the draw between Juventus and Celtic, I didn’t need any soothsayer to tell me how that would pan out, and as expected, the Old Lady gazumped past the Scottish champions with a 5-0 aggregate victory. I didn’t know what stood out more for Juve—their efficiency in attack or their amazing defense.
Schalke were rewarded for topping a group that included Arsenal with what seemed like a stroll in the park against Galatasaray. After gaining a creditable draw in the volatile Turkey, complacency crept into their game in Germany and they were duly punished.
Elsewhere, PSG gave a good account of themselves against Valencia, and Malaga showed good form to overturn a solitary deficit and skip past Porto. Many Manchester United fans would be grieving from the events at Old Trafford, but credit must go to Jose Mourinho for taking advantage of the situation.
Germany’s contingent has been impressive, as Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich are also in the last eight of the competition. While Dortmund can boast alongside Juventus for being unbeaten throughout the competition, Bayern can thank their lucky stars that their first-leg showing against Arsenal was more than enough to seal qualification.
No one gave Barcelona a chance after they were humbled in the San Siro, but the greatest footballer on the planet started a rout that saw the Spanish juggernauts sweep past Milan.
The draws of the quarterfinals have been held, and there are some mouth-watering fixtures as well as those that seem like strolls in the park. Without further ado, here are my thoughts and predictions for the quarterfinal draws.
Jose Mourinho is tipped to make history in the Champions League this season
Galatasaray would even consider a quarterfinal berth as a great achievement, but nine-time champions Real Madrid stand in their way for a place in the last four.
With the shrewd acquisitions of Didier Drogba and Wesley Sneijder to add to the likes of Burak Yilmaz, Felipe Melo, Emmanuel Eboue and Hamit Altintop, it’s fair to say that Fatih Terim has assembled a formidable side, but I can’t see them going past mighty Real Madrid.
Mourinho has a hunch that La Liga is beyond his team, so he’ll divert all his attention to the Champions League while waiting for a derby clash against Atletico Madrid in the Copa del Rey final. The Portuguese tactician’s star-studded squad is a favorite to go beyond Galatasaray and advance all the way to Wembley.
Winning the competition will put Mourinho in the history books as well, as he would be the first manager to win the competition with three different clubs—something to add to his impressive CV.
In what would seem like a fairy tale, Mourinho will also come against three players he managed in three different teams—Drogba from Chelsea, Sneijder from Inter and Hamit Altintop from his current team, Real Madrid.
Prediction: Real Madrid victory
This Dortmund team oozes exciting, young talent
I first knew about Manuel Pellegrini when he managed the Yellow Submarine of Villarreal. He managed a team that achieved a massive second-place finish in La Liga, but I ran out of superlatives for him when he guided his Spanish outfit to a semifinal Champions League place before losing to Arsenal.
The Villarreal class of ’06 had the likes of Diego Forlan, Jose Mari and, of course, the legendary Juan Roman Riquelme, but Jens Lehmann’s brilliance in El Madrigal ensured that his team booked a place in the final at Paris.
Pellegrini’s adventure ended in Villarreal, and he made a big step up to Real Madrid with a plethora of superstars to work with, but his failure to win La Liga after so much money was spent didn’t go down well with the Real Madrid hierarchy and he was sacked.
Right now, Pellegrini manages a Malaga side sitting at fourth place in La Liga. Unlike Arsene Wenger, who has enough money in the coffers but chooses not to spend, Pellegrini’s hands are tied with a thick rope stronger than what the Philistines used on Samson.
Due to financial woes, Malaga sold big names like Santi Cazorla, Salomon Rondon and, more recently, Nacho Monreal, but the club has coped admirably with their losses, even to claim a quarterfinal berth after suffering a first-leg defeat to FC Porto.
Malaga's talented youngster Isco has been a shining light for the club, and he is now on the radar of “bigger” European sides, so it will be hard for the club to retain his services this summer.
Borussia Dortmund, on the other hand, has the finest breed of upcoming youngsters, as well as some experienced figureheads with verve for attacking football.
Jurgen Klopp has done brilliantly with BVB, winning back-to-back Bundesliga titles, but his team has resigned the league to rivals Bayern Munich this season, as they are 20 points behind the runaway Bundesliga table-toppers.
In the Champions League, Dortmund stunned the football world by topping a group that had the likes of Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax. Their knockout-phase victory over Shakhtar Donetsk was massively impressive, but it was overshadowed by the events that took place in Old Trafford on the same night.
The fixture between Dortmund and Malaga won’t be a stroll in the park for either side, but I’ll bet my smart money on the German outfit that has been very impressive in Europe’s elite competition this season.
While Roman Weidenfeller orchestrates his back line with his vital experience, there are not many center-backs better than Matts Hummels in the business, and he even has the reliable Neven Subotic by his side. Lukasz Piszczek and Marcel Schmelzer are maturing to become great full-backs in the making, but the wealth of talent in Dortmund’s midfield is unbelievable.
Ilkay Gundogan and Nuri Sahin are ranked among the world best-cultured midfielders, while Sven Bender and Sebastien Kehl are good enforcers on their days. The exciting duo of Mario Gotze and Marco Reus can shatter any defense, and there is also the goalscoring threat of Robert Lewandowski.
