5 Observations from Last Week's Champions League Matchday 4
Yet another Matchday done in Europe's most prestigious competition and the picture seems to be getting clearer about the pretenders and contenders for this year's title.
Some teams are separating themselves from the rest while others are quickly fading away into mediocrity. Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to make the case for an all Spanish final in Bavaria come May, while Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Manchester United are hot on their trails.
Without further ado, here are the five things that caught my eye on Matchday 4.
It's All About Barca and Real Madrid
It's Messi's and Ronaldo's world and we are all just living in it. The two best players in the world are solely responsible for making their respective clubs the main favorites to reach the final in Munich, assuming they don't draw each other before then, of course.
Barca and Madrid are the only two clubs that have already qualified for the knockout stage and have done so in impressive fashion. Real has won all four games and the only problems they face from this point on is lack of focus and trying to avoid injuries.
The only game where they somewhat struggled was against Dinamo Zagreb on Matchday 1, and even that was most likely the case of not taking the opponent seriously.
Something tells me that will not happen when they meet the Croatian side at the Bernabeu on Matchday 5. Dinamo could be facing a beat down of epic proportions this time around as Jose Mourinho's men will play freely knowing they have already booked a spot in the Round of 16.
As for Barca, they seem to be sleepwalking through their group, which says something, seeing as how they are coming off of a 5-0 destruction against Viktoria Plzen.
The only match they really care about is the one against A.C. Milan at the San Siro come Matchday 5, in hopes of avenging the draw at the Camp Nou on Matchday 1.
Just like Madrid, they hope to maintain focus and avoid the injury bug having already secured the place in the next round.
Based on what we have seen so far it is hard to argue how these two teams aren't destined to meet in the final. I would like to hear an argument for any other team that deserves to be in the category with these two giants of world soccer.
Bayern, Man U or Man City...Who Can Challenge Spain?
There are three teams that can challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid for the title.
The German giants have been in scintillating form this season. They have two losses on the season (both in the Bundesliga) and have pretty much locked up the so called "Group of Death" with two games remaining.
Ribery, Schweinsteiger and Gomez have all been in phenomenal form thus far. With the new and improved defense this year, coach Jupp Heynckes believes that the team can go all the way.
The injury suffered by Bastian Schweinsteiger on Wednesday is serious (about 6 weeks) and that is a major setback for now.
The return of Arjen Robben will provide a boost that should offset the Bastian's injury. If completely healthy, Bayern can beat even Barcelona and Real especially knowing that the final is in their home arena.
This squad is the wild card in the entire Champions League. I know that they lost 2:0 to Bayern, but at that time Bayern was playing the best football in all of Europe. I don't think anyone needs to be reminded what happened at Old Trafford two and a half weeks ago, do they?
That is the kind of result that Man City is capable of and another proof was Wednesday's comfortable victory at El Madrigal. The are getting better each game and confidence is rising along with the hope of becoming one of Europe's best teams. Man City have enough stars to give anyone a fight on any given night.
Can you ever count them out? They haven't been as impressive as Bayern and Man City, but it's always a safe bet to assume that United will make it to the quarters or semis. They still posses great quality on the pitch and they have one of the greatest managers of all time on time on their bench.
They have had some injuries early on this season. If that gets sorted out, Manchester United should be a force come quarter and semi finals.
The Next Tier of Contenders
Next up are four teams on the outside looking in. Do they have the squad depth and experience to go all the way?
It all starts and ends with Ibrahimovic. If he plays up to his potential and gets help from the likes of Pato and Robinho, Milan could be a dark horse. Kevin-Prince Boateng has become one of the best players on the team and should play a vital role for the Rossoneri.
The other Milan squad has been in turmoil ever since Jose Mourinho left the squad. On the home front, Inter has been pitiful as they are currently fighting relegation.
Three straight wins have seen the Nerrazzurri on top of their group looking towards the Round of 16. The talent on the squad is still there but it is up to Claudio Ranieri whether he can make them all play together.
Andre Villas Boas' side are ways away from the expectations of teams that were among the favorites under Mourinho or even Ancelotti.
The squad has barely changed since those teams. With the likes of Mata and Torres hea dlining "The Blues" nowadays, Chelsea should not be seen as anything other than title contenders.
Arsene Wenger's side has rebounded well from an abysmal start to the season. They look poised for another quarter final run. Robin Van Persie is firing on all cylinders right now, getting some help from Gervinho and Theo Walcott.
The Gunners have a stabilized defense with Vermaelen and Mertesacker, while Mikel Arteta has shown he can replace Cesc Fabregas, at least to an extent. The Gunners will need to show more in order to be considered a legitimate threat for the title, but I wouldn't write them off either.
Pretender or Actual Contender?
I know that we have already discussed City in the previous slide but I really feel like this squad is gelling quite well, putting fear into other squads all across Europe. The talent on the squad is quite obvious.
There are stars at almost every position, especially up front with the likes of Nasri, Silva, Aguero, Dzeko and Balotelli. Tevez would be included in this mix but it is very hard to envision him ever playing for City again.
The defense is stout and there doesn't appear to be many holes there either. Joe Hart is not even in his prime yet. The quartet of Richards, Lescott, Kompany and Clichy has been nothing short of outstanding.
With Yaya Toure holding the central midfield role along with Garreth Barry and even James Milner, Man City truly has the making of a super squad.
I understand that this team is not on the level of Barcelona and Madrid yet, but who is to say that they can't get there? How many people thought that they could go to Old Trafford and demolish Manchester United in the way they did? The correct answer is no one, not even members of the City squad.
The biggest obstacle for City was always going to be whether they could figure out a way to play together and maximize their potential. They are not entirely there yet but it certainly looks like they are on the way.
The Biggest Disappointment
There is no other way around it. Porto has been the biggest disappointment for a variety of reasons, followed closely by Borussia Dortmund. Both teams are in the same spot in their respective groups (3rd in the group with 2 matches remaining) and both weren't exactly drawn in the "Group of Death."
A lot was expected of Dortmund and rightfully so—they dominated the Bundesliga last season. But more was expected of Porto.
They had an unbelievable season last year, winning the league, the Portuguese Cup and the Europa League. The natural progression made it seem that they should have progressed to the Round of 16 with relative ease, something that seems in major jeopardy right now.
The departures of Andre Villas Boas and Radamel Falcao were supposed to be difficult to overcome, but not impossible. Besides those two departures, the team has remained the same, but the results have not.
Porto lost a coach that brought together the team for the duration of a whole year. The club won the league championship last year without losing a single game (27 wins and 3 draws, with a 21-point margin to runners-up and arch rivals, Benfica). Simply incredible.
Replacing Radamel Falcao has proven to be way more difficult than any Porto supporter could have envisioned. Falcao was one of Europe's most prolific strikers last season, which is not easy to replace. F.C. Porto is finding that out this season the hard way.
With two games remaining in the group stage, Porto is still within striking distance but far from where the team, its supporters and the media expected them to be.
Anything other than a progress through Round of 16 will be viewed as a massive failure. No one can deny that, especially considering the difficulty of the group or lack there of.
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