As the Champions League quarterfinals approach us, and the fans of the teams remaining start to plot their route to the final, each of the teams have two games to prove that they are worthy of walking out at Wembley to compete for the biggest club competition in the world.
Three teams from England—Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham—have kept up recent tradition of having Premier League teams challenging in continental competition, and it is still a possibility that the English-based final will be an all-English affair.
Barcelona and Real Madrid, the latter of which are in the quarterfinals for the first time since 2004, are the Spanish representatives. Both are showing real quality and many predict El Clásico to be played out in the semifinals.
I will analyse and predict the outcome of these quarterfinals, after which each team will be 180 minutes away from Wembley and potential glory.
About a week ago, there was no real doubt about how this game would pan out. Cristiano Ronaldo and Co. were to score plenty against a suspect Spurs defence and made the potentially tricky tie at White Hart Lane irrelevant.
But injuries to the likes of Benzema (whose recent form has been outstanding) and Angel Di Maria make Mourinho’s attacking options seem more manageable, and Tottenham have a greater opportunity of keeping Real out away from home just like they did against A.C. Milan. However, Cristiano Ronaldo has been passed fit by Mourinho, and he may not be the most popular player in the world, but his 38 goals this season prove how dangerous a player he is.
Spurs aren’t exactly free from injuries either, as William Gallas joins the already lengthy list of defensive injuries, while Aaron Lennon may also struggle to be fit for the game.
If he can join Gareth Bale in starting against Real, they can heap more pressure on a team who suffered a rather embarrassing home defeat to Sporting Gijon on Saturday, who proved that Real can be beaten at the Bernabeu. Spurs are a team who like to attack, and although they will have to be defensive and perhaps depend on counter-attacking for goals tonight, they have every chance of nicking an away goal.
With Spurs, you feel that a deficit by a goal or maybe even two at the Bernabeu could be overturned in the return leg at White Hart Lane, so chances are that second match will be key in determining who progresses.
Despite Real’s injuries, they will still have quality on the field tonight, and should still be favoured to win tonight’s match. Even though they will be under pressure in the second leg especially, they still should be considered favourites for the semifinal place, but the two matches will be two of the hardest games they will face this season.
WINNERS - REAL MADRID
Inter, like Barcelona, may also consider themselves fairly fortunate for avoiding the big teams in the Champions League, after all Schalke are tenth in the Bundesliga and almost mathematically out of Champions League contention, and much closer to the relegation places.
However, Schalke have already proved this season that they aren’t just here to make up the numbers.
The danger from Schalke that could pose a problem for the Italians is the threat in front of goal, with Jefferson Farfan and Klaus Jan-Huntelaar being particularly dangerous, while they also have Raul, who in the last round became the top scorer in the highest level of European competition. This is especially so considering that Inter’s defence hasn’t lived up to the standards set last season, the worst out of teams still in the Champions League, and domestically is the worst out of teams challenging for the Italian title, as proved by their 3-0 defeat in the Milan derby on the weekend.
However, Inter are a transformed team since Leonardo took over from the unsuccessful Rafael Benitez. The team is now challenging for the Italian title having been in eighth during the winter break, and has lost just three games in the league since, and many fans are even optimistic of a repeat of last season’s treble.
Inter’s main strength is their attacking force, as Samuel Eto’o now has 29 goals in all competitions this season, playing well with the likes of Wesley Sneijder and Goran Pandev supporting from midfield. Schalke’s defence has been stronger than Inter’s in the Champions League but has yet to be tested by some of the best attacking players in Europe, and it will be interesting to see how they can cope with the likes of Eto’o.
It is vital that Inter win their home game and take a comfortable lead with them to Germany, which they should be confident in doing, since their home defeat to Bayern earlier in the month is the only home game they’ve failed to win in all competitions since losing the first Milan derby of the season in mid-November.
WINNERS - INTER MILAN
Many will look at this fixture and believe that Barcelona are lucky. Lucky to have avoided the giants of European football, such as one of the English clubs, Inter Milan, who knocked Barca out of the tournament last season, and of course arch rivals Real Madrid.
But it is naive to assume that Shakhtar will roll over and give in to Barca, as they certainly deserve their place in the quarterfinals, having won every game in the tournament except for the defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates, where Barca have also lost their only match of the tournament thus far.
And Shakhtar’s home record speaks for itself, as they have won all of the 17 home matches this season in all competitions, haven’t lost at home since October 2008 and have never been defeated at their current home stadium, the Donbass Arena. An impressive record, even if they do play in the Ukrainian league.
Having said this, they are playing the world’s best football team at the moment, with the likes of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and David Villa posing a threat to any team. Barca will also benefit from the fact that the first leg will be played at the Nou Camp, as a win will put them under less pressure before heading across Europe to play the second leg. In all likelihood, Barca will win fairly comfortably at the Nou Camp, and it would surprise few if that impressive unbeaten home record of Shakhtar’s is broken when the sides meet in Ukraine.
Although I, rather predictably, do think that Barca will do enough in get through to the semifinals, the two games may well be the toughest the team have faced in a while.
WINNER - BARCELONA
With three English sides in the quarterfinals, there was a good chance that there would be an all-English matchup.
And it is Chelsea, who only realistically have the Champions League left in terms of getting themselves a trophy this season, and Manchester United, who have dropped in form recently but are in a strong position to regain the league title, who will meet in a rematch of the 2008 final.
The pressure is on Chelsea to deliver in this competition, and Carlo Ancelotti may well lose his job if his team fails in Europe as well. But Chelsea should feel fairly confident about this fixture, having beaten United on March 1, and seem to have found form again after that stretch between November and January where they won just two games out of 11 in the league.
The likes of Frank Lampard and Nicolas Anelka are back on form and scoring goals, while the defence, the best in the league, has been strengthened by the signing of David Luiz who has started his Chelsea career very well so far.
Coming into this game, United will look to the likes of Javier Hernandez and Wayne Rooney,who are both in great form, to lead the line and put pressure on the best Premier League defence and to push for any crucial away goals in the first leg at Stamford Bridge. Any result at Stamford Bridge, maybe even a defeat by only a goal, will be received well by United, who would feel confident heading into the second leg considering their impressive home form this season.
The fact that the second leg will be at Old Trafford should be beneficial for United, whose away goals defeat to Bayern in last year’s tournament was the first time they’d been knocked out of the Champions League when playing the second leg of a match at Old Trafford since Jose Mourinho’s Porto were victorious in 2004.
Because of this, I believe that both teams will probably win their home legs, but with Manchester United in the slightly better position of being at home second, I have a feeling that they might just edge the tie over the course of the two games.
WINNERS - MANCHESTER UNITED
OK, these predictions may be the obvious choices, and I'm not exactly being too daring in any of them.
But the form of the four teams mentioned does make it hard to ignore them, and their progress in the tournament, should they play to the best of their ability, is a formality.
If my predictions do turn out to be correct, we can look forward to the prospect of Real Madrid-Barcelona and Inter Milan-Manchester United, arguably four of the biggest teams in Europe, and three of them have won the Champions League in the last three seasons.
Even if my predictions are completely wrong, the semifinals should be great matches, as games such as Barcelona-Inter last season and Chelsea-Barcelona the season before have proved to be memorable matches.
Then there is the small matter of the final at Wembley to look forward to...