It's that time of the year again, when the birds are singing, the lambs are springing about, and the flowers are starting to...uh...flower...that we talk to resident Bleacher Report football writers about their club's fortunes (and failures) in club football's premier competition, the Champions League.
Joining me today are: "His Esteemed Awesomeness," Arsenal Community Leader Mohammed Eldin Masri (or "Mo-Mo" as I am told his favourite auntie likes to call him), Bayern and German football expert Samrin Hasib, Barcelona's Anurag Bhatt, and Chelsea co-Community Leader Salomon Gonzalez.
As you can see, a recurring theme as we go through this competition is the roundtable getting smaller and smaller as teams get knocked out (or worse, get trapped into this weird little-known offshoot of the CL, the "Europa League") and as a result we've seen many cherished faces we've come to love and regard here disappear.
Today at this roundtable I will be resuming my role as UEFA's designated representative having seen our boys in action against the Brazilians (the friendly was kind of like a reward for not making it to the World Cup for us).
So without further waffling, let's begin!
Matt: We know all about the results by now so what I really want to know is how you felt about the performance. Do you think your team deserved it? Let's start with, for tradition's sake, Barcelona, the current champions.
AB: The first leg had me really worried because the team seemed completely out of sorts. Barcelona was outplayed in the first half by an inspired-looking Stuttgart side and the scoreline could have been much worse at the end of the half.
The second half was more like it but the team still seemed rusty and were lucky to take an away goal back to the Camp Nou along with a rather favourable 1-1 scoreline.
The home leg was a completely different story. A completely different set of teams seemed to show up from the first leg. Despite losing Xavi to a training injury, Barcelona rode on superb performances from Messi and Toure to blow Stuttgart off the park.
Messi was particularly devastating with two great goals and was quite unlucky to miss out on his second hat trick in three days. The 4-0 score at the end of the game was a fair reflection of the performances of both the sides.
All in all, Barcelona were lucky to come out of the away leg with a comparatively poor performance and showed that champions make their own luck in the home leg.
Matt : Like Barcelona, Arsenal were favourites for their tie too, but it went somewhat pear-shaped in that first away leg too .
MEM: Yes, Arsenal were screwed in the first leg, courtesy of an Irish-hating referee (Matt's note : Martin Hansson, a man whose dubious knowledge and interpretations of the offside and "handball" rules is terrifying at these levels of football ), who is always only a few seconds away from controversy, but the Gunners were able to crush the Portuguese champions in the Emirates Stadium.
They played like men, and showed their true potential.
Matt: More away day trouble for Chelsea first leg. Ironically, however, in this case many observers seen the away sides', Chelsea's, performance in Milan as superior to their performance at Stamford Bridge.
Would you agree with this sentiment Salomon?
SG: Well let's get one thing out of the way. Inter deserved to go through. It's been a while since I've seen my team so comprehensively beaten.
I thought Chelsea did enough in the first leg to suggest we would run out comfortable winners back at the Bridge, but who can argue against Mourinho? The man has proven time and again that he delivers when the pressure is on.
I think the image of Mourinho frantically urging his players on while Anchelotti stood there muted, unable to inspire his players tells the whole story.
Chelsea, despite having a lot of the ball, lacked ideas and Inter were so comfortable at the back it was painful to watch.
Having said that, I always thought that the longer the second leg stayed 0-0, we had a good chance of sneaking a goal and winning the tie, but overall Inter just wanted it more than Chelsea and were far superior in every area of the pitch.
Matt: What are your thought on Bayern's tie with Fiorentina, Samrin? It looked like it could either way right until the end in that one.
SH: I think that the result was deserved. In the first leg, Bayern didn’t play particularly well but were clearly the better attacking side. There were two offside goals in the tie.
People just point at Miro Klose’s one. What nobody talks about is Stevan Jovetic’s second for Fiorentina in the second leg which was scored after an assist from Gilardino from an offside position.
In the second leg, Bayern came back from the dead to grab two goals and see the match out and this just shows that they were the better team over the two legs.
Matt: OK, so we know now how you felt about the performances, but what were THE performances to remember?
Who was your MVP over the two legs? Back to you Anurag.
AB: Definitely Lionel Messi. I have run out of superlatives to describe my favourite player's excellent run of form. Recently, he has often been carrying the team single-handedly through games.
His performance in the second leg was devastating and demoralising for any opposition. The Stuttgart defense was left feeling completely and utterly inadequate as he ran at them and despite being covered by four defenders, and fired an exquisite shot past Lehmann. His second goal was the result of a back heel by Alves and a superb turn to wrong foot the defender covering him.
Messi was also responsible indirectly for Pedro's goal. He played Toure in with a Xavi-esque lob, who then crossed the ball for Pedro to finish in an empty net.
