The signs of spring's arrival are tangible. Snow is beginning to dissipate. Jeans and jackets are making way to shirts and shorts. Shovels to move snow are being replaced by shovels for the garden. Indeed, the season of hope has arrived.
However, for all the hallmarks of spring in the world around us, the season in which flowers bloom also yields many an important occasion in sport. Baseball's "Opening Day." Basketball's NBA Championship. Hockey's Stanley Cup Finals. And who could forget the UEFA Champions League Final? Though there are many a quality team in Europe's premier club football competition, there is one side that stands above all the rest: F.C. Barcelona.
After winning the competition two years ago, Barcelona were ousted from last year's competition at the semifinal stage by eventual champions Inter Milan. However, despite the sting of last year's loss, Pep Guardiola's men are quite likely to retain their crown as Champions of Europe. Let's have a look at why.
First of all, Barcelona have, arguably, the best squad on the planet. Victor Valdes, in goal, would probably be the starting keeper for the Spanish national team were it not for the fact that the best stopper on the planet, Iker Casillas, is of the same nationality. Dani Alves is the epitome of an attacking right-back: skilled and Brazilian. Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique form a fearsome center-back partnership, supplemented by Eric Abidal on the left. In the center of the park, the Catalans possess defensive-minded players in Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets, while the attacking midfield tandem of Andres Iniesta and Xavi is arguably the best of its kind. To top it all off, David Villa, the Spaniard who led his team in scoring at the 2010 World Cup, and Lionel Messi, the two-time FIFA World Player of the Year, spearhead the attack. Coach Pep Guardiola doesn't have just a few good players at his disposal; his entire squad is filled with quality. Most players in the starting XI mentioned could walk into many a top club and assume the starting role at their respective position. In addition to the quality in their team-sheet, Barcelona possess great chemistry, often "passing teams to death" as one announcer colorfully put it. They aren't eight points clear at the top of La Liga for nothing; Barcelona are class, both in squad and in game.
Having seen off Arsenal in the last 16, Barcelona find themselves pitted against Shaktar Donetsk in the quarters. The Ukranians have a decent record against their Spanish opponents, holding Barcelona scoreless throughout 90 minutes before falling in extra time during the 2009 UEFA Super Cup. And while Shaktar are known for having some quality players in Eduardo and Luiz Adriano, their skill is no match for the Catalans. It'll be close, but I believe that Guardiola's men will ultimately prevail.
Next, the Spanish side will likely find themselves pitted against their greatest of rivals, Real Madrid, who should have overcome Tottenham Hotspur at the previous stage. While this rivalry has plenty of history in the league, it will be the fourth time they have met in the Champions League, Real having won two of the previous three clashes. And though Madrid have a squad full of talent in players like Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Kaka, Xabi Alonso, and Cristiano Ronaldo, their team chemistry isn't quite on the same level their rivals, hence why they are eight points off Barcelona in La Liga. Though I don't think Barcelona will hammer Real like they did earlier this season (5-0 at home,) they will prove too good for Madrid in moving on to the showpiece occasion.
Looking at the final, Barcelona will probably face either Chelsea or Manchester United. I find it impossible to decide which of these sides will make it out of the quarters, as United have been nicking lucky results lately while Chelsea, eleven points behind United in the league, are in-form. I expect whichever team moves on from this mouthwatering quarter-final tie to defeat their semi-final opponent in Schalke or Inter (at the moment, it looks as if Schalke will be in the last four.)
In addition to being the first Champions League Final at the new Wembley, the last match will pit Barcelona against tough competition. However, despite the quality of their (likely) English opponent, I'd put my money on the Catalans. Why? It boils down to squad strength and quality. Chelsea have some great players in Petr Cech, John Terry and Frank Lampard, along with the promising David Luiz, but a disgruntled Fernando Torres and an out-of-form Didier Drogba aren't helping the Londoners achieve their potential. United, on the other hand, have been quite lucky despite sitting top of the league, picking up 11 wins this season by one-goal margins. In addition, recent losses at Chelsea and rivals Liverpool have certainly put some doubt in the back of Sir Alex Ferguson's head. They may possess great players in Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Nani, Wayne Rooney, and Dimitar Berbatov, but the depth of their squad is no match for Barcelona, nor is their tactic of grinding out results going to work against a team adept at "killing off" games.
The final will be a great game; however, I think that, barring a shocking performance, Barcelona will leave Wembley as Champions of Europe.