Sixteen teams remain in the Champions League and, in an unpredictable year for the competition, the familiar faces are joined by a number of unfancied sides. The likes of Malaga, Schalke and Celtic have made it to the knockout stages while last year’s winners, Chelsea, are already out.
Chelsea’s draw in the Nou Camp was implausible, unbelievable, inspirational and any other adjective you wish to attach. However, it came at a huge price in terms of their chances of going one better than in 2008 and lifting the Champions League trophy. If it wasn’t bad enough that the Blues have to go to Bavaria to play Bayern Munich in their own backyard, they must take to the field without captain John Terry, midfield terriers Raul Mereiles and Ramires and versatile defender Branislav Ivanovic.
Considering the fact that they are the reigning champions and have arguably the world’s best player among their ranks, our 2/7 quote for Barcelona to beat Chelsea in the second leg of their Champions League semi-final at the Nou Camp is more than justified.
This, after all, is the team that has already scored 33 goals in the competition so far, 14 of them from the head or foot of the mercurial Lionel Messi.
There’s little doubt that Chelsea owner Roman Abramovic regards the Champions League as his holy grail. The Russian billionaire has poured a substantial portion of his fortune into the club over the years with the one aim of lifting Europe’s premier club competition. The Blues went close in 2008 when, but for a John Terry slip, they may well have beaten Manchester United on penalties in Moscow. But several of his team’s star players are now in the twilight of their careers and, even if they somehow get past Barcelona in their semi-final, would be second favourites against either Bayern Munich or Real Madrid in the final.
It’s very much a clash of the Titans at the Allianz Arena as four-times European champions Bayern Munich come up against nine-times winner Real Madrid in the first leg of their Champions League semi-final.
Both sides have progressed to the last four of Europe’s premier club competition with the minimum of fuss though Bayern have lost twice en route, away to Manchester City in the group stages and Basle in the round of 16.
It was no surprise that it was an Italian team that finally ended Barcelona’s remarkable scoring run in Champions League football. Prior to their shut-out at the San Siro, Barca had scored in every match in Europe’s premier club competition over the last two and a half years and they’ll be wary of the threat posed by AC Milan at the Nou Camp, but certainly not intimidated.
Roberto Di Matteo took a massive risk in the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League quarter-final at Benfica by resting a few of his senior players. The likes of Jon-Obi Mikel, Salomon Kalou and Paulo Ferreira had seen little first-team action prior to the game at the Estadio da Luz and Fernando Torres was preferred up front to Didier Drogba. But Chelsea’s rare anxious moments mainly came from set-pieces as Benfica’s players seemed almost intimidated by the occasion and failed to produce their best.
Is everyone going overboard about Barcelona? Of course, the defending Champions League champions are a terrific side and, in Lionel Messi, they have the world’s most exciting player. The Argentinian became Barca’s all-time record goalscorer last week and journalists are running out of superlatives to describe his talents, and it’s not as if Barcelona are a one-man team. A midfield which contains Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and Javier Mascherano is the envy of most clubs and the Catalans have sauntered into the last eight of this season’s competition having won all eight matches so far.
There was almost an audible sigh of relief in west London when Chelsea were drawn against Benfica in the Champions League quarter-finals. The general feeling is that it could have been a lot worse, though the Blues will still have their path to the final blocked by either AC Milan or Barcelona should they emerge unscathed.
Undoubtedly, this a good chance for the Blues to reach the last four and rescue something from what has been a turbulent season.
It’s been a miserable few days for British clubs in Europe and maybe the Premier League isn’t as competitive as their PR people would have everyone believe. But Arsenal made a bold bid to overturn a significant deficit against an Italian club in the Champions League last week and Chelsea begin the second leg of their last 16 tie in slightly better shape having at least scored a goal in Naples two weeks ago.
So which Arsenal will turn up for their Champions League, second-leg tie with AC Milan at the Emirates? Will it be the one that surrendered so meekly in the San Siro two weeks ago – or the one that fought back from two goals down to blow Spurs out of the water in their last home game?
Chelsea couldn’t win the Champions League when at their peak under Jose Mourinho so it’s difficult to imagine the team in transition under Andre Villas-Boas will prove good enough to go all the way.
Still capable of playing attractive football, the Blues also resemble a car crash at times and have developed a habit of shooting themselves in the foot so a place in the last eight would be a notable achievement.