MEM: Well,the first one didn't really have any heroes, but I'd go with Campbell; his goal was a testament that he actually hasn't lost his heading ability, and his tackles were spot on as well, the back pass was not a pass at all (he touched it by accident), and the referee showed no signs of decency, and gave Porto a free second goal.
Gee whiz, I would really like to think Nicholas Bentner or Samir Nasri were my heroes of the second leg. Bentner's pink boots enthrall me while Nasri has never ceased to amaze me with his running. I think we are blessed having those two in the team. Particularly Bentner.
It's hard to remember what that team looked like without him.
(Matt's note: The second paragraph may or may not be fictionally attributed to MEM in a hurry, outside of the two names mentioned)
SH: It has to be Arjen Robben. He scored a goal in both matches and ultimately turned out to be the difference between the Viola and Die Roten.
SG: First leg: Lucio. Second leg: Sneijder.
Matt: Wow, Salomon, I guess we can take it you really liked what you said about Inter over those two legs against your team; which brings me onto my next question about how you thought the opposition played. I know this is going to be painful for you reliving this, Salomon.
SG: A catalogue of bad performances led to our demise. Firstly, Anelka has no idea where he is supposed to be playing and has a habit of going "walk about" in crucial matches.
Now, Drogba is usually good enough to carry the burden on his own and has been doing it all season, but when faced with not one but two strong world-class defenders, Drogba found himself banging his head against a brick wall. He needed some help and Anelka was nowhere to be found. Even saw him receive a square pass from Mikel once which shows how ridiculously deep he was coming.
Secondly, our midfielders have been misfiring for some time now and out-run and out-smarted.
Lampard, despite some pretty impressive stats, is having an under-par season and Essien was hugely missed because he would have kept Sneijder on a tight leash, just like he kept Steven Gerrard quiet for 120 mins last season.
Ballack was his usual self—awful—and Mikel, though talented, still has quite a way to go before he can be considered a top player. It's worth noting that the refs in both legs, though not horrible, were pretty iffy and called a lot in Inter's favor.
Matt: Very succinct summary. Credit where credit is due. What did you make of your opposition guys, keeping in mind your team beat them...eventually!
SH: Fiorentina played to their potential. They lost because they never wanted to attack in the first leg and because they missed golden chances in the second to close the game out.
Bayern played well in the second leg; that being said, they were lucky to progress.
MEM: Quite simply, Arsenal were more dedicated. Porto's goals were a gift from the Arsenal players, a mistake that must not be repeated at this stage of the competition, otherwise you're out of it.
Porto lost because they are having one of the worst times in recent memory; they are almost guaranteed to not win the Portuguese league, and they are lacking much belief at the moment.
AB: In the first leg, Stuttgart seemed an inspired and tightly knit unit. They can even be considered to have outplayed the European champions in the first half of football.
However, their performance could also be attributed to the insipid nature of Barcelona's performance in the first half. The team looked uninspired and carelessly gave balls away—something we see very rarely indeed.
In the second leg, they were undone by the skill of Messi and the possession football of Barcelona. Stuttgart's defense had no answer for Messi's sheer genius.
Granted the defense was slow to press Messi for the first goal, but then again, the result was never in doubt because of the dominance of Barcelona's play and the listlessness of Stuttgart's.
Matt: Friday saw the draw to the quarterfinals made and some very, very interesting ties turned up. Asides from the fact we are now guaranteed one French team, Arsenal and Barcelona meet in a re-run of the 2006 final, and Bayern meet United in a re-run of the 1999 one. Both could really be classics.
Just wanted to get your thoughts guys on the teams your sides have drawn. What's your initial reaction?
In general, were you happy? You don't necessarily have to answer this one Salomon!
SG: If Chelsea had gone through, I'd have loved to face Arsenal. Always confident of beating those lot. United and Barcelona are obviously the ones you want to avoid.
However, generally speaking, it doesn't really matter who you get because at some point you going to have to face a big side—although most teams would kill to get United's route to the final...
Matt: Ouch, what's your response to that Samrin?
SH: I was actually smiling to see the draw, as I was happy that Bayern had avoided Barcelona but then, Wayne Rooney popped up in my head!
There is plenty of history in between the two and Bayern lead the head-to-head 2-1 with the other four meetings ending in draws. It should be a great matchup if Bayern show up. (Matt's note: There might not be ANY match if Bayern don't show up)
My dad thinks Bayern have a great chance of progressing. It will be tough for United to stop Robben and Ribery, but it will be equally tough for Bayern to stop Wayne Rooney!