Malaga might boast about Isco, as well as their experienced strikers in the forms of Roque Santa Cruz and Javier Saviola, but I believe that Dortmund will be more than a match for the Andalusian outfit.
Prediction: Borussia Dortmund victory
Money has become one of the major prospects in football, but in reality, it’s not a guarantee for success. An Arab sheik or a Russian oligarch might have the funds to buy 10 Lionel Messis, but it still takes the right manager to guide that club past the finishing post.
If you want to search for practical examples, you can look no further than Chelsea, Manchester City and PSG.
Since Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003, he has changed more managers than the number of times babies change diapers. His aggressive style of leadership has seen his side shift the balance of power from Manchester United and Arsenal, as his Chelsea side has won the Premier League on three occasions.
With the kind of money the Russian billionaire has pumped into his team, you would expect them to challenge for all fronts, but this season his team is scarping for fourth place in the league. His side also made history for all the wrong reasons, as they became the first defending champions to crash out of the first hurdle.
Manchester City is another club that has been injected with some serious oil money since 2008, but they have only a FA Cup and a league title to show for it. If Roberto Mancini was under Abramovich’s payroll and failed to qualify to the knockout round for two seasons in a row, he would be searching for a new job.
Paris St. Germain is a team on the rise, and with Carlo Ancelotti at its ranks, it has attracted many superstars from Europe. Look no further than the talismanic Swede Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Alongside Lucas Moura, Javier Pastore, Jeremy Menez and Ezequiel Lavezzi, the Parisian side has a strong attack, but it’s also noteworthy that they have a fine goalkeeper in Salvatore Sirigu, as well as solid center-backs like Thiago Silva, Mamadou Sakho and Alex.
However, PSG is coming up against a Barcelona side that needs no introduction.
Despite the shortcomings at the back (I have my doubts in Victor Valdes’ ability in goal, Javier Mascherano is error prone in defense and both full-backs, Jordi Alba and Dani Alves, bomb forward while neglecting their defensive play), Barcelona has the most talented midfielders in business.
Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta are ranked among the best passers in the business, and in my honest opinion, Sergio Busquets is one of the most underrated holding midfielders in the game.
In attack, they have a David Villa who is finding his form again, and of course, football’s very own version of black magic, Lionel Messi.
On their day, PSG is a force to be reckoned with, but over the course of two legs, I can’t see them getting past the tournament favorites, Barcelona.
Prediction: Barcelona victory
Andrea Pirlo has been a vital cog in Juventus' engine room
This is by far the most mouth-watering draw of the quarterfinals.
On the red corner, you have a team that has come so close to winning the Champions League only to be dealt massive blows by the opposition. As far back as 1999, Bayern Munich was odds-on to win the Champions League, but two quick-fire late goals handed Manchester United the title.
In 2010, Diego Milito’s brilliance was the difference between both sides, but it was a more painful affair last season, as the Bavarian outfit lost the Champions League final at home after losing the lottery of a penalty shootout.
This season, Jupp Hecynkes made some modifications to a squad that was second-best in every competition they played last season, and he has gotten his fair share of revenge against Dortmund, as Bayern knocked them out of the DFB Pokal and hold a massive 20-point lead over them in the Bundesliga.
When Bayern was paired against Arsenal in the first knockout round, they put up a great show at the Emirates, but if football didn’t favor the away goal rule, they would have entered extra time with the English side, as they were on the end of a 2-0 loss at home.
Like all German sides, Bayern’s play has been downright efficient as they dispatch teams with clinical accuracy while creating records on the go at the back.
Ex-Bayern legend Sami Kuffour’s fears have been realized, as they have been drawn against the Italian superpower Juventus.
Antonio Conte’s side made history last season by going through the entire campaign unbeaten with the only loss coming in the Coppa Italia final to Napoli in the last game of the season.
Conte has revolutionized the 3-5-2 formation and has also done well to use the personnel that act as round pegs in round holes, as the Old Lady is now a force to be reckoned with.
Giorgio Chiellini, Leandro Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli have become a reliable and cohesive unit in front of legendary goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. In front of them is the amazing Andrea Pirlo, who unlocks defenses like a hot knife through butter.
Pirlo also has Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal offering support in midfield, and while many people think that Juventus still needs a figurehead in attack (Fernando Llorente will solve this), Mirko Vucinic, Sebastian Giovinco and Fabio Quagliarella have done their bits in making Juventus’ attack formidable.
It’s going to be very hard to confidently make a prediction for this tie, but after seeing Arsenal teach Bayern a football lesson in their backyard, I’ve come to the conclusion that Bayern's defense is not as impregnable as people make it seem.
It’s true that Manuel Neuer is one of the best goalies in the business, and I’m a huge admirer of Dante, but I still have my concerns about Daniel van Buyten and Jerome Boateng. Bayern has some fine attackers in their ranks, but they can be profligate at times, and it could be their own undoing against a clinical side like Juventus.
I’m sorry, Bayern Munich fans, but I’m with the Old Lady on this one.
Prediction: Juventus victory
After sharing my thoughts and predictions, I strongly feel that after the quarterfinal fixtures, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Dortmund and Juventus will be the last teams standing.
I won’t make any predictions for the team that will win the competition yet. That’s for another day.
Are my predictions the same as yours? Do you have different views?
Feel free to share them with your comments.