I would most definitely liked to have avoided Barcelona after last season and after seeing them pick Stuttgart apart. There were no “easy” sides left in the competition. I wouldn’t have, however, minded getting Bordeaux as Bayern will want to avenge their two losses in the group stage and might shift up a gear or two for the sake of revenge.
Matt: Barcelona and Arsenal seems have all the makings of a Champions League football showcase for the neutral , considering the philosophies of the two sides.
How does it feel to play against the reigning champions, MEM? We've heard Samrin discuss the awesome form they're in at the moment; would you have preferred someone else too?
MEM: Certainly not. We just received a gift from the heavens; you might as well book Arsenal's hotel rooms in Madrid as of now.
Seriously, though, Platini is probably laughing his ass off. He is guaranteed that at least one French team is in the semifinals, and that might increase the number of seats for France in the Champions League, and there are only two English teams left. One of which is playing against the current champions and favorites as well.
I wouldn't be exaggerating if I said that it'd be like trying to slay a dragon with a yo-yo, it is that bad.
But still, if there is one team that can beat Barcelona, that team is Arsenal. Whoever wins this game has a huge chance of winning the whole thing.
Matt: Yes, this is a very good year for French football all told [grimaces]. Your thoughts, Anurag, on Arsenal?
Personally I thought the referee had too much of a say in the result last time. Can Barcelona handle Arsenal over two legs?
AB: I am delighted with the draw. Not because I underestimate Arsenal, but because they are a team that will come out and play an open, entertaining, and attacking game. I would say that there were certainly much easier teams Barcelona could have drawn, but Arsenal will provide a mouth-watering tie indeed.
The result is not easy to predict, and I will not be hazarding a guess. I feel both teams have an equal chance to go through. I have already started crossing dates out on my calendar.
A big positive that has come out of the draw is that Barcelona will be playing the second leg at home. Not only is this preferred during cup competitions in general because of the away goals rule, but the El Classico against Real Madrid takes place only a few days after the second leg.
The match being at home means that the team will not have to travel before the crucial game at the Bernabeu. It is for this reason that I am also happy that Barcelona have avoided CSKA Moscow.
Matt: Finally, my last topic for discussion centres around the IFAB's (FIFA's rule making body) decision not to consider goal line or video technology in the future. Do you think this is a bad move for football?
Based on what we've seen this year in the Champions League, could games have benefited from its use?
MEM: It was definitely the wrong one; FIFA are just trying to protect their own interests. If they change all these things, and if they eliminate controversy from football, they are surely going to lose money, so it is natural for them to screw the other teams and the viewers. All they care about is themselves.
For instance, the most remembered World Cup moment is Maradona's handball, and after that is Zidane's headbutt to Materazzi. Had FIFA simply watched a replay of the Maradonna goal, he would've received a red card, and that might've changed the game itself.
And had the referee found out that Materazzi cursed Zidane, it would've resulted in Materazzi receiving a red card as well, but that never happened, either.
(Matt's note: This is an interesting story because ironically many at the time concluded Zidane had actually been the first player sent off at the World Cup BECAUSE of video technology; apparently the fourth official saw the headbutt in a replay in a monitor near the dugout and "illegally" told the referee through his earpiece. Obviously, this was never confirmed by FIFA for consistency reasons.)
FIFA needs these moments to make global headlines, without such decisions, they might lose money, and football is suffering because of their decisions.
SG: Is that a trick question?
(Matt's note: I think Salomon is referring to Chelsea-Barcelona last year here)
SH: The decision wasn’t correct. I am however not exactly for or against goal line technology. A lot of decisions would have come about differently such as the two offside goals in the Bayern-Fiorentina tie, but some of the controversy from football would disappear and that would take away some of the emotions from the game.
That being said, the best way to ensure that a game is fair is by using video technology.
AB: Well, goal-line technology is a necessity in the modern game with the millions of euros at stake. I feel that FIFA has taken a counter-productive step here, because referees and their assistants have been put increasingly under the scanner as the season has progressed and the introduction of goal line technology will put quite a lot of pressure off their backs.
It is not difficult to employ and will make the game much less controversial.
We are living in the 21st century, and it is time FIFA started acting like it.
Matt: And so, there you have it, a consensus by the panel that FIFA have made the wrong call. Obviously, even if there had been a move to consider video technology, it would most likely not have been adopted for the remainder of this tournament anyway.
What do you think? Would future Champions League tournaments have benefited from goal line and video technology?
What do you make of the quarterfinal draw? Fans of the teams not mentioned here, what did you make of the first knockout round?
I hope to bring another exciting edition of the roundtable to Bleacher Report after the quarterfinal ties have been played out and decided. Hope you enjoy them as much as we will and thanks for reading everyone on behalf of the panel.